‘Retail therapy’ for the COVID-19 era: Anxious San Antonians snapping up sage, weighted blankets, candles, crystals, CBD oil – San Antonio Express-News

Scents of sage, incense and candles fill the air, combining to create a complex earthy, floral, perfume smell. Chakra paintings, Tibetan prayer flags and multicolored mandalas adorn the walls. Native American flute music plays as customers browse crystals, stones, herbs, tarot cards and books. Jonathan Vazquez, an energy reader and therapist, arrives and begins setting up his workspace.

Everyone pauses when the hum of a singing bowl — an instrument used for meditation and cleansing negative energy — echoes from the cashier’s counter. The white glass bowl, the size of a kitchen sink, vibrates and creates a rich tone as an employee runs a cloth-covered wooden mallet around the inside rim.

So it goes on the morning of July 22 at Unlimited Thought Life Enrichment Center on San Pedro Avenue. The metaphysical center offers goods and services that include intuitive counseling, massage, shamanism and energy work — various approaches to balancing body and mind — “to those who wish to help themselves improve their lives and well-being,” according to the center’s website.

“It’s definitely a place of healing,” general manager Alex Mills said.

And in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, business is good. She said her store’s sales have surged as much as 40 percent a day on average, and 25 percent more customers are coming through the door. “It’s difficult keeping up with demand,” she said.

Unlimited Thought is part of a thriving anti-anxiety industry in and around San Antonio, and as the pandemic continues, so too does people’s demand for ways to cope with uncertainty. Approaches to anxiety and stress relief, both healthy and unhealthy, are as diverse as the community, and interest in all things relaxing is surging. From meditation to aromatherapy, weighted blankets to CBD, tea to spiritual cleansing, people are finding refuge from the pandemic in a variety of places.

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A July 14 Pulse Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nearly 46 percent of Texas respondents reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s the third-highest state rate in the country, and more than 5 percent higher than the national average — which is itself four times higher than in 2019.

“Anxiety, for years, has been the No. 1 mental health problem in the whole world, and rising,” said Dr. Ellen Shrouf, a behavioral health consultant at UT Health San Antonio. “So it’s not like everything was fine and then COVID happened. Anxiety, in particular, has been rising for a while.”

She said it’s important to acknowledge the difference between feeling anxious and suffering from an anxiety disorder. And with the recent spike in coronavirus cases and a recession threatening workers’ livelihoods, this is a moment of high anxiety.

Shrouf has talked with a growing number of people who hadn’t previously felt anxious but do now — especially since state and local governments began easing stay-at-home and business closure orders.

“When we stopped everything and went into lockdown — nobody was excited about that — but at least you understood what you were supposed to do because you were supposed to do nothing, so that’s a pretty absolute control,” she said.

As businesses started trying to reopen and had to figure out how to get back to normal, “that introduced a lot more uncertainty for people.”

Soothing the troubled soul

Faith is one way people deal with uncertainty. That’s evident at Botanica La Caridad — a tan house with olive and white trim — on Blanco Road in the Beacon Hill neighborhood. Cars filled the small parking lot the day the shop reopened for curbside business, and a handwritten sign out front tells customers to call for service. The botanica sells spiritual supplies such as candles, incense, herbs and oils, as well as services like tarot readings, limpias, consultas diarias and more.

The owner, David Herrera, stood in his doorway and explained how the shop reopened briefly after a six-week closure due to stay-at-home orders, but shifted to curbside last week amid the ongoing surge in COVID-19 cases.

“Business has always been really good for us,” he said. “I’m glad that we’re fortunate enough to be able to stay open, and I’m going to ride this through.”

Herrera also is capitalizing on online sales for goods and services. “All of us,” he said, “are re-educating ourselves on different ways to work and function.”

He’s seen a strong increase in demand for candles. “Especially St. Jude. You know, St. Jude is the saint of impossible causes,” he said. “It’s kind of a crazy thing, but you know, light is faith.”

He said his customers have felt the virus’s impact, some acutely. One lost both parents to COVID-19.

“People are dropping like birds right now. I never thought in our lifetime we would ever experience this,” Herrera said. “What else do you do but hold on to our faith and pray that this thing passes, this plague passes?”

