Since the pandemic started, every day is an emotional roller coaster for me. As the number of coronavirus cases worldwide has officially reached more than 1.2 million as of Monday, April 6th, and those cases and deaths hit closer to home, my ability to remain grounded continues to get harder. The medication that I take daily for my depression and panic disorder just isn’t cutting it anymore; despite an upped dosage, my adrenaline is too high and my nerves, constantly on edge, are winning.
So when I had a massive panic attack two weeks ago, I wasn’t completely surprised. I had already felt like I was running on fumes since the severity of the situation became clear with the death toll rising in Italy, a number that is currently at 15,887, but is doubling every 13 days. When it hit Spain, where I have friends and family and live half the year, my anxiety started to skyrocket. I knew it wouldn’t be long before it hit the States. I also knew that when it did, similar to what was happening in Madrid and Barcelona, it was going to hit my beloved home, New York City, hard.
I was in the shower when the panic attack happened. Although I’d been feeling anxious every day to some degree, I wasn’t even thinking about the virus when the attack occurred. And, when it did, it was far more aggressive in its onset, reaching a different level than anything I’d experienced before. It wasn’t just that my heart was racing or I felt like my throat was closing so I couldn’t breathe or swallow—which is usually what happens to me—but my limbs went numb too. Fearing it actually might be something more than a panic attack, I immediately got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around myself. Then, for the third time in my life, I experienced what’s commonly known as hysterical blindness.
My vision narrowed until it looked like I was staring through a tiny pinpoint, then it was gone completely.
I called for my mother who was downstairs. She helped me get dressed as I cried, tried to calm me down, and then took me to the hospital. Although I regained my vision before we reached the hospital, my limbs were still numb, I was still gasping for air, and with my heart racing so fast, I could feel my pulse in every inch of my body. The Xanax I had taken didn’t help; my anxiety had won that day.
I’m no stranger to panic attacks. As someone who suffers from major depressive disorder, it comes with the territory. For me, most days are a challenge to keep my head above water just enough so I can breathe—and this was the case even before COVID-19. Now, my mind constantly feels like a haunted roller coaster that’s out of control, and I’m not sure what’s around the corner. Will someone fall out? If we hit the highest point of this awful ride, will there be some relief when we reach the bottom?
I have no control, and I’m scared as hell. And I’m well aware that I’m absolutely not alone.
“The Coronavirus was very sudden and disorienting here in the U.S.,” Kristen C. Dew, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and owner of Growth Therapy, LLC, tells HellogGiggles. “It has caused a sense of grief at the loss of lives, our sense of safety, hope, connections with others […] all of us are feeling a loss of control over our everyday lives which impacts those of us who struggle with anxiety even more […] For most individuals who have already been diagnosed with anxiety, the COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a very real and concrete threat that plays on repeat.”
Dew calls this repetition of negative and anxious thoughts about the pandemic the “hamster wheel” part of the brain: it won’t stop thinking and overthinking, but it’s also not going anywhere, just round and round, without an end in sight.
“People are losing sleep, snapping at others, developing unhealthy coping skills such as overeating, and drug or alcohol use,” Dew says. “[People] are mentally drained constantly by all of the ‘what ifs,’ and mental replay of the knowns and unknowns of the virus.”
According to research by the American Psychiatric Association, 36% of Americans report that the coronavirus is seriously impacting their mental health, while 59% feel that their daily lives have been negatively impacted because of the virus. But that anxiety is also extending to financial situations, with 57% deeply concerned about income and 68% fearing just how long it will take the economy to get back on track. Then there are those whose anxiety is linked to either getting the virus, dying from the virus, or losing some to the virus. Those percentages are 48%, 40%, and 62%, respectively. As a whole, the pandemic is having a detrimental effect on our mental health.
Speaking from personal experience, it’s these never ending “what ifs” that consume my brain. What if my mother, who already has one heart attack under her belt and respiratory issues, gets sick? What if I’m the one who might be asymptomatic and give it to her, and ultimately kill her? What if I wake up tomorrow morning to yet another text message that someone I know is in the hospital or a friend of a friend, who was only 30-something, is now gone? What if six months from now, we’re all in the same place: house-bound, still uncertain of an end, and maybe even more afraid than we are today? The “what ifs” are endless and debilitating.
This anxiety isn’t being experienced by just me and others like me who deal with anxiety on a regular basis, but by most people in one way or another. In fact, we’ve reached a whole new level of anxiety—so much so that some people who do deal with panic and anxiety disorders daily, have somehow found a sort of peace in all this, because they’re used to thinking of worst-case scenarios.
“[These people] are currently experiencing a calm-and-cool crisis response,” Dew says. “But they could crash and become overwhelmed should any other stressors be added. For those individuals, life could be much harder post-pandemic, because they will constantly be on edge now that their worst fears were already confirmed.”
