Since I started this blog in 2012 I’ve avoided a stream-of-consciousness style. I’ve tended to post here only when my thoughts on a topic are fully formed and I can present them concisely. But now, with the coronavirus pandemic shaking the world, and the imperative for “social distancing” keeping me from seeing friends in person, I’m looking for ways to feel, and be, more connected to the people I know, as well as to readers “out there” whom I’ve never met, so I’m going to experiment with a more personally exposed, informal style. Some posts like this one will have a date as their title and they’ll basically be personal journal entries that I’m making public. Here goes.
Thursday the 12th was the day when my mounting anxiety about the pandemic turned into full-scale panic, where I could feel myself physically trembling all the time. The thought of getting sick, or witnessing a loved one get sick. The thought of hospitals being overwhelmed, people dying without care. The bungling, confidence-busting response of the current administration. The unknown: when will this end? The thought of friends losing their livelihoods. Businesses going bankrupt. The thought of losing what I’ve invested over the years. The soul-crushing cancellations: concerts, festivals, plays shut down; museums closed; schools closed; sporting events called off. The confusion about how to respond, how to prepare. The fear of contagion: is it safe to go out? Do I need to wash everything that comes into the house?
I’m not someone who has frequent panic attacks but I’ve experienced them a few times in the past, so I’ve looked into strategies for diffusing them. On Thursday, as I was feeling a surge of adrenaline every few minutes, I tried to draw on the mental model of anxiety that I’ve gathered from a stress management class I took at the Benson Henry Institute at Mass General Hospital and from other material I’ve read about mindfulness and health:
Anxiety is energy. When I’m anxious, my body is giving me energy to respond to a perceived threat. My brain is keeping me fixated on the threat so I don’t get distracted from what I supposedly need to do: fight or flee. These automatic mental and physical processes are kicking in to help me escape a tiger that’s chasing me. These processes are “trying” to be helpful. Except it’s March 2020 and what I need to do is not run from a tiger but rather stay home, practice social distancing, cancel all my plans. The energy for fleeing a tiger doesn’t help with that.
So I had a bright idea. Why not do some exercise whenever that trembling, queasy sensation comes on? I started doing pushups and sit-ups to diffuse the anxious energy. Throughout my life I’ve taken long walks to relieve stress, but I had never done calisthenics for that particular purpose. It felt good. The relief was temporary though, and every hour I’d start to feel that tingling sensation on my skin again and my thoughts would return to catastrophes that might arise in the coming months. Cases doubling every six days. Not enough ventilators. Everything shut down. I’d do more pushups and sit-ups and squats and I’d feel better for a while. My stamina was great. I probably did more repetitions of each kind of exercise than I’d ever done before.
But I didn’t sleep well Thursday night. I was exhausted physically but my mind was still racing with the kind of fears that pandemics are so good at triggering. There were moments when I would stop trembling and could sense sleep coming on. It felt so gentle and good. I thought to myself, this is “sweet sleep” arriving, this is where the phrase comes from. Most nights I’m not aware of sleep’s onset, but Thursday night I could sense its blissful approach. I might liken it to a religious experience or to the very few times I’ve been on an opiate painkiller. A unifying calm would start to sweep over me, mollifying my agitated thoughts and making my muscles feel warm and loose. But then some kind of alarm in my mind would start ringing: you shouldn’t be sleeping now! Emergency! Then the soothing, enveloping blanket of sleep would abruptly withdraw, leaving me fully alert and focused on what might be the end of the world as I know it. So “sweet sleep” approached but never came.
Friday I was totally exhausted and more panicked than before. With no meetings on my calendar for the day and no urgent deadlines, I had trouble focusing on work. I kept turning to the news to try to make sense of the situation and figure out how I should respond. Reading articles online gave me something to do, and that felt better than being left with my own thoughts, but the articles were all horrifying, particularly anything written by or featuring a real epidemiologist, someone who studies pandemics for a living. These folks have done the math and you don’t want to hear the math.
I started feeling a mild burning sensation in my chest or lungs (I wasn’t sure how to locate it specifically) and when my partner mentioned, unprompted, that he was feeling something similar I began to wonder if both of us were experiencing the early symptoms of coronavirus. Checked my temperature. Normal. Felt I should try doing something productive so I started making an emergency checklist. What happens if I or someone close to me needs to go to the hospital in the coming months? How do we get there? What would I bring? What instructions would I leave for family and neighbors? I started making a supply checklist for the next few months. But it wasn’t a great idea to work on emergency preparedness while I was panicked and exhausted as it had a compounding effect on the panic.
The only time I’ve felt the same sense of dread at the possible impending collapse of the world was right after the 2016 election, but then it was about things that might possibly happen in the coming year, and now it’s about things that are happening at this moment: more than a hundred cases in my state of Massachusetts, some of those right here in Boston, and we’re told that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Dr. Fauci says the current numbers are like starlight – it’s not light from “now,” it’s light from however long ago it took to reach you. In other words, the cases we’re hearing about today are the ones that were created weeks ago; the number of cases today is larger by a possibly staggering amount.
I got decent sleep on Friday night, and today I’m feeling calmer. I wish I could report that some technique I had used on Thursday or Friday was particularly effective at getting through the panic. Every technique did something but nothing “cured” it.
The mental model of “anxiety as energy” is helpful, I think, as a way of separating the physical sensation from one’s ideas about the sensation. The feeling of anxiety means your body is trying to be helpful. It doesn’t mean you’re going to die. So when you feel the skin tingling, the tremor, the queasiness, don’t let it freak you out. Don’t let the sensation persuade you that something’s wrong with you, or that things are worse than they are. Helpful advice, yes, but it might not be enough to make the sensations stop — they might continue all day no matter how maturely or wisely you interpret them.
Exercise is effective, I think, but Thursday’s lesson was: don’t overdo it. In a state of extreme anxiety you might be tempted to exercise a lot more than you probably should, especially if it keeps bringing relief, but if you don’t get good sleep afterwards you’ll be doubly drained the next day. Moderation.
Deep breathing has been helpful over the past few days but at many times I’ve just been too agitated to stay focused on it. I wonder if I just needed to go through two days of shock and mental upheaval to get adjusted to a new normal. Today I puttered around and didn’t do much of anything. No shaking sensations.
It’s easy to get wrapped up in personal introspection when keeping a journal. I kept a private one from 1998 through 2010 and then it tapered off in the following years. One of the reasons I stopped is that I got tired of talking about myself to myself. Those kind of discussions can easily end up following anxieties down a rat hole. I’ll try to do something a little differently this time around and always mention a few simple things that made my day brighter, even if by just a little bit:
Oatmeal breakfast was comforting as usual.
Good weather, a few hours of sun.
Played a bit on my new instrument – a banjo — learning my first tune on it, “Shady Grove.”
Did some composting.
Took a look our garden beds and thought about spring planting.
Wore more layers than I needed (it wasn’t particularly cold) and enjoyed the feeling of being bundled up.
Time with partner.