I, like many, have a long and complicated relationship with anxiety. My earliest memories of anxiety call to mind full-body panics whenever my parents called a babysitter. They move into an ill-fated attempt at going away to camp, and ascend into crisis the summer I saw the horror movie Poltergeist and went months unable to sleep without my mother in the room (I was not. That. Young). I was an adult before I started taking my out-sized anxiety seriously, as a problem that was harming my happiness, and got help.
One of the many coping skills I have used to manage anxiety is to identify whether anxious feelings are statistically well-placed: what are the chances that the terrible thing I dread is actually going to happen? That skill would have been useful during that Poltergeist insomnia summer: the likelihood the house where I grew up in Suffield, CT was built on a graveyard seems low.
In the days of COVID-19, that coping mechanism is helping me to name my current anxiety as reasonable. It’s likely that many —30-70% — people in my life, myself included, are going to get sick. Some of those people might get really sick, or even die. I’m anxious enough to do absolutely everything I can to help flatten the curve and keep my loved ones safe. My current anxiety is logical rather than distorted, unlike most anxiety I’ve known.
I could have entitled today’s ‘blog, “How to be a nervous wreck.” Instead, I borrow from a favorite REM song of my teens, “It’s the end of the world as we know it.” That song title summed up my general life outlook in high school, where everything felt like a catastrophe. I thought everyone felt that way. It was so much later — decades — before I discovered not everyone did. The song’s response to its title’s own proposition, “and I feel fine,” was a balm.
Anxiety has given me a lot. Feeling like the world is ending, all the time, caused me to surround myself with stable and supportive people. It led me to be hyper-organized and forward-thinking. Today, surrounded by anxiety that is actually about something scary, I want to be of help. Here are some tips for living with anxiety for those for whom it’s new:
- Rely on the systems you built when it wasn’t the end of the world as you knew it. Now is not the time to throw out the rule book, as tempting as it might be to do so. Honor chains of command. Structure your schedule. Keep moving forward.
- Prioritize. I am communicating with the constituents of my school, Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, that we are using the following hierarchy of priorities to guide our actions: (first) safety, (second) emotional well-being, (third) keeping our institutional gears turning, and (where possible) taking advantage of teachable moments. I am naming those priorities as much for myself as everyone else.
- Don’t trust your instincts as much as usual. Anxious people know that mean voices in our heads sometimes masquerade as instincts. Today, pre-crisis rules of engagement might play that same sneaky trick. I talked on the phone with a loved one earlier this week who is both at high-risk for COVID-19 and has a medical background. She was wondering whether to cancel a non-urgent doctor’s appointment, not wanting to be rude. Her instincts said, “Don’t leave your doctor hanging.” Experts today say, Stay home. Therefore, I told my loved one, don’t think. Just stay home.
- Tap into history; remember you have survived tough times before. This one is tough amidst new challenges. Quoheleth tells us there is nothing new under the sun, although sometimes we have to go back a ways.
This last tip, “remember you’ve survived,” deserves a bit more attention. My seminary, Andover Newton, moved from one city to another starting four years ago. The last time the Andover side of the family had done so was 100 years earlier, when it moved from Cambridge, MA to Newton in the 1920s. During the most anxious times of making a necessary move in 2016, one where we had no other good options and a sense of urgency not shared by all, I would think about those who’d made the previous move. Sure, they were long gone, but I bet this hadn’t been easy for them either. I made friends with those forebears in my mind, trusting they would recognize my anxieties and affirm our choices.
Similarly, 100 years ago, our fore-parents lived through a novel virus that sickened and killed many people. They weren’t prepared for it either. We in this generation have never been through a pandemic, but we can channel those great-grandparents. Those who came out of the Spanish Influenza crisis on the right side of history were the ones who others thought were overreacting, such as the Mayor of St. Louis who made unpopular choices that saved lives. The lesson from the past is, in these cases, don’t pay any mind to those who accuse you over overreacting.
Sustain systems. Prioritize. Listen to experts more than the voices in your head. I realize I’m putting a shiny veneer on the true suffering that results from anxiety disorders, but I do so in order to provide hope and confidence to those who’ve always been told they were worried for nothing. Those who live with anxiety can either decide the realness of COVID-19 is too much for them, or they can decide to share the wisdom that comes from having lived with a feeling forever that many are discovering now for the first time. Anxious ones, unite… but only over technology, from your couch, at home.