The Anxiety Pandemic of 2020
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
The year 2020 started off like every other year. High hopes and renewed enthusiasm for all we would accomplish, achieve and change in our lives. We made the usual New Year’s Resolutions to ourselves about self-care, spending more time with family, connecting with friends, starting a new hobby, changing jobs or finally finishing that project around the house. Then, the universe in a very twisted way said, “You want change? Here you go: Wish granted!”
Here we are a few months later trying to recover from the shock and awe of it all. Seemly overnight we went from not shaking hands being a sign of rudeness to it being an action that can save your life. We went from the belief that most people can’t work from home because they won’t be productive enough to begging employees to figure it out in order to keep businesses and community agencies open. We went from homeschooling being the exception to it being a way of life. We locked loved ones in isolation in nursing homes and hospitals for their own protection. We went from never thinking about toilet paper to hoarding it. We went from hand sanitizer being sold and available literally everywhere to people making it at home. We went from major car manufacturers producing vehicles to making ventilators. We went from thinking of taking a cruise as a great escape to understanding that right now, it could kill us. We went from Friday night out with friends at the local bar or restaurant to sitting in our living rooms in our pajamas and “getting together” virtually. Businesses across the world are temporarily closed, and for some that closure may become permanent. Our 24/7 fast-paced world has been put on an indefinite hold.
Our daily lives and those of every single person we know have been turned upside down. There is constant fear because you can’t see who has the Coronavirus and who doesn’t. Will it get you? Will it get your family and friends? Social distancing is now part of our daily vocabulary.
Change, any one single change, even a positive one, can cause stress. Change requires us as humans to adjust. Most of us don’t cope well with change. The world has become uncertain and the Coronavirus has changed all of our lives, probably forever.
I know I am stressed. It feels like we have been grounded and are being told to think about what we have done wrong. Have we done something wrong? Do we deserve this? Will life ever return to normal? Will I have a job? Will my elderly parents survive this pandemic? Just a few of the thousands of questions we are asking ourselves.
We all know stress is a part of life. That said, stress is one thing, but anxiety is yet another. Let’s face it; stress is so 2019. We as a world have clearly moved on to anxiety.
Anxiety is the fear of something happening in the future. Anxiety comes in many forms and degrees. Mental health is critical to our overall health. So, let’s talk about two types of anxiety you or a loved one may be dealing with right now: regular, “normal” anxiety and pathological anxiety. By normal I am referring to the emotion everyone experiences from time to time. This anxiety can be annoying. It can cause your mind to go blank or make you lose your place during an important presentation. It is the kind we see in the media – the nervous groom dropping the ring in the middle of the ceremony type thing. It isn’t all bad. Some stress is healthy and creates motivation. It is good to just push through this type of anxiety.
But when the degree and intensity of anxiety becomes severe enough to interfere with multiple areas of our lives, directly causes interpersonal or professional problems - it could be escalating to be more long term. It could result in clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. This clinical anxiety is basically normal anxiety’s steroid-taking, jacked up, bully of a twin sibling.
Anxiety in of any “type” strikes often and unexpectedly, and at the most inconvenient times. It makes our thoughts feel jumbled and our minds feel crowded. We live in a state of overdrive that causes constant physical exhaustion or even pain from unconsciously tensing our muscles. Looping, repetitive thoughts take up mental processing power and limit our ability to concentrate. They prevent us from getting the sleep we need, make us irritable and place our temper on edge. They create a pervasive sense of concern about future threats and failure inhibiting our ability to relax, de-stress or live in the present.
Maybe your experiences with fear and anxiety are or have been infrequent and manageable up until now. That is great, but maybe, just maybe, you and/or your family members have been edging closer to the harder-to-manage invisible line under the stress of stay-at-home isolation and fear for your health and even life. If you have crossed that line or feel like you are about to, the good news is it is o.k. You are o.k. Life with anxiety can be difficult but with INSIGHT into what is going on, acceptance and applying coping skills, life will go on. Take a deep breath.
You are not alone. I live with anxiety. My children live with anxiety. Many of my friends and coworkers live with anxiety. Before any of us had ever heard of COVID-19, social distancing or hoarding toilet paper, 1 in 4 people in the U.S. had an anxiety disorder. We thought we were an exclusive club as we fought the social stigma of having emotional issues and found ways to reach out and support each other. We understood it is important to have hope and support. It seems our club is now open to the general public. It’s one of the few things that are still open.
Anxiety is on the rise, unlike the stock market. Seriously, there are real reasons to be afraid. I am. I live in New York, the epicenter of the Coronavirus in America. Our lives are full of uncertainty, especially right now. Yes, it is true there is a great deal we can’t control, but it is also true there is much we can control. It is time to take back our control. A state of chaos is fertile ground for feelings of anxiety. We can be and are still in control of many aspects of our lives. In a world filled with this much uncertainty, controlling even small aspects can bring back a sense of balance and reduce anxiety.
