I find it challenging to be in the moment.
Focusing on the task at hand, whether cooking my dinner, tracking a parcel, or planning my day, doesn’t help me slow down. On the contrary, my anxiety flares up. I imagine all probable adverse outcomes, amplify the predictable roadblocks, and doubt my ability to accomplish said tasks.
When I focus on my surroundings, the stray hair on my table cloth catches my attention. “Did I not dust the table linen today?, I need to clean it right now”. I’ve been down this rabbit hole before, and I know that I won’t stop at the table.
Soon, I will be arranging the cushions on the couch in their optimal positions. If I give in to this urge, my day will no longer remain in my control.
I come back to what I was doing and force myself to answer the big questions. Why am I doing this task? What is its significance? Do I need to do this right now?
This activity helps me reassure myself that I need to be here and now. As difficult as it may be, I need to focus. It’s a crucial piece of the puzzle that is my day. I need to complete it to my satisfaction.
Stray thoughts wander into my mind about the future. I worry about the article that I plan to write next week, window shop scented candles that I am saving up for, and stare at the full laundry basket.
“Ahhh, it’s laundry day tomorrow. How can we be going through so many clothes when we never step out?. Should I do it today instead?.”
Then there’s plain and simple distraction. I click on a few ads, and suddenly I am looking at art supplies. “Let me save this set of sponges; I’ll buy them next month.” And then I do the thing I am not supposed to do more than once a day — open my news app. Reading the news and keeping calm should be a task on a reality show. At this point, it’s merely impossible for me.
Is there anything happening in any corner of the world that is remotely hopeful? Well, according to the news, the answer is no.
I bring myself back to the task at hand for the fifth time.
“Focus on the now, please.”
I conclude the task and go into my kitchen to make a snack. Having fought the distractions somewhat successfully, and completing the job itself gives me a little sense of accomplishment. It also enables me to remain in the now for a bit longer.
I give myself a generous dose of affirmations and remind myself that the most important thing I want to accomplish today is not to let my anxiety wash over me. I want to understand how I am feeling accurately. I wish to course-correct and adjust my day accordingly. I don’t want to push myself any more than I need to.
As I do this, while slicing up an orange, I feel calm. Yes, I feel relaxed. I needed to double-check that. A lasting sense of serenity used to be rare for me, and now it happens anywhere between three to five times a day.
One year ago, if anyone told me that I could feel a sense of calm, I wouldn’t have believed it. I could have never imagined feeling this way in the middle of a worldwide crisis, either.
My mental health is at a better place now compared to where it has been in over three years. There’s still a way to go, but it’s nice to reach a milestone, a vantage point from where things seem manageable.
It’s encouraging to be able to calm myself down. It’s heart-warming to find myself farther along than where I thought I might be. And in an ironic turn of events, the pandemic is responsible for my positive state.
The pandemic became real for me in mid-March.
When my country went into its first total lockdown, I had a rocky month and a half. My mental health was at an all-time low; I felt continually overloaded by disturbing information and plagued by perennial fatigue.
I was hard on myself, for doing much less than I intended to during this period.
Then things came to a standstill when the level of fear was high enough to drown me and confine me to bed. That experience of actually not doing anything for a couple of days in a row was a wake-up call.
I took a conscious four-day break after I recovered from the hurricane that had unleashed in my mind and encouraged myself to focus on “me.” I looked inward and gave myself sufficient time to decipher my thoughts and feelings. I also gave my doubts and fears a much-needed reality check.
I emerged out of the break with a couple of crucial realizations.
The most important one being that it is okay to do less during the lockdown.
I was able to comprehend my mental health’s critical state and realized that I needed to pay more attention to it. Although I have been trying to monitor it actively and learn from my observations for three years, I have only been able to identify problems in hindsight.
The journey of being kind to myself has been lengthy, and my first urge is to doubt myself in most situations. But, that was not the case now. I had reason to be perturbed and an opportunity to let myself gradually adapt to “my new normal.”
