I’ve lived with generalized anxiety disorder almost my entire life. My anxiety is an unseen, menacing presence, forever standing behind me, pinching my shoulders, weighing them down. It’s like a troll, constantly whispering that something terrible is about to happen. When I try to shrug it off, the voice comes roaring back louder.
My anxiety is always present, from the little moments—like worrying whether I left the dryer running—to the heavier ones, like imagining my husband died in a horrible car crash when he’s late getting home. While my anxiety is always there, most of the time, I live a functional, content existence. Usually, everything is fine.
Until it wasn’t.
When news reports about the novel coronavirus started to ramp up back in January and February, I tried to reassure myself that it wasn’t as bad as it seemed; that it would stay a tragic, but distant disease. My anxiety troll was smarter than I was, though. “It’s going to get worse,” it whispered.
The troll inside my head was no longer alone. It had a supporting chorus voicing its worries: other people online, friends and family, the media.
When the outbreak turned into a full-blown pandemic in March, it was as if the jarring worst-case scenario escaped my personal bubble and brought its crushing weight to the world. The troll inside my head was no longer alone. It had a supporting chorus voicing its worries: other people online, friends and family, the media. There was no break or respite. Worry that once came and went in waves was now on a loop.
I’ll admit there was something soothing about waltzing into quarantine already knowing what anxiety feels like. Yet, I’ve been finding it epically hard to distinguish between valid anxiety of a very real threat and the kind that produces intrusive, racing thoughts and doesn’t serve me at all.
To help determine when my brain is sending me the right signal and when it’s gone haywire, I’ve been speaking with Nicole Beurkens, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Michigan. To begin with, she says that I’m not alone. “Anxiety is a totally normal human emotion,” she explains. “Changes that people have experienced with work, with their home life, with everything…that can absolutely trigger anxiety.” Now, more than ever, things are changing at a rapid pace, so quickly that, at times, it’s difficult to process. And nothing begets anxiety quite like change, she says.
Dr. Beurkens adds that many of my worries are appropriate. Being afraid of getting sick with COVID-19—a deadly disease with no cure—is a reasonable concern to have right now. But when that thought becomes all-consuming, there’s an issue that may require intervention. She suggests that context is everything, giving the example of someone who fears a bomb hitting their home: In a war-torn country, that makes sense. For someone in the Canadian rural countryside though, that fear is entirely unfounded.
With that example, the difference is obvious. But there’s so much uncertainty, misinformation, and widespread fear around me that it’s hard to untangle the rational worries from irrational anxieties. How can I tell whether my anxiety is inappropriate if I feel like I can’t trust my rational mind?
When I ask Dr. Beurkens how I might reconcile these two divergent thought processes, she tells me to think of the difference between stories and thoughts. It’s often the stories in our head, the fictions we tell ourselves, that lead to anxiety. They are fabricated ideas. When thoughts are based instead on facts—even if they do make us anxious—they can help us to understand our rational concerns.
She added that many people with my kind of generalized anxiety have difficulty trusting their gut, but being mindful of our thoughts and our bodies’ emotional responses to them can help anxious individuals immensely. Feelings absence of thought can often lead us astray. Dr. Beurkens says this is one reason those with severe anxiety disorders often seek out cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a treatment option that involves this kind of mental rewiring.
All things considered, I’ve been coping better than expected with this new state of affairs. I’m comfortable being alone. If I never had to go to another large gathering again, I think I’d be fine with that. I also haven’t had to alter my social habits in the slightest—being a hermit has its perks, apparently. But I still worry that others will behave in ways that are harmful to me or others. I can do everything right—washing my hands, wearing a mask, staying socially distanced—and yet there’s a strong chance that others won’t behave in a caring, responsible way.
It hurts me to know that others feel anxious, but it’s validating and comforting to know that we’re experiencing this together. Somehow it makes that nasty voice in my head less menacing.
When I shared this COVID-related concern with Dr. Beurkens, she explains it in the thought-versus-story framework. “All anxiety is about uncertainty—a sense of not being able to control things. You have created a story in your mind that other people’s actions play a major role in what happens. This is something outside of your control because you can’t ever control another person,” she says. “It would be appropriate to acknowledge that the anxiety is there, but then shift to focusing on what you can control. Focusing on what you cannot control—in this case, other people—will always lead to increased anxiety.”
It’s been hard to take a beat and evaluate my thoughts and feelings because I’ve lived so long with anxiety that distorts my thinking on a regular basis. But even though my anxiety doesn’t feel great, after speaking to Dr. Beurkens, it does feel more manageable. CBT is a possibility to consider down the road, and the other strategies that Dr. Beurkens suggested—like using logic to distinguish anxiety based on stories from valid worries based in fact—have been helpful.
I’ve also realized that I’m not alone. When I experienced anxiety in the past, it was exceptionally lonely—even when I was surrounded by people. I always felt like I was the odd one out in a sea of functioning people with perfect brain chemistry. If nothing else, the pandemic has made me realize that what I’m feeling isn’t unique. It hurts me to know that others feel anxious, but it’s validating and comforting to know that we’re experiencing this together. Somehow it makes that nasty voice in my head less menacing.
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