Somebody recently put up on a post on Instagram talking about how he noticed that, as a person living with anxiety, he was surprised at how well he was handling this Covid-19 pandemic.
He said something like “I am so used to worrying about horrible things, that this pales in comparison!”. He said he noticed that other people he knew who lived with anxiety, felt the same way and that they too were surprised by how well they were handling the fear of the virus and all of the closings of schools and businesses associated with preventing it’s spread. Even I had something to say about it. “Me too!”, I commented. “I’m doing great!”
2 days later, I had the paramedics in my living room after having my first panic attack in 20 years.
After we figured out I wasn’t dying, I sat on the floor with them (Kelly and Wyatt. They were so cool.) and they asked me if I had a history of anxiety. I laughed and said “Yes, and I spend half my life teaching people how to not have panic attacks. You have no idea how much you are not supposed to be here right now!”
I told them that I was definitely going to turn the whole experience into a positive though, by figuring out where I have been going wrong in my life lately, and then posting a “What Not to Do” on my blog. And so here it is.
I want you all to remember that panic attacks never happen for no reason. Especially not big ones like the one I had that day. A lot of times people will have small panic attacks and they will be fully aware they are having a panic attack and it is simply a matter of them struggling to try to calm down or bring themselves out of an “over-thinking episode”. But then you can also have the BIG panic attack, where it just strikes you out of the blue. You feel what I call “Insta-Terror”, and your heart will start pounding, everything becomes surreal, your hands start tingling, etc. You think you are dying. That’s what happened to me. The adrenaline surged through me like lightning and I went to the floor preparing to die, thinking I was having a stroke or a heart attack. In fact, I really wasn’t fully confident I wasn’t dying until the medics complemented me by telling me I could recite the 12 months backwards better than any patient they ever had. When my feelings of terror were quickly outweighed by my desire to know how many patients they saw in a day so I could know how mentally superior I was, it became hard to deny that panic was my problem.
A week later, I had managed to avoid having another panic attack, however, I developed what I thought for sure was Covid-19. I had several physical symptoms that led me to believe I was sick and it was one of the worst six days of my life. As it turns out, I now believe that what I was experiencing was an extreme stress response, much like a strong grief reaction. I will get more specifically into what those symptoms were in a future post.
So how did it happen?
Why was I having panic attacks and extreme anxiety again after 20 years? To get the answer, I knew I had to look at how I was living my life for the past few months and it didn’t take long to figure out what happened: I had neglected myself and let my imaginary “stress bucket” overflow. Everybody has a stress bucket and it can be filled up with one big, traumatic event or several small stressful or life changing events. And when it overflows, you are going to have a big stress response such as a panic attack or maybe a huge crying episode or a big angry blow-out. That is why you have to really take care of yourself all the time to keep the baseline level of your bucket low so that there is enough room to handle the big life-changing events of humans experience, such as the death of a loved one, major illness, or going away to college. But also so that you don’t let the gradual buildup of smaller, less obviously stressful events cause your bucket to over-flow and catch you off guard. That is what happened to me.
In the past few months, I have had some relationship stressors as well as some other personal stressors. I also moved out of the apartment I loved into a new home, and change is a HUGE stressor to a sensitive person like me, even if it doesn’t necessarily feel like BAD change. During all this time, I just coasted along, ignoring all the stress and changes and pretending they weren’t happening. Then Covid-19 came along and I thought I was doing fine with that too. Yes, I was nervous about it, but up to now the data showed that I probably didn’t have too much to worry about and I was so busy with other things in my life, I didn’t focus on it too much. They closed my kids schools and now they were home every day and I had to stay on top of all their homework assignments but I was managing okay. Even when they closed up all the businesses in town and I couldn’t go to all my favorite places anymore, I didn’t mind much. I honestly thought it was all no big deal.
And then after a few weeks, bam, I had the panic attack.
Looking back over the course of events that led up to it, I am pretty disappointed in myself that I didn’t see it coming and keep my stress level under control. I know myself really well, and it was pretty obvious what was going to happen to me if I had just paid attention. Especially because moving and any type of life change has always been such a massive stressor for me. It really shakes me to my core and I just should have been better prepared. But it is what it is and I have learned from it and am doing everything differently now. As the data gets scarier, I confess that my worry feels hard to control at times, but I have made some rules for myself that have helped a great deal and I’d like to pass them on to you:
Five Ways To Cope With Anxiety and Stress During The Pandemic.
1. Give Yourself Permission to NOT Dwell on Covid-19
If you are stressing about Covid-19 right now, I understand. It is new. It is scary. And there are a lot of unknowns. None of those are a person with anxiety’s favorite things. Give yourself some time to process what is going on. Let yourself feel anxious, or sad, or numb or whatever you are leaning toward. Take a day or two, or even a few days longer if you are really struggling, to acknowledge those feelings and vent them out through talking to a loved one or journaling. Then its time to let it go. Other than doing the very best you can to use common sense to protect yourself from this virus, there really isn’t much you can do about it. Focusing on the negative media reports, and checking Twitter every half hour for data updates, and Googling Coronavirus symptoms all day will only keep your brain in a heightened sense of alert, making you feel sick and stressed and pre-dispose you to having a huge anxiety response like I did. It is NOT worth it. Give yourself permission to keep your focus on other things until there is a real and genuine reason to be concerned. You must keep your stress bucket at a low level and not waste the space it has. If by some low chance, something real and threatening does happen in your life, whether it’s related to this virus or not, you are going to need that space THEN to provide room for you to cope.