I decided to carefully track my mental health and give myself the time and opportunity to meticulously and kindly observe myself — And I did.
Realizations poured in like a steady stream of music from my looped playlist, and I was taken aback at their depth, concreteness, and potential ramifications.
By mid-June, (about a month after my four-day break), I began battling my problems actively, in real-time. I was able to identify patterns of behavior, label, and sort issues correctly and solve them on the go. At times, I took a day or two, but I was still on top of things. I could sense that something was wrong much faster than before and get the first-aid kit ready in time.
Now, for the first time in my life, I feel adequately prepared, ready to take on the several challenges that my mental health poses, and continue on the path of self-discovery and acceptance.
A person climbing a steep mountain peak amidst a snow storm comes to mind. But, fortunately, the person has a compass, determination, and enough supplies in their back-pack to provide them with a sense of security.
What caused this seismic shift?
Was it being holed up in my apartment for five months? Or had I finally begun to understand the mysterious inner workings of my mind?
It was a series of interconnected steps, learnings, actions, and realizations that helped me reach a better place — A sunnier place.
And they started with the four-day break. Sometimes, it’s okay to listen to your mind and body and take a pause. It can help you tune into yourself and focus on what’s important.
The first change was brought on by force. The pandemic made my lofty goals for the year, redundant. I had a premonition of how hard this period would be for me and decided to forgo any item that wasn’t in my control.
I could not predict the future anymore and had to restrict my planning to the present.
I expected this change to not sit well with me. I have a busy mind, and thinking about the future is its favorite hobby. Asking it to focus on the not-so-spectacular now was going to be an uphill battle. But surprisingly, it wasn’t.
My mind took to short term planning pretty soon. I began to enjoy, not knowing what is going to happen five weeks from now precisely. I felt lighter as it was juggling only a few things at a time. And my morning anxiety started diminishing. Now, it only worried about “today” and not how it impacted the week and the next and so on.
I do catch myself drifting away from time to time, wondering about my travel plans for late next year, when I would start my blog, whether December or January. And the blueberry oatmeal pancake recipe sitting on my “coming-up-next” list.
But I stop. I gently ask myself to remember the first realization that the pandemic brought forth — Focus on the now. As cliche as it sounds, there might not be a tomorrow. Worse, there will be a tomorrow, but it won’t be like anything I know or can imagine.
Thus, I make two sets of plans — A simple, loose one that covers the month and a reasonably tight, detailed one for the day. I remind myself to keep an open mind, make allowances for my mental health when necessary, and prepare to adapt to any situation outside my control.
A failure to keep up with the plan seems much lesser in magnitude now, because it’s effects can only be felt through one day. Tomorrow’s program will be adjusted accordingly. Success is much easier to attain, as there are only a few items to check off.
The definition of a good day has permanently changed and is now equivalent to an okay day. Keeping things normal when nothing is normal is a feat in itself. Having an “okay day” helps me feel validated and eager to have another one. What felt like a series of inconsequential days before, seems like progress now. Every such day is a win, a step in the right direction.
Short term planning has also opened up a lot of free space in my mind. I was needlessly scared of this. For most parts, my mind enjoys being disengaged and thinking of only two or three things in advance.
I also find myself pondering about random subjects, like will Gilmore Girls redeem itself with another season. After a spirited debate with myself on the future of the show, I feel relaxed. Sometimes, less is indeed more.
Putting my mental health first has allowed me to be more protective and selective for myself.
Whether it’s limiting my exposure to other people’s activities or restricting the time spent on my phone, each step has helped me carve out a path that is more suited to my current needs.
On rainy days, I stop myself from thinking about work or checking how my articles are performing. I don’t read anything on the internet — I trade them for classic novels. On sunnier days, I check in with the reality of the world and expose myself to uncomfortable truths.
