“My hands shake a ton, it’s hard to breathe and my heart races. It’s mostly just when I have to talk in class or am in places where I don’t know anyone and feel awkward. … My whole body tingles and it feels like everything is moving very fast.” That’s how 16-year-old Max Shapiro describes her in-school anxiety attacks. And after a year in isolation, her social anxiety has only gotten worse.
After graduating with Santa Fe High School’s class of 2020, extroverted Faye Heneghan spent time home alone struggling with increasing symptoms of her post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Dealing with it [PTSD] in public is very different than dealing with it in private,” says Heneghan. “I find it embarrassing, which I shouldn’t.” But being at home with just your thoughts and trauma isn’t easy either, she says, but “finding people that make you feel like a person” is helpful because we’re all craving social connection even if we’re too afraid to seek it out.
“I’m really proud of where I am now,” Heneghan said, reflecting on her progress toward better mental health.
While some are receptive to stories like Heneghan’s, there are others who perpetuate the stigma and disbelief around mental health, making the situation all the more challenging. But Leslie Kelly has a brief go-to response for people who ignore the struggles of others: “Health is health.”
As the behavioral health coordinator at New Mexico’s Public Education Department, Kelly oversees every school and district in the state. While she has been championing the validity of emotional and psychological wellness, which is an uphill battle since New Mexico is a “mental health resource-deprived state,” Kelly has to rush forward into the unknown.
While Heneghan is an example of someone who was able to fight PTSD with little medical intervention, Kelly is very clear: Needing help is not something to be ashamed of. And all, if not most, of us are going to need to help each other out in moments of personal crisis. “The most important thing is community,” she said.
Out of 13,927 New Mexican students surveyed by the state’s Public Education Department, 3 in 10 had or are having more trouble succeeding academically and socially than they or their schools expected. Kelly emphasizes it’s important to “normalize all reactions to this [the influx of social situations]. There’s no wrong way.” But while there’s no wrong way to have emotions, certain ones left untreated can be harmful. The same study showed that nonanxious brains tend to function better in social and academic situations.
Much of the pandemic-induced anxiety can be boiled down to feelings of uncertainty. And, unfortunately, that feeling is not over. “I don’t know how the pandemic is going to turn out,” says Dr. Joe Neidhardt, a Santa Fe psychiatrist who is often asked for his thoughts on not just the future of society but the future of the coronavirus.
While there is so much that is still unpredictable, Neidhardt gives a roadmap to proceed with your mental health in mind.
“We’re at a crossroads right now,” he said. “We can move towards being more caring of each other.”
For the likely large percentage of people who may experience social anxiety, he recommends focusing on your breath. Simple breathing exercises to send more oxygen to your brain.
“It’s very treatable; people don’t have to be stuck with it,” Neidhardt said.
Of course therapy and/or medication tend to be the best option, he says, but for many New Mexicans, it’s not an option because of the state’s limited resources. “New Mexico is not a great place to be for your mental health,” he said, agreeing with Kelly.
To cope with anxiety holistically, Neidhardt offers a few self-care tips to act as brain Band-Aids in the grand scheme of long-term progress.
“Self-help books, yoga, meditation, prayer, distracting yourself with pleasantness, exercise — for most people.” Neidhardt said. “If you’re a coffee drinker, one cup a day isn’t going to hurt,” however, he does think stopping around there helps, as caffeine is just more stimulus added to your body.
“I don’t think people are going to realize the severity of the [pandemic’s] effect on their mental health,” Heneghan said, reflecting on her own experiences, where it took years to feel the full effects of anxiety and results of trauma. She suspects this will be the case for many others as they process how the pandemic altered the course of their lives. Kelly and Neidhardt agree, and suggest taking proactive steps toward addressing and nurturing your mental health.