How My Lifelong Anxiety Has Actually Helped Me Deal with the Coronavirus Panic
And I don't really know how to feel about that.
I’ve been described in many ways in my 20-something years but the funniest without a doubt has been "chill AF." Why does that make me (and my friends and family) LOL? Because let me tell you, I am typically the furthest thing from chill you can find—which is probably why my current, relaxed demeanor seems even more uncharacteristic.
We are in the middle of a global pandemic—I repeat, global pandemic—and yet, I don’t think I’ve ever felt…calmer. It’s not that I’m not nervous—don’t get me wrong, I very much am—but compared to the usual Elizabeth, mid-coronavirus outbreak-Elizabeth spends substantially less time worrying. So, while many people were filling the first weeks of quarantine impressively baking bread, racing through reading lists, and lifting weights in their living rooms, I was busy doing some serious self-exploration to try to figure out where the eff this chill was coming from. And I came to a conclusion: I’ve been training for this—my lifelong history with anxiety disorder has trained me for this. I’ll explain.
Typically, I live in a practically perpetual state of “fight or flight.”
A.k.a. when your body is flooded with hormones in response to a perceived threat.
I wake up every morning with a mind buzzing with intrusive thoughts. I spend my hour-long commute working to quiet the thought that tries incredibly hard (a valiant effort, IMO) to convince me that there’s a bomb hiding under my subway seat. The rest of the day, I find myself in a constant battle with the belief that my body is broken; that I’ll never get healthy (I’ll save my chronic physical conditions for another story). I can’t walk into a new room and not scout out the optimal hiding place and an escape route if there’s ever an active shooter. I need to call my parents just in case they get in a car crash later and…you see where this is going. (Believe it or not, these anxious and obsessive thoughts are very much what goes through my mind regularly.)
So, one could assume that as someone with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and depression who clearly spends ample time spiraling, that I would be dealing with worsened mental health symptoms from the COVID-19 crisis. And many with similar diagnoses are, in fact, experiencing exacerbated symptoms. But, paradoxically, I'm not.
Now, like I said earlier, please know that I'm not living in ignorant bliss and indifferent to the current realities—far from it, actually. I choke up in the shower over the unnecessary number of lives lost because of this crisis. I often want to throw my phone out the window in a fit of rage—how could our leadership let this happen?—when I read the news. I unravel multiple times a week as I worry about my grandparents’ health.
Yet my mind has also seemingly never been this quiet. I wake up feeling lighter, with monumentally less buzzing. When I pass strangers (from 6+ feet away!) on walks, I don’t start to ruminate over how I could somehow get infected. (FYI, this is how coronavirus transmission actually works.) I actively remind myself that this is all temporary; that my family is healthy; that I am safe, not stuck, at home. And compared to my usual tango between deep depression and incapacitating anxiety, my mood is fairly stable.
It’s been unsettling, to say the least. So, what gives?
One of the hallmarks of general anxiety disorder is “catastrophizing”—and usually, I’m a pro.
“One of the common thinking traps or patterns in anxiety disorder is ‘catastrophizing’ and so, when a disaster of some sort happens, our anxious brains might not be as shocked by it because we predicted it would happen anyway,” says Terri Bacow, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City.
Translation: I’ve spent so much time thinking about the worst-case scenarios that now that an actual worst-case scenario has occurred, it’s possible that I’m just not that surprised. Sure, I never expected a highly contagious respiratory illness to sweep up the world and leave all this damage in its wake. But I am quite familiar with panic—after all, that’s the state in which my mind can usually be found hanging out. So, the fact that a panic-inducing situation is unfolding right before my eyes? Well, I’ve "seen" this sort of thing before.
Which brings me to the next possible reasons I'm dealing with this all surprisingly well.
There’s little left for me to anticipate or control.
In addition to worst-case-scenarios, people with anxiety disorders often fixate on the “what if,” says Elizabeth Cohen, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist also in New York City. “What if I lose my job? What if the plane crashes? It’s the anticipation that something bad will happen or of the unknown that can also make someone really anxious.”
So, now that something bad (coronavirus) has happened, it’s possible I’m no longer in as much of an anxiety-producing anticipatory state, explains Cohen.
