With COVID-19 continuing to spread (though thankfully slowing down in some areas), it’s a difficult time for everyone, to say the least. Most of us have moved indoors until some yet undetermined point in the future, moving our work, our social lives, and pretty much everything else into an insular, private space. There are pushes to reopen certain businesses and public areas, but health experts agree this is risky.
More than the obvious danger to our physical health and economic health (both individual and collective), the toll on mental health is perhaps more troubling, in part because it’s far more difficult to see and quantify. I’ve certainly been struggling more with my mental health with all that’s going on, like I’m sure many have. The CDC has even put up some recommendations to help people cope with the stress.
I may or may not have mentioned this in a previous post, but I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) while in graduate school. I had known for a long time that the underlying sense of dread I experienced somewhat frequently, like a distant, unsettling hum in the background, was not something most people dealt with, but I struggled with admitting to myself that I had a problem. Eventually, when I moved from California to North Dakota to pursue my PhD, my anxiety worsened and I could no longer ignore it; it just became too disruptive.
Thankfully, I was able to seek treatment and have learned to keep it more or less under control without regular medication. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has pushed me back into a difficult space again. Admittedly, I have it far better than some: I have a good job I can do remotely, a stable home life, and enough resources to remain fed and clothed and ensure my family is similarly taken care of. But still, I struggle to cope with what my anxiety really feeds on: fear of the unknown, the perpetual interstitial space between one normal and another acceptable normal.
I understand that we’re all pretty much in the same space, and that provides some relief. “It’s OK to feel not OK” is a helpful mantra I’ve heard. It at least removes the component of loneliness from the equation. My anxiety doesn’t seem to care, however, how much I can intellectually understand or rationally explain to myself; it’s pretty well set on pushing me into a fight-or-flight state whenever possible.
I’m sure some of you reading this have experienced the same thing, or are experiencing it now. To those of you in this same position, my heart goes out to you. Know that you aren’t alone, and know that your experiences are real and valid.
Understanding and acknowledging the validity of anxiety seems to be pretty helpful (at least for me) in blunting the edge of the negative emotions: the panic, the dread, the feeling of being trapped. These are real experiences, though they’re usually based on an imagined scenario that we’re not fully aware of.
I do think there’s a lot we can do to cope with anxiety, but if you’re feeling especially overwhelmed and unable to even begin thinking about making some small changes, please seek out help. Seek out tele-medicine or phone counseling or medication–anything to give you a reasonable starting point. I’d love to share what’s been helping me in the hopes that it may help others, but I’m obviously not a doctor (not the medical kind, anyway) and obviously can’t make medical recommendations. If you need help, please get help. The US Dept. of Mental Health and Services might be a helpful resource to start with.
What’s been helping me cope with the pandemic and the feeling of being stuck inside (and stuck inside my own anxious, swirling thoughts) is a handful of things:
Unplugging from news and social media
I have actually been pleasantly surprised at how much creativity and positivity has been generated by the quarantine. It’s refreshing to see the best in people emerge amidst something so troubling. Still, I’ve personally found that the more I scroll through Instagram or Reddit, the worse I feel.
It’s not that I want to stick my head in the sand or anything. On the contrary, I actually want as much information as I can possibly have, which is part of the problem: more information doesn’t help in this situation. No matter how many times I look at the infection rate, the fatality rate, no matter how many angles I try to get on the data, I’m still stuck in the same place. More information just adds to my sense of panic; the fact that I can’t do anything with that information just makes everything worse. And, as we all know, the internet (and social media in particular) excel at providing endless amounts of information.
Psychologists seem to understand the connection between social media and anxiety pretty well, especially among younger adults, and it seems to be the case that those of us who are more disposed to anxiety are probably more likely to experience the negative consequences of social media use, or at least experience those consequences more acutely.
Even just after a day or two of distancing myself from social media, only checking once or twice a day, if that, I feel better–like I have more space in my head, if that makes sense. I’d definitely suggest not scrolling through your app of choice right when you wake up. I’d developed that habit and cutting it out has helped immensely.
Practicing meditation & mindfulness
Long-time readers of this blog will likely know that I post about Buddhism, Zen in particular, from time to time. I’ve long been a student of Zen and a somewhat irregular meditator. I’ve maintained a regular meditation practice for several periods throughout my life, but can’t claim I’ve always had a regular practice.
In an attempt to get my recent bout of anxiety under control, however, I’ve delved back into a regular practice and I’ve seen a huge benefit almost immediately. In a lot of ways, despite how cliche it sounds, it feels like hopping back on a bike after not having ridden in a long while. My mind already feels clearer and that tightness in the pit of my stomach and the attendant heart palpitations have become less frequent.