But most days, I find myself in the middle. I am very selective about who I text or call, strictly control the content I consume and read essential news items only when I am ready for it. I try to find a balance between work and personal time and don’t reprimand myself for taking more of the latter.
I have also stopped being hard on myself for swimming against the tide.
As I engage in only a select set of activities, there isn’t much room for comparison with others. Keeping my focus primarily on myself helps me not feel envious when someone talks about their fitness journey through quarantine, and I also don’t gloat when someone else is doing worse than me.
Protecting yourself is not a bad thing. I am completely in touch with reality, and I feel it’s harshness intermittently. But for the most part, I do get to create my own version of it, an oasis if you will, where nothing else can affect me. And I feel content in my bubble.
For the last few years, stepping out of my house for social purposes has been a challenge for me.
I used to spend an unbelievably large amount of time planning every little detail of the outing, such as the exact time I would take to get ready, which pair of shoes to wear as my weather app predicted rain.
Should I pack my tote bag in advance, how much of a grace period should I allow for my Uber to arrive, and what I may order when at the restaurant?
I would spend almost one day, and many moments in the preceding two weeks, to prepare for this adventure. Afterward, I would have to allocate some time for rest and recuperation from the exhaustion of said outing.
If I were going to meet a few people, then a new, rather substantial element would get added to the mix — Imagining conversations that I would have with them in my head.
What to say and what not to say — What unfiltered statements or jokes should not leave the confines of my mind. How much to talk about what I have been going through — Treading the fine line between sharing and oversharing.
Then, I would have to reserve even more time after, for a play by play reenactment of this meeting, obsessing about what I could have done differently.
When the lockdown started, the first thing I felt regarding my social life was a sense of relief. I felt comforted knowing that I do not have to go out, think about going out, or come up with excuses for missing plans made by others. I was relieved to know I would have to cancel my travel plans for the year.
I looked forward to spending some uninterrupted alone time in my safe space.
Soon after, I came across an article asking us to take a few learnings from this period of isolation — to note what we miss the most. It struck a chord with me and compelled me to ask myself a few crucial questions.
Will my priorities change after the pandemic? What I thought to be unmissable, could I live without it? And would I miss something that I wouldn’t have considered to be necessary before?
Back then, I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t miss going out at all. A few months without a visit from my social anxiety sounded like an ideal vacation to me. And I was determined to use my observations, to make better decisions and protect myself from unpleasant situations in the future.
So, what do I miss? And What do I not miss?
Among other things, I do miss going out. I miss the monthly trips to pubs, the few meetings with friends, and most importantly, my solo outings, my “outside me-days,” of shopping, reading, and sitting all by myself at cafes.
This experience is my skydiving, it’s hard, but I also like it, feel spent after having done it, and remember it fondly, after some time has passed.
Although I don’t miss the planning, the obsessive imagination of conversations, and the sensory overload, I miss going out, occasionally, in the way that I like it.
When I deem it safe (for myself and others) to step out, I will. I will take the necessary effort to work with myself, understand my pain points, battle my anxiety, ensure that I meet my preferences, and step out.
Contrary to my expectations, taking myself out on a date sounds pretty good right now. And when it happens, I will try my best to enjoy it.
A typical month for me would alternate between highs and lows. Consistency is not my strong suit. On bad days I slow down and wait for the storm clouds to pass, and on good days I make hay.
I believed that I had done ample work in this area and had a decent understanding of what I could and could not control. I had begun to accept myself, with my issues, as I was.
But, keeping a close eye on my mental health (as well as overall mood, feelings, and thoughts) helped me unravel a critical pattern.
My good days, albeit productive, were filled with a high amount of anxiety, and on my bad days, I felt terribly exhausted. I could never predict when I needed rest, and kept pushing till I fell — literally fell on my bed. What I didn’t know was that these two things are connected.
I was trapped in a vicious cycle of anxiety and exhaustion.