My dad is home on Hospice, and I am providing him 24/7 care at home. He is 83 and extremely medically fragile, exactly who this virus is killing. I am doing everything possible to clean enough and social distance to give him a fighting chance. I am afraid for him and of losing him.
But what I can control is this: Last month in the midst of this health crisis, we brought him home, taking him out of the dangerous hospital environment. He is home where he feels safe and comfortable. I can make him his favorite meals and drinks, keep him company, help manage his pain, share memories, laugh, watch T.V. with him, and make sure he is clean, dry, and warm. I give him phone numbers so he can call and talk to friends and family. These are things I can do, and they matter. They make a difference.
My mom has cardiac dementia and is in final-stage heart failure. She is in a nursing home and has severe memory loss. Pre-pandemic I went every night, fed her dinner and put her to bed to ensure she was well cared for and not neglected. It is important for both of us to help her remember who I am as long as possible. I have now been locked out of the facility and haven’t seen her for over a month. I worry about her care. I worry if she thinks I abandoned her. I worry if she is scared and lonely.
But what I can control is this: I arranged for the staff to FaceTime call me with mom every other day. When they don’t, I keep calling until we connect. I mailed pictures and cards and asked the staff to read them to her and hang them up in her room. I talk to the floor manager once a week to stay updated on her health. I have the cell phone number of my favorite aid who works there. She is wonderful. When she is on shift, she will text me updates about Mom, like what she ate and that she has tucked her in bed for the night. That is what I can do.
My daughter is a doctor in Chicago. She is exposed daily to this virus and I worry she doesn’t have the protective gear to keep her safe on front lines. I worry about her being exposed, working horribly long hours, taking care of herself, her mental health and the lasting impact this will all have on her. She lives with anxiety and depression without all this added pressure. If she gets sick, who will take care of her? I am afraid she will need me, and I can’t be there for her. In fact, in the day since I started writing this article, she is now sick. She feels awful, has been tested for Coronavirus and is quarantined at home. This is a tough one. I am the mom. It is my job to protect my child, regardless of how old she is. Honestly, I can’t do a whole lot.
But what I can control is this: Checking in with her every day, telling her I love her, texting her friends who live nearby to see if she needs anything, and mostly pray for her health and safety.
My son lives down south and is a body builder. He discovered in high school working out for several hours a day is the best way for him to feel in control and manage his anxiety. The gyms are now closed. This has created a crisis for him. The intensity and type of workout he does can’t really be done at home. He is struggling to find ways to exercise to meet his physical goals and manage his mental health. This has shaken his daily routine and taken away the thing that helps manage his anxiety.
But what I can control is this: Letting him know I care, talking through ideas for what else he can do, offering him money to buy additional bands, pull-up bars or equipment that could help, suggest he ask his coach for advice and ideas for home workouts. I also encourage additional follow-up visits with his therapist.
I could go on and I am sure you could, too. This is tough on all of us. Tougher than we have faced before and in ways we didn’t see coming. My point is, just like you, I have real-life situations that are truly terrifying and justifiably so. But even with real reasons to be scared, we have to not get so lost in the anxiety of “what if“ that we can’t appreciate and live our lives today. We don’t get to redo today once the virus is under control, so let’s make the best of it.
So yes, life is scarier than usual, but we owe it to ourselves and our families and friends to work through this until we get back to our new normal. Until then we all need some ways to cope beyond relaxation gimmicks or supplements that are being mass advertised. I suggest we stick to the basics. Control what we can.
Use telehealth services to see a therapist and/or psychiatrist. Try to keep our thoughts in the present, take time to focus on what we are grateful for and find ways that work to de-stress. Maybe try some of these activities: practice deep breathing, try yoga, adult coloring, meditation, exercise, walking, listen to music or an audio book, read a book, play a board game, tackle a home project, watch a movie, try some karaoke, learn to play an instrument, learn a language, take a course online, adopt or foster a pet, draw, sew, paint, write, journal, try a new recipe and practice self-care. You can try some of these alone or with children and family. Really anything that brings a sense of balance and regular routine to your life will help. Above all, turn off the news.
On a final note, among all the ways our lives are going to be impacted by this moment in time, it is my sincere hope that there is a broadening of understanding and compassion around mental health issues and living with anxiety. For the lucky ones, anxiety will end when the pandemic ends. For the rest of us we will still live with a heightened level of fear as we did before, always. It is my personal mission to end the stigma of mental health in my lifetime. We can only accomplish this by talking about our stories and experiences and helping others to understand. That I hope is the silver lining.