The keywords being “as much of” because there is still plenty for me to anticipate or forecast. How many more days will we be sheltering-in-place? Weeks? Months? What will I do when we can finally return to the old “normal”? Everything’s going to be…changed. I hate changes. I’m not going to deal with that well. Wait, will my grandparents still be okay by then?
The list of threatening unknowns goes on and yet, no matter how many times I run through it (which is a lot, btw), I’m able to come out relatively unscathed: only slightly short of breath, barely any sweating, and zero suffocating sensation of being stuck. (BTW, these are just a few of the common panic attack warning signs.)
It's possible this ease in my symptoms has to do with control, says Cohen. "Before you might’ve had an illusion of control—i.e. thinking that you could choose to take a less-crowded subway line to the office, thereby reducing your chances of danger—but now, with coronavirus, there is absolutely nothing you can do about it." (Other than social distance and stay at home, which I’m obviously doing.)
And Bacow agrees: “People with anxiety tend to fixate on the little things or small stuff that we think we can control (when really we can’t). So, when something big happens, it’s almost relaxing because we realize there is actually nothing we can do.” (Related: How the Coronavirus Pandemic Can Exacerbate Symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder)
On top of that, I might be employing a common (not-so-great) coping tactic amongst people with anxiety and depression known as dissociation.
Dissociation involves consciously or subconsciously separating yourself from the present moment so that you feel entirely disconnected—almost “out-of-body,” says Cohen. “It’s a way of responding to or seemingly protecting yourself from crisis or trauma.” And more often than not, patients are encouraged to avoid this habit and work on it in therapy. But given the current state of the world (in addition to the anxiety that can come from simply WFH or watching the news), dissociation might actually be helping me more than hurting—at least right now.
“When you dissociate, you push away essential feelings that you need to process, inhibiting you from moving through painful experiences and digesting these feelings," explains Cohen. “Right now, however, everything is happening so quickly and so intensely that by dissociating, you’re able to slow it down and stabilize just a little.”
That’s not to say this is a free pass to dissociate going forward—and Cohen was quick to emphasize that. “When this all passes, then you can digest it.”
And there's no denying it: therapy has served me well.
It’s almost as if I’m conditioned for the coronavirus pandemic. What's more, it seems I am learning something in therapy. (Sarcasm aside, I have and continue to learn a lot of things in my decade-plus going to therapy and 10/10 would recommend.)
“People with anxiety who have had therapy such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) are in some of the best shape [mentally, right now] because they have been taught tools and methods for encountering and challenging thoughts and worries about worst-case scenarios,” says Bacow. (Learn about CBT, explore mental health apps, or look into telemedicine if you want to understand more.)
One such tool? Cognitive restructuring is, at its most basic, challenging a dysfunctional thought, belief, or worry by asking, i.e., 'what evidence do I have that this is true or going to happen?'. This is something I continuously work on in treatment and IRL. I’m definitely no pro, but I’ve been turning to this technique enough through my life that in some anxiety-provoking situations I start to do it subconsciously.
I now realize that I’ve been practicing what my doctors preach—putting some of my therapy tools to use IRL—when confronted with coronavirus-related anxiety. It’s almost as if there’s a little voice in the back my head that jumps into action with go-to phrases such as “this is all temporary” or “what are the odds?” as my heart rate picks up and my underarms fill with sweat. I guess this is what naturally goes on in other peoples’ minds—and, damn, they’re lucky.
I'm still learning to accept my new internal normal.
Of course, there are (many) moments where I don’t immediately or successfully turn to my therapy toolkit. Perhaps I'm more comfortable with the sensations of spiraling and the exhausting aftermath that follows than I am with this new chill demeanor. Plus, experiencing a newfound sense of calm while the world practically crumbles around me has been unsettling at times.
I feel guilty. Selfish. Shameful. Wrong.
But according to the experts (including my own therapist), I shouldn’t: I haven’t done anything wrong and feeling bad about my sense of respite isn’t helpful. Rather, I should (and am trying to) view this calm-amid-chaos mindset as an opportunity to express relief and gratitude—after all, research suggests doing so can actually make people more resilient, particularly after traumatic events. (Related: How Suffering Fosters Post-Traumatic Growth (Which Is a Good Thing))
“It would be a far better experience for you to be thankful (not all the time, just when you can) that you are not totally losing your s—-t," says Bacow. "You can be a far better support to others if you are holding it together and not losing it!”
First time for everything, right?
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.