Friends, how are you? How are you in the midst of a global pandemic? How are you in the loneliness of social distancing? How are you in the time of canceled plans, seasons, games, and long-anticipated vacations? How are you in the uncertainty of…everything? How are you in the fear for your own life, or the lives of those you love? How are you?
I would like to talk specifically to those of you like me. Those of you for whom the phrase “don’t panic” rolls off your back like water on a duck. It doesn’t sink in, because panic is the water you’re swimming in. It’s your norm.
I have an anxiety disorder. It is, according to Mayo Clinic, “a mental health disorder characterized by feelings of worry, anxiety, or fear that are strong enough to interfere with one’s daily activities. Examples of anxiety disorders include panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms include stress that’s out of proportion to the impact of the event, inability to set aside a worry, and restlessness. Treatment includes counseling or medications, including antidepressants.”
I am in a near-perpetual state of fear and panic. Always. It probably doesn’t seem that way on the outside. Back to that whole duck analogy. Calm up top, paddling like crazy underneath.
Throw on top of that an unhealthy dose of another mental illness–hypochondria. I know, I know. People love to poke fun at those with this particular disorder–“there’s not even anything wrong with them!” Well, that’s not true. At all. Hypochondria IS something wrong with you. I like to say I’m a recovering hypochondriac because I’m nowhere near as anxious about symptoms that used to send me into a Dr. Google tailspin. You know what finally curbed my hypochondria? Anxiety medication. I started taking it for late-onset postpartum depression after my son was born. And guess what? I stopped going to the doctor all. the. freaking. time.
Part of me is angry that my doctor never sat me down and had “the talk.” No, not THAT talk. The one about the very real physical manifestations of anxiety. If I’d started treatment for my anxiety disorder long ago, I would have saved thousands of dollars in unnecessary medical tests. Ugh.
While I’m so grateful that I have more reprieves from my anxiety now than I used to, I’ve also had to learn to live with the possibility that it will never go away. It might, but given my genetic predisposition and just the way my brain works, it probably won’t.
So, where does that leave me? Where does that leave you? What are we telling those with mental illness during the time of Coronavirus?
Friends, I’m tired of being told to not panic and calm down. It’s not as if I want to panic. It’s not as if I enjoy feeling like I’m suffocating and drowning while having a heart attack all at once. There are some days I literally cannot function because of my mental illness. And that isn’t even when we’re in the middle of a worldwide pandemic!
And you know? I get a little tired of feeling ashamed of my panic, my fear, especially when it comes to my faith. I know I’m not supposed to be anxious. And I’m trying. I’m really trying. But if it were so easy, what would I even need God for? I know he loves me in my fear. In my panic. He’s here.
Now, I don’t fault those telling others not to panic. Because right now, panic looks like hoarding mass quantities of toilet paper. And that’s dumb. I mean, I was also smart enough to order one package extra last week though. And as much as it’s fun to laugh at people’s TP fanaticism, I realized something: I may not be stockpiling paper goods or pasta. I may not be prepping for Armageddon.
But this fear? This crippling, ankle-binding, mind sludge of anxiety? It’s my personal dystopian society–and I’ve been hoarding something else. Information. Facts. Stats. Every news story and every angle and ever projection, I’ve studied it. I’ve been storming the aisles of the interwebs, racing from location to location, gobbling as much material as I can. About this pandemic. About past pandemics. About possible future pandemics.
And I need to stop. I have a problem. *stands sheepishly* “Hi. My name is Cat, and I’m an infoholic. One hot-take is never enough. I always reach for another, and another. My family hates it. They can tell when I’ve been thinking too much. I’m on edge, cranky and distant.”
So, where my fellow panickers at? Huddle around (but at a distance of at least 6 feet). Here’s what I’m going to tell you. If you’re panicking, that’s okay. Especially given these circumstances. It’s not sinful or shameful or any reflection on your personal character. Any more so than it is for someone who’s vision impaired to not be able to see things as clearly.
You might not be able to change how your brain is wired, but there are strategies to help minimize the physical effects anxiety is having on your body. Focus here, rather than on “changing your mind.” Get out of your mind, and into your body.
- Contact your mental health provider. Let them know you’re experiencing an increase in symptoms. They may recommend medication, or an increase if you’re already taking some. Therapy appointments can still be kept, over the phone or even by email/text.
- Move, frequently and unusually. Dance, practice tai-chi, yoga, run, jump, wiggle…whatever your body’s physical capacity will allow. Be sure to try something new, not just your standard pattern of movement. There really is something to moving your body in new ways, unlocking pent-up stress.
- Drink water. I know, I know. It’s really that important though.
- Meditate. Calm is the app I use. There are many other great ones.
- Tune out. Find a hobby or interest you can get lost in. Books, movies, video games, whatever it takes as long as it’s legal and not harmful. Resist the urge to hoard information online. Check in for a minute, get the latest update, and get out. This is hard, I know. If you can’t stop checking, at least make an effort to start searching for GOOD news to balance it out. It’s out there.
- Practice gratitude. Notice I didn’t say “be grateful.” This is different. This is actively noticing the positive things in your life. Journal, say it out loud, whatever it takes. This is reverse engineering your mind to “be grateful.”
- Pray. Seek spiritual guidance. Worship music really helps me here. Helps me get my heart and mind open to a place of being in communication with God. It does offer me a reprieve from the swirling fears in my mind, and for that I’m grateful.
- Laugh. It’s okay to still be joyful. Don’t let anyone shame you into thinking otherwise. We need joy and laughter now more than ever. Let me share this, a recent Facebook post I made after visiting my mom and aunt in their senior living community:
I don’t want to leave them. They are so dear. I’m very apprehensive about them living in a senior community, where the mortality rate is so high. I brought them snacks and supplies for an expected quarantine of the facility. I stayed longer than I normally would, helped mom clean her dishes and take out her trash.
We sat and visited. Mom’s concerned, but not overly so. Then again, she hasn’t been watching the news much. I told her that’s good. Sweet Aunt has dementia, which is probably a blessing in times like these.
Before leaving, I asked if we could pray. They gladly obliged. Mom led the prayer, asking for protection for loved ones from this pandemic. And then…
“And God, please don’t let us run out of toilet paper. That would be a shitty situation.”
I love this woman. She’s survived losing a child, a spouse, hip breaks on both sides, heart attack, broken pelvis and eye socket, broken ribs, and several broken fingers. She’s one tough cookie. And still, I worry. But her sense of humor though!