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Did that word announced by the World Health Organization flick all sorts of anxiety switches on throughout your body, as it did to mine?
I’m an impulsive researcher and fact-checker. I also talk regularly with my brother, a doctor, who is full of the most up-to-date information on this COVID-19 coronavirus.
All sorts of questions have been sprinting back and forth in my mind since the pandemic announcement.
Am I at risk? How fast will this consume my city? What family members and friends are at higher risk? What does this mean for my job? What if I get it and I’m stuck at home for 2 weeks? Do I have enough food? Are there enough mechanical ventilators in Canada?
As someone who has already struggled with chronic bouts of anxiety, I am not unfamiliar with these downward spirals of thinking.
For those not used to this anxiety, surprised by the intensity of it, I am so sorry you have to deal with it. It’s no fun.
If you’re someone who already has anxiety, and this made it so much worse—I empathize, and I’m so sorry you and I have to deal with this.
After clearing up all the necessaries, such as purchasing a reasonable amount of non-perishable foods and medications, finding out what my job looks like for the next while, and reorganizing my schedule to be more “socially distanced”, the anxiety should go away…right?
Not so much.
What to do with this pandemic anxiety?
Since things will be scary for a while longer, I’ve started putting a few of my usual anxiety response measures in place.
Three concepts underlie anything that’s been helpful to my anxiety:
1. The knowledge that anxiety is normal and I’m not weird for having it (especially right now!)
Anxiety is what keeps us alive. It’s a helpful response that will get me through a dangerous situation.
I don’t hate that the anxiety response is something my body does.
Back in high school, during a self-defence class, my body showed me just how great my survival instinct is. An ‘attacker’ grabbed me from behind, and as soon as those hands closed around me, my brain went into auto survival. Hands flew together, swung up as high as they could go, then sped backwards, sending my elbow slamming into his gut. Once on the other side of the room, I turned to see the poor guy (in his head-to-toe padding) gasping on the ground. I’d completely winded him. I’m not considered physically strong, but my body’s survival instincts sure are!
This body knows what to do.
Unfortunately, in this ongoing threat of a pandemic, the noticeable actions of my survival instincts are showing up as indigestion, nausea, heartburn, and the inability to remember things, process nuanced information or focus on a task.
As annoying as these are, the symptoms make sense if I remember these are actually efforts of survival in the face of a threat.
Stomach problems? That’s my body focusing on survival until the danger is gone, instead of properly digesting food. Changes in my thinking brain? Well, sure, because if there’s a threat, the only thing that matters is information on basic survival. Fight. Get safe. Not that story my friend is telling me, or the long term goals I have.
When I remember this, it’s a bit easier to have compassion for myself.
And then I can find new ways to deal with my symptoms.
2. I need to try new things to help with anxiety. Going with what works for me.
I’ve tried a fair amount of things to bring calm to my anxious body. Some things work, some things don’t. Yoga has yet to provide me any benefits.
Interestingly though, sometimes the methods that haven’t worked in the past, work years later when I try them again! One great example of this: Mindfulness practice.
During my social work degree, the professors loved mindfulness meditations. At the time of my study, I did not. I was a heavy scoffer against this practice. I thought it was weird, silly, and felt similar to someone saying “put this bandaid on your cancer”.
How could listening to your breathing help clinically diagnosable anxiety and depression?
Years later, a psychologist showed me the scientific background for why mindfulness meditation is helpful. I needed something for my anxiety-induced, ongoing insomnia. Despite her evidence for the efficacy of this practice, I admit I only tried it because of a felt moral duty. I was working with women in addiction at that time, asking them to try new things they might distrust in order to overcome their trauma and substance abuse. How could I ask them to try things they were hesitant towards, and not do so myself?
Happily, it was mindfulness practice that gave me relief from years of insomnia, and I found calm in many more parts of my life through it. Yay!
So here today, amidst the COVID-19 anxiety, does mindfulness practice work? Sadly no. Not right at this moment. But it might again tomorrow!
When one thing doesn’t work, I see what else might help. Journaling. Finding things to be grateful for. Sleeping a lot. Watching funny TV. Eating healthy. Baking. Talking with family. Texting a friend. Gardening. Reading.
In this season of pandemic, I’m rooting through my toolkit of practices daily to see which one might help.
If I can’t find something that works, that’s precisely why I have a counsellor!
3. Knowing that the anxiety will eventually calm, change, or become more manageable.
Sometimes, due to the ‘tunnel-vision’ symptoms of anxiety, I can lose hope that this feeling I have right now will ever go away or improve. Anxiety is so focused on the here and now, in order to survive, that it can’t see beyond, into the future.
But it will change, it will become more manageable. If I keep trying new things. Or retrying things I’ve learned before.
One example of a tunnel-vision thought I’ve had during this time is: “Oh no! What if I’m stuck inside for a quarantine, and I get depressed? When I had a chronic illness for years, I got so isolated and sad!”.
This tunnel-thinking misses the next chapter in the history of my troubles.
In this particular example, when I was stuck indoors for so long, eventually I did find ways to combat isolation. Chatting with friends through social media, blogging, calling loved ones on the phone more often, and discovering a love of cooking I’d previously not had.
Our brains are far more creative and capable than we give them credit for.
After our globe gets through this, there will surely be studies about everything going on right now. About human survival instincts, about how social media has changed the results of this pandemic, about the efficiency of certain emergency response systems, comparing one country’s response to another.
And I bet the anxiety of the masses will be a topic of those observations. I’m very grateful to see everyone sharing helpful tools, tips, and advice across the social media spheres.
We’ll get through this. Thanks to all of us, offering our support in every way we can to one another.
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Robyn lives, works, and plays on unceded Coast Salish Territories, along with her husband, Thomas. She is navigating what it means to be a social worker on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, BC, working from a position that is anti-oppressive, anti-racist, anti-colonial, and trauma-informed. She also really, really likes videos of cute puppies.
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