2. Stay Out of Your Head
When we introverts spend TOO much time inside our heads wrapped up in our own thoughts or disappearing into one of our mental caves to binge-watch shows on Netflix, it tends to shift our perspective a bit and this can stir up trouble for us. You see, we were meant to visit our mind caves from time to time, not pack up and move there. And when we spend too much time there it can be a difficult transition back to reality once we put down our books or ipads and come back out into the “real world” again. All that introversion sort of moves our seat in the theater of life to about 2 rows farther back than we were before. It’s nothing harmful or dangerous or even all that noticeable, but this very subtle shift in perspective causes a slight bit of “disconnect”, and it can make people feel a bit weird or out of it or maybe a little “hungover” until they make the transition back to their original seat in the theater, which can take a few minutes or a few hours depending on how long you spend inside your head.
Again, it isn’t dangerous and it wouldn’t matter at all, except that when your stress bucket is approaching full and you are overly sensitized, and you have spent all day inside your head, those weird feelings you get after coming back into the real world can be enough to give you a panic attack. That is what happened to me when I had my panic attack the other day. I had been lying on my bed for 2 hours then got up to go cook something. I was feeling slightly groggy and out of it after lying around for so long, then had one “weird” feeling as I was walking through the living room and that was all it took to send me into a panic. So trust me on this one and try your best to stay out of your head for long periods of time. Stay engaged and involved with other people in your home. Get outside and go for walks. Be mindful as you are doing chores and feel the texture of the towels as you fold them and the soap on your hands when you do dishes. Do things that keep you in the present, connected with tangible things outside of your head and this will help you avoid the anxious feelings that can be brought on by too much introversion and/or stress.
Also keep in mind that if you are feeling depressed from the disruption in your life, lying around too much will only make this worse. You will feel more tired and have less energy if you don’t stay active. A little rest is fine. Just don’t make it your entire afternoon.
3. Stick to Your Normal Routine
Stick to your normal routine as much as possible during all this change that is going on in the world. Again, sensitive brains don’t like change, and while the idea of doing something completely different for 2-4 weeks or longer until normal life resumes again might sound nice and kind of fun, it can send the message to your brain that “Something isn’t right here.”, and it could make your brain go into a hyper-aware state which could then lead to all kinds of drama you don’t want or need.
Stick to your your normal routine as much as possible, and if it isn’t possible to do that because you can’t work anymore, or you have kids to home-school now, then create a new routine that will get you through until your life can get back to normal again. Those of us with anxiety do best when our thoughts don’t have too much time to roam. Our brains like structure and purpose. It might be helpful to create a to-do list to follow every day that includes things you want to accomplish including chores and outdoor time. And be sure to throw some self-improvement projects in there too. If you have a lot of extra time on your hands, what better way to use it than to practice a new language or start daily mediations? It’s not for everybody, but if you love to learn or grow, now is the time to do it.
4. Take Care of Yourself
I know. Its sounds basic and un-necessary to say. But if your stress level is high right now due to being unable to work or any other stress that this virus is bringing into your life, then you MUST take care of yourself. Make sure you are eating right and doing your best to get enough rest. Make sure you are doing your very best to not allow anger, frustration, and worry to fill your days. I KNOW it is easier said than done, and ultimately you cannot control how your nervous system responds to the stress in your life. But you can try to send the right messages to your brain to keep that nervous system response from getting so high that it starts giving you more things to worry about than you already have. Remember that your brain takes its cues from your actions and your emotions and the way you carry yourself.
Keep your muscles relaxed through progressive muscle relaxation and/or hot baths. Meditate and do deep breathing exercises. Keep the pitch of your voice low and the rate of your speech nice and steady. Reassure yourself that you will be okay and do not let doomsday thinking enter your head. That kind of thinking is a waste of time and will accomplish nothing. Find ways to make the most of this time. You may not be able to turn this time of your life into a positive in ALL ways. But you can turn it into a positive in SOME ways and that is what you need to focus on. When nothing seems to be going right on your life, focus on what you CAN control, not what you can’t.
5. Accept What You are Feeling
Finally, remember that whatever reaction you are having to the pandemic, it is normal for you. Whether you are having anxiety attacks, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, depression, a sense of feeling numb or angry or restless, etc…..whatever it is, this is YOUR personal reaction to what is happening in your world and you can’t compare it to what other people are experiencing. Try your best to not overthink any anxiety symptoms you are having. Let your brain and your subconscious sort through it at their own pace. That is their job. It is what they were designed to do and they are very efficient at at.
It is my belief that quite often the normal, very healthy stress response crosses over into anxiety disorder territory occurs because we inject too much of our conscious selves into it. We fight against our anxiety instead of leaning into it. We start analyzing and trying to make sense of everything that is going on and start fearing that what we are going through is “abnormal”, which only makes things worse and complicates and compounds the problem. Stay as positive as you can, avoid diving into how you are feeling and trying to “figure it all out”, and trust that you will get through this.
In the event that you find yourself struggling in a way that makes your day to day life uncomfortable for longer than a few weeks, it is possible that you are experiencing a trauma response and I strongly encourage you to reach out for professional help if it is available to you. Remember that the trauma response is a very normal response too, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with needing some advice from somebody who is trained to help you through it.
I wish all of you and your loved ones much health and as much happiness as you can find during this unique time in our lives.