Pushing myself harder than I needed to led me to do my tasks in a heightened state of anxiety, and the higher the “high,” the lower was the “low.” When things came crashing down, I felt guilty for stopping and not doing anything, and the first chance I got, I pushed myself and landed right back into the “high” state.
I took some time to research the nature of this toxic relationship, observe my behavior, and note things that I needed to do differently.
What I should have done instead is figure out the midpoint — my natural state of being. I needed to find a comfortable pace. And I needed to ask and answer whether it would bring me desirable results. I have been on this journey for the past month and a half, and although it is early to say so, it seems to be working.
When I compared the number of hours worked, and the list of tasks completed for two months, which I approached differently, they were very similar. The second month had about ten fewer hours of productive work, but I had accomplished more meaningful tasks.
I had also carved out more time for constructive hobbies, finished reading (over half of) a book, and started a poetry course that I had meant to get to for a few months.
The results stumped me. When I wasn’t telling myself repeatedly that I am not doing a good enough job, I had more energy to do the things that I wanted to do. I was able to direct more time and effort to the right areas and reduce unnecessary baggage that came from harmful practices.
I started to understand my natural rhythm, my ebb, and flow and structure my plans around it.
For example, before I used to finish an article on Tuesday, take a “gap day” on Wednesday, which would involve hobbies, unfinished home tasks, personal tasks, and simple work tasks all rolled into one. Then try to write on Thursday, fail, feel disappointed, and exhaust me with unnecessary trial and error, give up and turn to Netflix.
I would tag it as a day wasted. But since I did take some rest, I would try to write again on Friday. Notice a pattern?
Now, I acknowledge that I need a one-to-three-day gap between writing articles to fulfill other responsibilities. One day could be marked exclusively for me-time, another for pending miscellaneous tasks, and the third for easy work tasks.
I would go back to writing on the fourth day, with a clear mind, the right amount of motivation, and a few bright ideas.
Twice, I already wrote most of the article in my head, and words flew out of my mind onto the blank page when I started to type. Such an experience was novel for me and rather exhilarating.
Breaking out of this cycle helped me have more consistent “okay” days, conserve my energy for the right avenues and remain in control of my life. Not pushing myself too hard led to a calmer, more conducive environment where I could work more and with less effort.
The final significant realization was gaining awareness of how I process change.
The pandemic presented me with a unique opportunity to understand how I would deal with a real problem that everyone is facing and adapt to unprecedented circumstances.
I was one of those who took the virus seriously back in December 2019. Maybe I had some foresight, or perhaps I was paranoid, but I knew what was coming. Not accurately, of course, but I knew it was big, it was here to stay, and it would change my life in ways that I cannot predict.
When the first case popped up in my city, the news hit me hard. Every day, every feeling, every news report was difficult for me to comprehend. During the quarantine-inspo phase, I was suffering and unable to do the simplest of activities.
But today I am okay. My life in the new normal is better than before the pandemic, and I am content with how far I have come. When I look back at the time when I was hard on myself for not being normal and not being productive, I regret it.
Everyone processes change differently, and we should allow ourselves to go through it and come out on the other side.
I learned that the beginning is the hardest phase for me. I don’t react well to situations I cannot control. The feeling of helplessness took me back to a dark time when adults made decisions for me, and I was not allowed to think and speak for myself.
“I need to acknowledge my trauma. I need to let myself breathe. I need to feel. And I need to believe that things will get better.”
The in-between phase will be all about realizations, learnings, and implementing them. This part is the juicy bit that I enjoy the most because I can see my efforts taking shape, generating favorable results, and forming an image of consistent progress in my mind.
When I near the end, which is where I think I am now, I see the journey in retrospect and can appreciate myself for a job well done, finally. If I had to do it all over again, I would be kinder to myself. I would believe that “my worst” will pass soon, and the okay, good and better will be waiting for me.
Now I know.
This knowledge and awareness will help me in the present and the future. I will allow myself to go through my process of change. I will remember that I am going to come out stronger. And I will be patient with myself.