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Lynell Quan, a customer who was picking up some frankincense and myrrh, said she was interested in holistic medicine and spiritual healing before the pandemic, but “now we’ve had some space cleared to figure out what’s important so I’ve put more time and effort into it.”

Dr. Venky Shankar, research director for the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University, cited a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll that shows 45 percent of “adults in the United States reported that their mental health has been negatively impacted due to worry and stress over the virus.”

People’s anxiety corresponds to the amount of uncertainty in their lives. And with more uncertainty than many have ever experienced, anti-anxiety industries are thriving.

“The medical industry is seeing a 34 percent spike in anti-anxiety medication,” he said. “And all kinds of products, from stress-relieving toys to virtual reality headsets and meditation masks, are seeing a surge in popularity.”

Shankar said the trend will continue until the uncertainty abates.

Some people turn to meditation and practice Zen Buddhism as a way to ease their anxiety. In New Braunfels, Everyday Zen Books, Crystals & Tea offers meditation classes, candles, incense, salt lamps, crafts, wind chimes, bells and music. For owners Wen and Bryan Carey, the pandemic has changed their business’s daily operations.

“It has certainly evolved,” Bryan Carey said.

Like many establishments, they’ve shifted from curbside service to appointments and back to curbside as the virus spreads. They’ve also leveraged the internet and phones to provide live meditation consultations.

“Telephone consultations have become very popular, and we do offer them free of charge during this time,” he said.

The couple also offers twice-weekly meditation via Zoom that is donation-based. “We now have folks that are reaching out to us from other states, so our circle has expanded,” he said.

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With the evolution of their business during COVID-19, the Careys relocated their store to their home, where they offered their first zero-contact curbside pickup July 18. The transition resulted from a several factors, including the plunge in New Braunfels’ tourism.

While demand for their products and services has increased, he said the shift to doing business from their home offers a strong reminder of the importance of home for everyone.

“It’s important that our home feels relaxing, that we are very intentional and we’re filled with a sense of greater tranquility, and that we can express that in the world,” he said. “When we create an environment in our home or workspace that is conducive to a felt sense of calm, inner calm, tranquility and relaxation, then when there are external forces it isn’t as impactful, or the effect is not as pronounced.”

The Careys have seen a jump in sales of relaxing teas people drink at bedtime, such as chamomile. Sage and smudging materials — especially white sage and a locally crafted ceremonial sage — as well as stones, crystals and books are also in high demand.

“Folks are feeling a little anxious and a little worried during this time as we see the increase in numbers of hospitalizations and mortality,” he said. “Folks are looking to introduce greater calm, greater peace, greater tranquility, even greater confidence during this period.”

Under (weighted) wraps

Weighted blankets are another tool to achieve greater calm in the COVID-19 era. The popularity of these blankets — which can weigh as much as 30 pounds — has skyrocketed over the last couple years as people note their ability to decrease anxiety and improve sleep.

“You don’t have to take a pill to calm down,” said Laura LeMond, owner and co-founder of Mosaic Weighted Blankets in Austin. “The wrapping sensation of a weighted blanket raises your serotonin level, lowers your cortisone, and, you know, people really get addicted to their weighted blankets.”

She said Mosaic has experienced booming demand since March for all sorts of weighted products. In addition to blankets, the company also produces weighted eye masks, neck wraps and lap pads.

“We saw a 30 to 40 percent increase right when the pandemic hit in March and April across the board for everything,” said LeMond, who’s never seen a surge of this magnitude outside the holidays. After the initial spike, sales plateaued. Blanket sales traditionally decrease in summer months, but Mosaic’s current sales — especially of blankets made with a patented cooling fabric — continue to exceed 2019 numbers.

LeMond, a pioneer in the weighted blanket industry, is seeing new customers and larger purchases.

“There are people looking for weighted blankets that have never thought they needed one before, but, right now, they need one,” she said. “We’ve had people buy for the whole family.”

Mosaic is the only commercial manufacturer of weighted blankets in Texas and one of only a handful in the country.

“They used to be this kind of weird little thing, but they’ve kind of gone mainstream and turned into a lifestyle,” she said. “It’s something to add to your sleep routine that’s going to really help you sleep better, longer and deeper.”