If you’re looking for a good resource to get started or return to a meditation practice, you are spoiled for choice. The popular but costed option is headspace. I can vouch for this app but don’t believe you need to spend money to get started.
If you’re after a simple timer, Insight Timer is a great little (free) tool I’ve used a lot over the years.
Lastly, if, like me, you think a little bit of dogma provides some helpful structure and you’d like some more formal instructions, you can refer to this guide from the Zen Mountain Monastery. This is essentially the instruction I received in person at the Los Angeles Zen Center.
Regardless of what resource you use to get started, I’ve found the key to be simply remaining consistent and maintaining even a 5-minute practice every single day. There really is power in meditating regularly.
Journaling to capture recurring thoughts
While meditating is a practice in acknowledging thoughts and letting them go, journaling is a way to siphon those thoughts out of your head and onto paper. Even just sitting down to write about all the silly unlikely scenarios can be helpful.
What I’ve personally found to be therapeutic is to document the reasons I’m fortunate and explicitly lay out the things that are within my control and the things that are outside my control. A significant component of anxiety (for me, at least) is focusing on the unknown and what’s outside my control–this is what makes the endless news cycle so anxiety-inducing.
When you lay out all those things that are outside your control, you give them form, affirming that they are indeed outside your control. There must be a part of our brain that continues to fixate on these things that are stressful and outside our control, looking for some angle from which we might be able to influence or otherwise prepare for them, and writing them down seems to provide enough acknowledgement to quiet down this part. Perhaps this tendency is just more pronounced in those of us who have anxiety.
Really, write about whatever you want. Write poetry, write stories, write jokes. Use the space to clear things out of your mind or to flex your creative muscles. It’s been a huge help for me.
Producing rather than consuming
Disconnecting from social media and journaling both fit under this umbrella, but the general advice to do less consuming and more producing is too important to leave implicit.
For me, trying to consume less and produce more has meant returning in earnest to writing again. After completing my dissertation (which can be read here, if anyone’s interested) and wrapping up my PhD last December, I’d hardly picked up a pen beyond scrawling out the odd line or two. I haven’t even read much poetry. As I dive back into it, though, it’s like taking a long drink and not realizing how thirsty I’d been–it’s rejuvenating.
I suggest you try something analog. Return to an old hobby or pick up a new one that will allow your mind (and hopefully your hands) to work through interesting problems or provide a sense of accomplishment. It seems that one of the positive outcomes of this pandemic will be a renaissance in analog hobbies and DIY skills that haven’t been popular in decades, like sewing or bread baking.
If I had to pick hobbies to suggest to help combat anxiety, I’d suggest something that’s active and participatory, requiring that you engage with whatever you’re doing. So, if you’re wanting to watch a movie, watch a challenging movie that will make you think rather than cinematic junk food loaded with special effects and trite plots. In my experience, the more analog, the better.
Getting outside for some fresh air
The ability to get outside will vary greatly depending on your living situation, but getting outside in whatever capacity is reasonable for you can be a big help. I’ve been taking walks as frequently as I can (whenever the unseasonably cool and breezy New England weather permits) to take a 30-minute walk or let my toddler wander around.
There are some deep, palpable psychological benefits to getting outside and into nature, if possible, that feel like a dose of anti-anxiety medication. Some studies show that time outdoors can actually have this effect.
Part of the benefit, in my experience, is having something consistent that you can build your day around. I know, for example, that I will take a 30-45 min. walk in the early afternoon, and that’s just enough of a routine to add some structure to my day.
Much of what we’ve lost during this crisis is the routine we’re accustomed to. We no longer visit our favorite coffee shops or visit with our neighbors. That destabilization can wreak havoc on the mental health of those suffering from anxiety, and I’ve found that even a little routine–so long as you’re not trying to obsessively stick to a schedule–can go a long way in helping you feel more grounded.
Some concluding thoughts
Probably the most difficult part of all this is that there’s no easy solution. The best response we have while we wait for the infected to recover and for treatments to be developed and tested is to, well…wait.
I’ve found some comfort in all doing all these things, but above all, not being too terribly hard on myself and remembering that the only thing I must do is just be. That’s enough.
If you’re suffering, I hope these suggestions can help you find some respite so you can be as present as possible, both for yourself and those around you.
I’ll leave you with Alan Watts, who I find endlessly interesting and elucidating:
“The meaning of life is just to be alive. It is so plain and so obvious and so simple. And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”
― The Culture of Counter-Culture: Edited Transcripts