Essay: Coping With Anxiety During the Pandemic

Let’s talk about mental health during the health crisis.

The other night I read a story by a travel writer whose peripatetic lifestyle had drastically changed, as many have, during our global pandemic. After so much time flying around the world writing about the most exquisite places to travel, this woman was now settled down in one place, her days filled with yoga, meditation and healthy eating. And to stay centered, she was actively avoiding reading or watching the news.

I was intrigued – and a little envious – of this woman’s ability to find calm during this time. I’ve had varying degrees of anxiety my whole life, and these weeks of self-isolation have been really hard. That isn’t to say I don’t understand the life-and-death importance of it. I do, believe me. But I think with anxiety, or my anxiety, that not thinking about the pandemic, not worrying about it, is not something I can do. And I mean, think about it pretty much all the time.

My cousin has a beautiful apartment with expansive windows in Hong Kong. She shows me the stunning view from her phone while I talk to her through What’s App. It’s a weekday morning when we talk (and the previous night for me) and her children are “in school” at home and her husband is working from home. While it had appeared that Hong Kong had contained the coronavirus, things had just changed in the last week or so, she tells me. When cases were spreading in mainland China earlier this year, the citizens of Hong Kong were doing their part to social distance and practice rigorous hand washing, and people were dutifully wearing masks. The upshot is with a population of 7.5 million, there were just 150 reported cases. But what happened in March, my cousin says, is that people let their guard down. And while my cousin says they are not “on lockdown,” the recent spike in cases has brought the strict social distancing back. You have your temperature taken when you enter a public building, she says. And everyone wears masks. They’re easy to come by in Hong Kong but they’re expensive. I ask her how they enforce mask-wearing. Her response: “The Chinese remember what SARS [the illness that appeared in China in the early 2000s and was quickly contained] was like. They won’t let that happen again.” She tells me the only people she’s seen not wearing a mask – and in very rare circumstances – are European, Canadian or American. 

My cousin had told me a few months ago that the pandemic would be much harder to deal with in the states. None of what she said seemed real to me at the time, so I didn’t think about it. But now I think I know what she’s saying. To be told you can’t leave your home or when you do, you must wear a mask, feels like your freedom is being taken away. And in the states, we like our freedom. That’s what scares me. Every single day right now. That while I might be “following the rules,” other people are not. Because they don’t feel they have to, or they don’t believe what is happening is real. The longer that this sort of thinking goes on, the longer we’ll all be living like this, in a way that feels so unnatural, so contrary to what human beings need – connection. And not the connection you get through a phone or computer screen. Real human interaction.

Unlike the travel writer whose days sound positively zen, I read the news every day. I read more than, for my anxious mind, I should. I try to combat the worry with yoga. I avoid caffeine. I listen to alpha waves on my tablet. I have weekly virtual sessions with my therapist. I haven’t watched a single movie since I started self-quarantining, but when I do, I can tell you it will not be Contagion, the 2011 Matt Damon movie about a global pandemic. Besides trying to get fresh air every day, the only other thing that helps is to take things one day at a time. That’s also hard to do since my natural inclination is to think about the future. But doing the best I can do every day, knowing that changes every day, is where I’m at right now.  None of us knows what “normal” will look like in the next few months. I just know I’ll be trying to roll with whatever that means.   

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Ann Christenson has covered dining for Milwaukee Magazine since 1997. She was raised on a diet of casseroles that started with a pound of ground beef and a can of Campbell's soup. Feel free to share any casserole recipes with her.