When it comes to adopting new coping strategies, UT Health’s Shrouf recommended thinking about the long versus short term.

“Don’t put into place something that you think is going to help that’s only an emergency procedure because we’re sort of in an emergency right now,” she said. “Put in place something that’s going to be good for you long term.”

She also offered a reminder about reaching out in tough times.

“Whether you call a psychologist or you call your clergy or you just call your family or whoever it is that you’re reaching out to,” she said, “letting them know that you’re having kind of a hard time is always a better first step than just holding onto it yourself and not doing anything.”

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The market for CBD, or cannabidiol, products is also holding strong through the pandemic. Advocates of the compound, which is derived from the cannabis plant, say it decreases anxiety and stress, and alleviates other ailments, including insomnia, chronic pain, cancer and seizures.

David Burrow, owner and CEO of Alamo Botanicals, the first CBD store in San Antonio, thought business would decrease as the coronavirus spread.

“But business stayed steady,” he said. “We’re seeing new customers every day and a lot of online and curbside sales.”

In fact, the company is expanding, with additional plant-growing facilities and two new stores expected to open in the next month.

“I see our business thriving,” the San Antonio native said. “We’ve got to stick together to get through this, and I’m happy to help people get their medicine.”

Amanda Miller, the clinic administrator overseeing crisis outreach services at The Center for Healthcare Services, said the center has seen a 10 to 15 percent increase of people with COVID-related mental health concerns calling the crisis line since the government lifted stay-at-home orders.

“We’ve seen concerns of loss of employment, income concerns, concerns of individuals getting sick,” she said. “And that’s caused an increase in anxiety and fear, and it also put a strain on people’s mental well-being because of the social isolation.”

Also, they’re seeing more people who’ve tested positive for coronavirus or lost somebody to the disease. Those never involved in mental health services “are now being exposed to a state of crisis,” Miller said.

She said it’s important to take time for mental health.

“You just have to be creative in what you do because if you don’t take time for yourself, then it’s going to get the best of you,” she said. “And you’re going to find yourself hitting that advanced stage of depression.”

Finding just the right stone

Back at Unlimited Thought, Mills walks the store and discusses the most sought-after pandemic items.

Stones such as lepidolite, halite and rose quartz are in high demand for their calming energy and anxiety relief, she said. Rose quartz has “always been the most popular because it’s the self-love stone.”

Lavender is the best herb for calming, she said.

“I’m even out of that one today,” she said. “That’s about 20 bags of lavender gone in a day.”

In the incense section, she points out the variety “that people love the most called ‘Anti-Stress,’” she said. “Honestly, it actually does work. It’s just a really good, calming smell.”

On the shelves of candles, she notes that the “Harmony” and “Healing” aromas are hard to keep in stock.

Nearby, oracle and tarot cards fill glass display cases. More people are buying cards as a way to pass their time.

“Why not try something different?” she said. “If it doesn’t work for you, you got some pretty playing cards. If it works for you, you might gain some good new insight.”

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The sage section is the most popular part of her store right now due to the herb’s spiritual and anti-microbial properties. Only a few sage bundles, Palo Santo wood sticks and books about smudging — the burning of herbs believed to purify the environment — remain on the shelf.

“We usually have bundles of sage that are wrapped in rose petals or peppermint and eucalyptus, and those sell out as soon as we put them on the floor,” she said. “So we just have the plain stuff left right now.”

Mills said she’s seen a rise in large purchases, too. “People are coming in and buying hundreds at a time,” she said. “Buying a big $500 or $600 singing bowl or buying a $700 painting.”

Kristin Pike, an Unlimited Thought customer who recently moved to San Antonio from Albuquerque, N.M., said she’s found comfort at the store.

“It’s not like a therapist’s office, but it’s kind of like a therapist’s office in the aspect of you get the help you need, but maybe not in the way you expected it when you walked in,” she said. “If I spent more time there, they should put me on the payroll.”

Brandon Lingle writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

Source: https://www.expressnews.com/sa-inc/article/Retail-therapy-for-the-COVID-19-era-15444454.php