Mental Traps & Dragons; On coping with anxiety in an anxiety-inducing moment
I’ve heard the times before COVID-19 jokingly described as “the before times”, and I’m just going to go with that.
In the last moments of “the before times”, I was bartending and working on a music project. It was my first year of sobriety, which is a time of immense change and growing pains. I was no longer happy with my job, and I was barely making it month to month, gritting through my teeth and getting harassed by drunk people. I used to think of it as training sessions to strengthen my sobriety, but, in reality, I was looking for other work. I had also distanced myself from my drinking friends, which was lonely, somber and serious. There was a method to the madness; By shedding toxic ways of being, I was gradually making space for a healthier life, brick by brick and step by step. I was evolving. Suddenly, this was interrupted when the pandemic hit New York City and threw everyone for a loop. I haven’t been able to evolve the ways I had previously looked forward to.
My Covid-19 Experience
I have a long history of complex-PTSD, anxiety, depression and addiction. And the strange thing about that is, through the mental fog, unemployment and isolation, I mainly feel an immense gratitude for having a roof over my head and food on my plate. I was partially raised in under-developed countries, and an innate part of me knows how to handle chaos, to know the value of what I have. That’s not to say I’m the picture of perfect mental health or some ultra realized zen being, either. I’m just intimately familiar with traumatic times, and I know how to count my blessings, breathe slowly when I need to and write a song or two when I need to get a feeling off my chest.
If I’m being honest, though, writing about COVID-19 is a daunting task. It is hard to know where to begin when it is still ongoing. I don’t have a complete picture of what’s going on. We are in the midst of this terrifying reality, a reality that evolves every moment. A news cycle has become the blink of an eye. I am horrified and overwhelmed when I try to take it all in at once and formulate a larger understanding.This brings me feelings of anxiety, which sends me into a mental fog. And I know I am not alone. I realize now that I can take some snapshots, but I cannot write the history book. Ultimate understanding is only found in hindsight, and we can only hope we carry the lessons we learn with us into the future.
So, for this blog, I wanted to ask a couple of other people how they’re coping with the added anxiety of Covid-19.
My Friend, Jane.
My first interview is with a young woman named Jane, who, when I called her, she was literally waiting for the results of a recent COVID-19 test.
“Basically, I had really bad shortness of breath and fatigue, and I don’t know if that’s caused by anxiety or COVID-19, so that’s fun,” she laughs. As someone who copes by bingeing on comedy podcasts, humor gets her through the day to day.
Jane is 22 years old and, before the pandemic, was battling physical manifestations of anxiety and depression such as vertigo, fainting and fatigue. She was an Engineering major, making a name for herself as a woman excelling in a male dominated field. She was a star student until she started having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. She took a step back from school to attend to her mental health, moving back in with her parents.
Even then, Jane wasted no time securing a job where she could teach STEM to children. She puts a lot of pressure on herself, but this job seemed straightforward. She was only supposed to teach one class a day for one hour. But the job turned out to be more stressful and time consuming than she had imagined.
“I was just wildly overworked,” she says. “Before and after work, I couldn’t get out of bed. I had a headache every day. I felt miserable. It was crushing me. So, I quit.”
She was looking forward to brighter horizons. She was confident in the decisions she had made for her mental health as she navigated her path to the space she would possess in the world. She was bright, vibrant, intelligent, talented. She was listening to her body, and she was ready to recuperate, to seek a job with a healthy work life balance. But that was not to be the case.
It was the second week of March 2020, when “everything” happened.
“At first, it hit my anxiety really bad. At any time I could be on my phone, on Twitter, watching the news, and it would freak me out,” she says. “It was always so much important information, and I felt like I had to stay on top of it. I was on my phone almost every waking moment checking for updates.”
This was mentally and emotionally draining for Jane. She was accustomed to always working and being in school. Quite suddenly, she found herself unemployed and isolated in her parents home, feeling lost in the maddening collective chaos of a pandemic.
“In regular life, I isolate myself when my mental health is tough, but I was also put into forced isolation. I had only lived back with my parents for a few months, so I didn’t have the relationships built by living life with other humans,” she says.
Jane felt that her school friends were living alternate realities, figuring out how to continue their studies. People she knew from her parents’ town were busy with their relationships and careers.
“I felt like I needed people and nobody needed me,” she says. “And I’ve been scared to do anything productive because of the pressure that comes with it. I am so scared of doing nothing, it leads me to doing nothing.”
She spends days on end in her bed listening to podcasts, watching shows and doing crosswords. She believes there is a “right way to deal with COVID”, a functional and productive way, and that she is falling short. Similar to thoughts and feelings of no one needing her, these overwhelmingly negative thoughts are symptoms of her depression and anxiety. They serve to keep her trapped in a vicious cycle of isolation and feelings of inadequacy.