In other words, anxiety and panic disorders have reached new heights and, mentally speaking, many of us won’t come out of this unscathed. Whether we want to admit it or not, all of us will be affected by this pandemic. For some, that will mean coping with debilitating worries for the first time in their lives.
“Many people who have never experienced anxiety are now beginning to understand what it might feel like to live with constant anxiety,” Dr. Carla Marie Manly, clinical psychologist and anxiety expert, tells HelloGiggles. “When anxiety becomes generalized and chronic, it can affect an individual’s entire life—from eating and sleeping to the ability to focus. Those who have never truly been plagued with anxiety issues now have at least some degree of what it feels like to have anxious thoughts and feelings that are persistent and invasive.”
Case in point: I recently heard from my ex from 10 years ago, who apologized to me for thinking my anxiety and panic attacks were just me being dramatic. With his mother in the hospital and him being surrounded by a handful of people who are sick with the virus, he’s had more than a few panic attacks, he explained to me. It was that first one a couple of weeks back that made him think of me—he finally understood just how crippling anxiety can be.
Had his panic attack come at a different part in his life, I might have done the “I told you so” dance, but this isn’t the time for pettiness. All I could do was tell him that I understood. When he asked if sometimes, when I’m really anxious, I smell things that don’t exist, or if he was just losing his mind, I explained to him he wasn’t losing his mind at all. When my anxiety buries itself deep, I’ll smell things that don’t exist. My doctor explained it’s phantosmia and, like hysterical blindness, it can definitely happen during a panic attack.
My ex’s story prompted me to not just feel validated in my own anxiety, but recognize that it comes in different forms for different people. Here was a man, whom I’d known since we were in college, experiencing anxiety for the first time in his life and in a way that was different from mine. Just like my friends who have also talked about their variations of anxiety and panic attacks in the last few weeks, each attack is coming from a different place and is being brought on by specific events. But despite our own unique lived experience, we all have the virus in common, which is provoking an anxious response in all of us.
So what can we do about coronavirus anxiety?
Fortunately, there are solutions. For example, knowing that anxiety and panicking is completely normal and warranted right now is the first step. Secondly, if you’re feeling like you have worsening anxiety, keep your news and social media consumption low. Sure, you want to be informed, but you also don’t want to inundate yourself.
“Social media has, in part, become a place for people to vent, project fear, spread rumors, misinformation, etc.,” Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days, tells HelloGiggles. “I recently had one person tell me that 50 million Americans will die from COVID-19 in the coming months. When I asked for the source, he said Facebook. Folks, Facebook is not a trusted, credible news source!”
When it comes to the news, realize that staring at it hours a day isn’t going to do anything, but put your brain in a tailspin. “Instead allow yourself to check the latest news at certain points during your day,” Alpert says. “For example, morning time, lunchtime, and evening.”
Alpert also says it’s essential to separate fact from fiction. If you see on Facebook that 50 million Americans are going to die from COVID-19, definitely take a step back and question it. Or, even better, close out the tab all together and hop on over to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and/or the World Health Organization websites for trusted updates.
More than anything, in addition to lots of self-love and self-care, Alpert says it’s important to make peace with uncertainty. Is this an easy thing to do? Hell no. “When else in your life have you faced a crisis and weren’t exactly sure what would happen? How did you fare? Know that you’ve probably faced uncertainty and anxiety in the past and survived,” Alpert says.
The experts can only give us so much information. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who isn’t just the only reliable source in Trump’s coronavirus task force, but the only one with a donut named after him, isn’t psychic; he can’t give us exact numbers, but he’s doing his damnedest to give the country accurate intel, statistics, and tips on how to protect ourselves. Despite this, uncertainty exists and as long as it does, anxiety is bound to follow for many of us.
“It is absolutely normal for anyone to develop an anxious response to a global pandemic,” Dew says. “We are all worried, unsure, and confused. Our jobs and livelihood are at risk and we are exposed to a life-threatening illness. This impact of the virus, the loss of jobs and social connections has, removed important ways that we typically cope.”
While I’m trying to cope in healthy ways, I can confirm that I’m not doing so well. If I’m having a down day, I’ll let my editors know that I just can’t swing it, and I’ll do my best to be in a better headspace the following day. But that better headspace, if I’m fortunate to get there, is far from what it would have been months before all this started. I’m emotionally drained, I sleep far more than I should, and I had ice cream for breakfast today. But, I figure, if ice cream for breakfast is how I’m coping now, along with hours of The Office, then that’s okay. Like grief, there’s no right or wrong way to process anxiety and I feel the same goes for coping. I can say, however, that knowing I’m not alone—knowing that many of my friends, colleagues, and family are mentally on the same page—is the one thing that gives me strength. Even on the days when getting out of bed is impossible.