Young sad and desperate woman

Consumers are pretty freaked out today. Rightly so. Trying to wrap our collective heads around the unseen and the unknown can be exasperating and exhausting — if not just downright scary. But before the coronavirus pandemic swept across our nation and seemingly overnight altered lifestyles and mindsets, consumers were already coping with a wide array of significant anxieties ranging from the political climate and divisive rhetoric to the effects of climate change and the deterioration of our natural environment (think devasting wildfires globally and rafts of plastic waste floating en masse in the oceans).

Prior to 2019, The Hartman Group’s health and wellness research always found obesity/weight management as the top condition consumers were most concerned about. Our Health + Wellness 2019: From Moderation to Mindfulness report now finds that 63 percent of consumers say they are treating or preventing anxiety or stress compared to 61 percent who are treating or preventing being overweight. The surge in the management of anxiety or stress is mostly driven by consumers preventing health conditions, especially among Millennials and now Gen Z.

Tuning in to the current epoch of even greater worries, consumer anxieties have seemingly shifted toward short-term emergency concerns, with toilet paper, sanitizers and the pursuit of center-store comfort foods, cooking and taking care of close personal household needs (and members) filling the immediate foreground.

With millions of Americans sheltering at home, it is instructive to see what consumers were already doing to cope with anxiety and stress, since it sheds light on how consumers are likely dealing with this moment, albeit along with a host of new behaviors (which we are currently examining and will report on soon). From our health and wellness research, here are some ways consumers cope with anxiety and stress.

• Undertaking exercise is a critical path to managing mental health and mood — this focus on physical activity is a major change from the past, when exercising was mainly about "physical health." In previous decades, the primary motivation for exercising was often about physical appearance, with physical health an added bonus and mental health an afterthought. Now, however, consumers across health and wellness segments see exercise as a key tool for managing both mental and physical health.

• Culturally, we are much more mindful of “self-care.” The language and logic of “mindfulness” — including the significance of feeling present, in the moment and being aware of one’s own reactions — has become a critical part of the modern approach to well-being, especially in coping with anxiety and stress. While mindfulness is a contemporary ideal, 10 years ago the concept of “self-care” existed, but it didn’t have a name that mainstream consumers could use to talk about things they did to cope with anxiety and stress. The focus on mental well-being relates to the destigmatization of mental and emotional health, which is so prevalent today compared to years past. Historically, talking about mental wellness was once fraught with stigma; today “working” on mental wellness is increasingly regarded as a sensible approach to health and self-improvement.

• CBD and cannabinoid-related products are taken as a means to relax, de-stress and get to sleep and are especially popular with younger consumers. Gen Z and Millennials are interested in both CBD and cannabinoid remedies, functional foods and beverages to help manage everyday physical and mental issues. Older consumers see CBD’s potential as an alternative to pharmaceutical pain relievers and sleep aids; they are also interested in its possible anti-inflammatory properties (and are likely to be less interested in THC’s psychoactive components). Even among pet owners, CBD is emerging as an effective, nontoxic aid for pets with anxiety and behavior issues.

• Boosting immunity in the midst of extreme stressors to health is also a key focus of interest among consumers, especially among those in the "Core" of health and wellness behaviors (e.g., those consumers who are most actively involved in wellness). Notably, Core health and wellness consumers focus on boosting immunity through what they see as building proactive resilience. We've mentioned Core wellness consumers both in a recent podcast specific to immunity-building behaviors in relation to the coronavirus and in the past and posited the idea that while they may be a minority group in terms of overall numbers, their influence over food, health and wellness culture is disproportionate. Take, for example, their approach to building immunity, which begins with a strong foundation of managing stress and cortisol, which helps to keep inflammation down and which they believe can contribute to a stronger immune system.

Looking Ahead

During these extremely stressful times, consumers are looking for activities and nurturing habits that enable them to “feel well.”

More than ever, consumers see interconnections between various components of their bodies, their habits and the worlds in which they live. In particular, the connection consumers see between their physical and mental health is deepening. When one area of life is out of balance, it can cause a cascade of effects throughout their life.

In uncertain and anxious times, planning for the future in the context of health and wellness is extremely important, but it often feels difficult, especially when everyday life is so stressful.

Consumers need help navigating the health and wellness pitfalls of contemporary life with an eye toward a more resilient future. When it comes to immunity and building resilience, Core wellness consumers are sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge with mainstream consumers who are hungry for guidance and direction.

The external circumstances that contribute to the current sense of anxiety and stress are extreme, and consumers will continue to seek strategies for maintaining mental and physical health in an uncertain and anxious world. Where appropriate, communications that speak to mental health — specifically, stress, anxiety or focus — can offer consumers solutions for holistically supporting the mind-body connection and demonstrate that your company or brand is participating in current, relevant conversations relating to health and wellness today.