Around 2 pm, my stress peaks. By then I’ve been taking care of my toddler for half the day — by myself. My husband is still at work. He won’t get home for another four hours. The house is a mess.
They tell us not to read too much news right now, but keeping yourself in the dark doesn’t feel great either.
So I check my phone and see stories about stores running out of food and gun sales jumping to all-time highs. My daughter waves a book at me and starts whining, but I’m trying to find instructions on how to prepare wild rice. I’ve just spent the last hour following her around the yard, hoping she’ll run out of energy. It didn’t work.
Later I’ll take a short nap and then try to do some of that work from home everyone keeps talking about.
I’ve never had a panic attack in my life. But around 2 pm I start feeling dizzy and have to sit down. Part of me wants to tell my own daughter to shut up so I can think for a minute — I haven’t.
For lots of us, this is what life looks like for the foreseeable future. We expect things to get worse, but we have no idea how much worse or for how long. This is when our imagination starts to gallop. Panic throws a saddle on the back, and digs in the spurs.
This is when you do something dumb.
There’s a new kind of anxiety
Until now we’ve talked about anxiety as a condition faced only by a handful of people. We’ve described it as irrational. We read articles telling us it’s just our cave brains kicking in for no reason.
This is no longer true.
We have good reasons to feel anxious and upset. So-called “normal” people are starting to freak out. We’ve heard the word “unprecedented” more times in the last 72 hours than the last three decades.
Panic makes everything worse
The way we feel right now makes sense. But how we choose to act makes all the difference. The emotionally-mature among us are following the protocols and staying home. We’ve stocked pantries with reasonable amounts of food (and office supplies) to last a few weeks.
What we’re seeing now are the actions of the emotionally-immature. They fulfill their own prophecies, creating food shortages and scaring each other into buying handguns and assault rifles.
The ones who brag about dining out, they’re also terrified. They’re panicking in a different way, putting on faux displays of “courage” and going out of their way to trivialize a pandemic.
How do we tamp this behavior down? We only have so much control and influence over others. But we can control how we act. The calmer we are, the better everything will go.
Admit that you’re scared
Every rational human on the planet should be worried. Young people should be worried. Healthy people should be worried. If you’re not scared of the virus, think about your loved ones. Think about the consequences of a healthcare system that’s already strained, soon to be swarmed with COVID-19 patients. Think of the corresponding social unrest.
The people who aren’t self-secluding right now also aren’t preparing — logistically or emotionally. They’ll be the first ones to melt down and place additional burdens on emergency workers.
So admit you’re scared. Fear exists for a reason. It’s your brain’s way of processing threats. Listen to it. Cowards aren’t the ones who feel fear. They’re the ones who hide from it.
Process your panic attack
Panic attacks don’t always happen the way they do on TV shows. You could have a mild panic attack without even realizing it. There’s a handful of steps you follow when you feel stressed to your breaking point:
- Remember to breathe. Inhale. Exhale.
- Accept your panic attack. Don’t fight it.
- Go somewhere that feels secure.
- If you can’t, imagine yourself somewhere peaceful.
- Close your eyes and touch something.
- Repeat a short mantra (if that’s your thing).
- Focus on one thing in the room.
These are some of the tips you’ll find out there on the web. They’re not exhaustive. Feel free to do your own homework and practice different techniques. The most important thing is to come up with a system, so you know how and when your attacks are coming. Learning to spot them from a distance will help you keep them in check.
Shift your routines, but don’t abandon them
You might be ready to throw your habits and routines out the window. What’s the point, right? Actually — they matter more than ever. You needed these to live well when the world was halfway functional. Now your life could actually depend on having a balanced, well rested mind.
Parents across the country now have kids to deal with 24 hours a day. It’s going to get stressful. Maybe you can’t do your normal morning routine. Gyms are closed, along with half the stores.
Find ways to exercise. Give yourself time to do the things you need in order to keep yourself grounded. Keep reading, journaling, and listening to music if that’s your thing. Video chat with your friends and family. These are the only productive ways to deal with our stress.
Do something you deeply enjoy
This melts stress like nothing else. You have hobbies. If nothing else, you have more time for them now.
If you don’t, make some.
As for me, I like to clean and organize things like drawers and closets. There’s plenty of that waiting. After my daughter goes to sleep, that’s what I do. I’m trying to spend less time on work for now, because it can honestly wait. Now’s the time to slow down.
It’s not a luxury. It’s part of your mental balance.
Keep yourself informed, not over-informed
We already knew that consuming too much headline news turned our brains into raisins. As with anything, emergencies trigger us to abandon what’s good for us and double down on the junk. We’ll be tempted to pound more snacks while mainlining the most alarmist stories.
Stuck inside, we’ll post even more crap to our social media feeds that other people don’t need to see. We’ll get into even more Twitter spats, even though we know better.
Don’t get hooked on bad news. Don’t forget that the major news outlets want you to stay glued to their screens. They’re scared as hell, too, but they’re also still trying to sell ads.
Give yourself a little break
Yes, you’re working from home. You’re taking care of kids, or maybe a family member. Don’t exhaust yourself. Let yourself relax. Watch some dumb TV show. Read a book. Go for walks. If you live with someone, give each other some personal space and quiet time.
Calming yourself down isn’t just an act of self-care anymore. It’s also an act of public service. Chilling out will literally save lives.