“I Feel Less Anxious Now Than I Have in a Long Time”
“When the world is in actual crisis, you stop worrying about pretend-crises. You lose the luxury of free-floating worry about scenarios not currently happening when you need to pull it together for a young child out of school and a newly jobless husband. You cannot even allow worry near your mind for what it will do to you.”
For almost four decades, I’ve lived with anxiety as a sidecar to my ADHD. Every happy event in my life was undermined by “what if” thinking. Got a promotion: What if my boss changes her mind? About to get married: What if he stands me up at the altar? Pregnant: What if something goes wrong? Better Google all the possible medical scenarios!
Basically, I have spent almost 40 years worrying and imagining every possible thing that could go wrong. I have trembled in the wee hours of the morning. I have run scenarios like an actuary. I have planned for job loss and bankruptcy. Illness, organ failure, and a particular period of obsession with sepsis: all covered. I have prepared for every disaster, however unlikely.
And here I am: subject to a statewide stay-at-home order due to a globally declared pandemic of a novel, lethal disease, having just witnessed my husband close operations in a business he spent near three decades building.
Damn. Even I couldn’t have imagined this.
Could us anxiety-ridden folks learn something here?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been “working on” my anxiety for a decade or so. Most recently, I downloaded that user-friendly meditation app and I let the nice British man lull me into a few moments of relaxation every morning. He gently taught me about living in the moment and I swear to you: I listened.
Reading The Gift of Fear, I learned a simple test to distinguish fear from worry. Are you responding to an actual threat? Then it’s fear. Are you responding to the thought of a threat? Then it’s worry. At a rational level, I knew that what I was doing was worrying, not fearing. But what’s rationality in the face of those sleepless 4 am actuary models?
Besides, all of my mental health efforts felt somewhat theoretical and ephemeral. “Working on my anxiety” was more akin to a trendy hobby than a sincere attempt at personal growth. After all, I’ve had anxiety since I was a child and I’ve lived with it all this time. Years ago, one counselor actually refused to treat me because he said my crippling anxiety was helping me perform in law school. Questionable advice, but the message resonated: This is who you are and, in a sense, this helps you succeed. Worry away.
When Real Uncertainty Trumps Everything Else
But now we find ourselves, as a country and as a world, in actual fear, responding to a real-life threat. What’s a worrywart to do? And what does it tell me that I didn’t see this crisis coming despite all my careful imaginings of crises?
For severe worriers, a natural instinct might be to hide under the bed until it’s over. But something remarkable happens to us anxiety puddles when we’re confronted with an actual crisis: we stop being so anxious. This despite the fact that all of my anxiety-managing lifestyle tricks have fallen by the wayside in the last three weeks: I barely exercise, I don’t get enough sleep, I drink a glass of wine nightly, and I no longer meditate. And while I feel some depression creeping in around the edges at times, I feel less anxious now than I have in a long time.
It’s not just me, either. Anecdotally, all of my anxiety puddle friends have reported feeling less anxious these days.
Does that make any sense? No. But none of this does. I’m still enough of an overthinker, though, that I’d like to at least have some idea why this is happening, and I think I’ve figured it out, at least for me.
Unemployment claims are at historic highs because millions upon millions of people have lost their jobs. Thousands upon thousands of people have died in this country alone. Frontline medical professionals are quarantining themselves from their own children. Seniors are essentially locked inside nursing homes for their own protection.
There’s something about a true crisis that, for me at least, makes my imagined crises seem like the flighty imaginings of an overprivileged teenager. I have a job. I have a home. I have my health. I will not allow myself perverse fantasies in which I don’t have these things because millions of people don’t, in real life. It’s no longer a 4 am worry to them. It’s real now.
When the world is in actual crisis, you stop worrying about pretend-crises. You lose the luxury of free-floating worry about scenarios not currently happening when you need to pull it together for a young child out of school and a newly jobless husband. You cannot even allow worry near your mind for what it will do to you when you consider that family member who’s a physician working in a major urban hospital and how he is not only highly likely to be infected himself, but also to bring the infection home to those other two family members you love who live with him, the ones with asthma. You cannot run your actuarial scenarios of what this disease is doing to the global community because the numbers crush your layperson’s models like gnats with the weight of their reality.
Letting Go of What You Can’t Control
Simply put, when life spins wildly out of control, you realize that your attempts at control are bullshit. In fact, not only does your anxious wheel-spinning not work, but it’s actually harmful. To preserve your sanity, you will have to socially distance from your anxiety for the duration of this pandemic. Getting cozy with it was a luxury you only had in the before.
Now, you need to spend your mental energy on getting through the day. You make to-do lists and you work your way down them until the day is over. You do it again the next day. The good news is that, as a functioning adult with ADHD, you can crush a list. Oddly, that skill you cultivated to make the most of your distracted brain will mentally help you through this.
It seems that there’s support for this “get-through-the-day” approach. I recently read an article in The Washington Post about a woman who’s lived through the influenza pandemic, the Depression, World War II, and now this. What was her advice? “A long time ago,” she said, “I started making a list every morning of what I had to do. It was the only thing I could control, and I stuck to it, you hear me?”
I do. Just yesterday, I read about a few local break-ins and, promptly, like a clingy ex who refuses to accept that we’re on a break, my anxiety attempted to insert itself with imaginings of lawlessness reigning supreme. How could I protect against that? A new alarm system? Better locks? Make the dog watch some attack-dog training videos on YouTube? But just as quickly, my true lizard brain, the one in charge now, threw up a stop sign. Lawlessness is not on your to-do list today, it whispered. Make the list and stick to it, you hear me?
I hear you.
Anxiety-friends, I hope you do, too.
And to be clear: I strongly doubt that I am somehow cured of anxiety forever. In fact, when this passes, as it surely will, many of us will have some post-traumatic anxiety, especially if we were anxiety-prone before. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. After all, contemplating post-pandemic anxiety is not on the to-do list today. For now, make that list of items for today – this day – and, come hell or high water, stick with it. Then, do it again tomorrow.
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Updated on May 22, 2020