“It’s really hard for me to do almost anything genuine. It takes more brain power than it normally does,” she says. “It’s still really hard for me to watch the news or connect with people because everything feels like too much, so it’s been helpful to have designated times for things; Wednesday nights I know I have a Zoom night with this group of people, and I try to watch the nightly news.”
Dungeons, Dragons & Irony.
Her respite from the relentless pressure she felt was a funny irony, in that it had everything to do with dealing with COVID “the wrong way”.
“I’m learning how to allow myself to have fun for the sake of having fun,” she says. “Something I haven’t done before quarantine that I do now is play Dungeons & Dragons on Zoom, which makes me sound like such a nerd, but it’s really fun. It’s permission to take a night off and do something I enjoy. Something I enjoy is a worthy investment, and having motivation to do anything is something to be happy about. I don’t have motivation for a lot of things, which can feel like I’m failing, but if I have the motivation to draw a picture of my friend’s character in the D&D game, if that’s all I have motivation to do, then I do it. It makes me feel like a human being.”
The motivation she felt for a Zoom game of Dungeons & Dragons began to evolve.
“I was making Excel spreadsheets to track data for a D&D game, and I remembered how much I loved working in Excel and putting in long formulas to calculate different things based off of other things, figuring out how things work together, looking up Excel formulas, just doing it because I enjoyed it,” she says. “Then it kind of hit me that that’s basically coding.”
Jane had been interested in coding for years. She loves problem solving and math, and recognized that it required a similar mindset that engineering asked of her. She had previously been too busy with school to possibly think of investing in the skill. And, though the thought entered her mind at the beginning of quarantine, she felt pressured and scared to commit herself to learning something new.
“I was creating code within Excel, and it kind of sparked in me,” she says. “I thought, maybe I can do this, maybe I should give this a try, but let’s see if I can learn how to do that on Python, whatever that is, and I eventually signed up for an online coding class that seemed interesting just because I wanted to.”
Jane’s Unexpected Light.
Jane taught herself Python, took online coding classes, and made some friends, but it all stemmed from the moment she finally allowed herself to be silly, and to value the motivation of fun. She still feels pressure and loneliness, but she found an unexpected light in the madness that’s illuminating her path.
My Friend, David.
Many people, like Jane, and like myself, have found themselves unemployed during this trying time. I wanted to tap into the experience of someone who did not lose their job, and how coping with anxiety takes another form entirely.
David, like Jane, likes to code. He’s 27, and he works in tech in a major city. Like Jane, he also has anxiety, and, right before the pandemic, had just finished tapering off of benzos with the help of a psychiatrist, a process that had taken him two years. For him, coping with unmedicated anxiety with the addition of complex trauma and a demanding job has been a new challenging process to navigate.
“I have a separate work area in my apartment that helps me maintain a degree of separation,” he says. “But I’m having trouble with my work life balance. It stresses me out so much, I barely want to think about it.”
David’s co-workers contact him at all hours of the day and night. He inhabits a high-pressure role with an immense amount of responsibility on his shoulders.
For David, there are no easy answers to anxiety, but he’s started to set clear boundaries between his work life and his personal life. When his work day ends, he logs off of his work accounts and stays out of reach as possible. He closes the door to his office, and, ideally, he takes a walk through the park in his neighborhood. He feels like he can breathe there.
David’s Anxiety Vaccine.
Anxiety is often the result of being dissociated from the present moment due to being overwhelmed by stimuli or memories of childhood trauma. David is often separated from the present moment and stuck in this spiral. What helps him, he says, is art.
“I just went out shooting photos today and, even though I normally have pretty bad anxiety, when I was shooting I didn’t experience any of that,” he says. “It was like I was totally in the zone, or in a “flow state”. That is the best cure I know of for anxiety, getting into a flow state, doing something you love. I really think it’s something magical that human beings are able to do that. When I lived in a really, really bad home, art was my lifeblood. It cures something in me.”
Jane & David Were Thrilled I Checked In.
The stress of these times is immense. It is hard on everyone, and much harder on others. It is important to check on each other, and perhaps equally important to simply remember that none of us are truly alone.
Jane’s been coping with her depression and anxiety by making a conscious effort to reduce the pressure she puts on herself. When she allows herself to have fun, she feels better. David copes by setting clear boundaries at his demanding job and freeing his mind with art whenever he can. It’s never perfect, we all fall short of our goals often in life. That’s a good thing though, I don’t believe in cure all’s. Jane does her very best when she realizes there is no “right way” to handle a pandemic, and I think that’s something we can all learn from.
My light is meditation. I focus on my breath until the rest of the world and its stimuli melt away, even for just one moment every morning. I become acutely aware of rustling leaves, the low hum of the air conditioner, chattering birds, and, for that moment, it is louder than the chatter in my brain.
A therapist once told me, all we can do is add tools to our toolboxes and then take them with us on the road of life. David and Jane are doing just that. And that’s a beautiful thing.
What tools have you added during the uncertainty of Covid-19?
Written By Sadie Mae Cassidy
Illustrated By Laurel Naylor