I Was Already Anxious: On Being Accidentally Prepared for the Worst

I have anxiety. I am quarantined. I am … okay?

Having anxiety during a pandemic seems like a recipe for disaster, right? For parents who have anxiety, I’m sure the feeling of impending doom is not unknown. Every phone call from school is a terrible accident, missed calls are traffic accidents or missing loved ones, and being left on “read” signifies the end of a friendship. I have anxiety daily even when everything is going well. I have anxiety when I think things won’t go well. I have anxiety thinking about my anxiety. Now my family is under a stay-at-home quarantine order to mitigate a global coronavirus pandemic.

Anxiety battlers know that most of the time things turn out fine. The student simply forgot their homework, someone was just calling to catch up, and our friends just left the room and didn’t bring their phone. And, most of the time, we recover and carry on with our days. How silly, we think. Of course everything is okay. Why wouldn’t it be?

But now things are not quite okay. A missed phone call could really be bad news now. Our children aren’t able to attend school. Our loved ones are out of reach. Even a simple trip to the grocery store has become something we have to prepare for. Things feel very uncertain.

I thought that when the official shelter in place order came, I would panic – do what I always do and spiral until I collapsed. I thought I would fall apart trying to figure out how to keep my family safe. I wasn’t sure how we would even begin to adjust.
The shelter in place order came, and …I was okay.

No panic, no hyperventilation, no rush of adrenaline. I read the announcement and felt a very surprising wave of relief wash over me. That is not a feeling I experience often. I thought maybe, like many others with anxiety, I was just compartmentalizing and that this “okay” feeling wouldn’t last.

A day passed. Then two. Then three. And I was still okay.

I did the things I knew needed to get done – got a week’s worth of groceries, ordered some activities, got soap and cleaners. I put together a loose meal plan and made sure we all got some fresh air. I couldn’t figure out why I wasn’t falling apart – the outbreak seems akin to the beginning of horror movies, so if there was ever a time to panic, this was it. Finally, it dawned on me.

I have spent my entire life feeling like something bad is about to happen. Always predicting that anything that might have gone wrong, has – despite any evidence to the contrary. And the sticky thing about anxiety is that you can’t really trust your gut – anxiety is a liar and it has gotten your whole body on its side. So there is no “follow your instinct” for me – I am stuck with tangibles and facts for comfort. All my life, I knew my reactions weren’t always rational or proportional, and I felt guilty, internally, for being so gullible.

But now, finally, my inside feeling matches the outside. And while an outbreak is not in any way a positive thing, it has given me an odd gift: validation. All that fear and that worry that I carry around like a 50-pound backpack finally has a purpose. I realized that I am emotionally prepared for chaos because I have carried chaos with me for 27 years already. The scenarios and explanations anxiety has provided me with over my life have always been on the scale of the coronavirus outbreak, and reflect what I imagine are a lot of similar anxious parents’ experience – something scary and unknown happening to our loved ones where we can’t do anything concrete to help.

Unlike a hurricane or a tornado, for those of us who are deemed “non-essential,” there is no group to go join to help people rebuild, no field hospital to volunteer at. The most powerful and life-saving steps we can take is to stay home. As a “helper,” it feels counter-intuitive but the best gift I have to give right now is the self-control to keep my family sheltered at home. Normally, anxiety would have me bouncing off the walls trying to figure out how to help and fix and protect and save, and I would likely have completely unraveled already.

But finally, the best thing I can do, and really the only thing I can do, is stay focused on how lucky we are to be able to do something to help – stay home. No special skills required.


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