For much of my life as an anxious person, I’ve marveled at the fearlessness of people around me. I have watched as my older brother traveled the world, venturing to Russia and Kazakhstan and India and New Zealand and elsewhere, while I mostly stayed home. (The “I NEVER LEAVE RHODE ISLAND” bumper sticker affixed to the desk in my home office is only a slight exaggeration.) And over years of observing the lives of friends and acquaintances, I’ve compiled a long list of activities that I tend to avoid due to my anxiety. I don’t ski or scuba-dive. I don’t take recreational drugs. I don’t ride motorcycles. I don’t watch horror movies in the theater. I don’t even really dance at weddings. What must it be like to be a relatively worry-free person? I really couldn’t tell you.
This lack of understanding goes the other way, too. Just as I struggle to understand the bungee-jumpers and globe-trotters in my social circle, I’m sure the non-anxious people around me don’t really grasp the mix of fear and hesitation and dread that dominates my existence. They simply don’t know how it feels to be hard-wired for fear.
But, in the last few weeks, this seems to have changed.
The coronavirus crisis is many things. It is, in the words of one physician, “a global public health crisis moving at a speed and scale never witnessed by living generations.” It is a terrifyingly fast-moving economic crisis that will leave this country hobbled for months, if not years. It is a once-in-a-generation test for various civic institutions, from hospitals and public schools and city halls, to restaurants, movie theaters, and supermarkets. The editor of The Washington Post, Marty Baron has called it “a period unlike any of us has ever seen before.”
But this moment is also, to my anxious eyes, an immersive worldwide exercise in what it feels like to live with excessive anxiety. In the pre-COVID-19 “normal” times, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the nation, affecting some 40 million adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Around the world, according to the World Health Organization, anxiety disorders afflict 1 in 13 people. Right now, though, it seems that a much larger portion of us are nervous, panicky, homebound, occasionally sleepless hypochondriacs. Welcome to my world.
First, as someone who has been here a while, I can say that — blessedly — there is help if you’re feeling this way, and you shouldn’t hesitate to ask for it or seek it out. Therapy, which can still take place via phone or video-chat during quarantine, has been a life-changer for me. And so have medication and meditation apps and self-help books and, my new favorite quarantine pastime, YouTube yoga. There are many, many ways to find comfort from the (understandable) panic you’re feeling.
I’m also pleased to note a heartening shift in the mainstream media during this crisis. The COVID-19 crisis has inspired a wave of helpful articles and segments from outlets as varied as Self, NBC, the Hollywood Reporter, Stat News, BuzzFeed, VICE, and the Huffington Post. Perhaps we’ll look back on this crisis as the point when mental health permanently took a co-equal place in the public consciousness — and in the reimbursement policies of insurance companies — alongside the body’s other aches and ailments.
But whether or not we see a rise in the accessibility of mental health care due to coronavirus, we can at least seize this rare moment for an expansion of empathy. To do this, I would also ask you to pause for a moment, to take a snapshot of how this feels in the mind and body. You might be afraid to leave your house for fear of the danger that lurks outside. You might have vivid images of future catastrophes playing in your mind at all hours: scenes of loved ones losing jobs or falling ill, or first-person premonitions of being hooked up to a ventilator as doctors and nurses in protective gear minister to you.
You might be experiencing a barrage of unpleasant physical symptoms, ranging from an inability to sleep to a rapid heart rate, irritable bowels, sweaty palms and tension headaches. You might be unable to pry yourself from the ever-worsening news reports from your neighborhood, state and around the world. You might be hyper-alert to your body, constantly scanning for the slightest a sneeze or cough or throat tickle or a brief stab of discomfort in the chest or abdomen that, to your frenzied mind, means that you’re surely dying. You might feel as if, all of a sudden, your inner smoke alarm and alarm clock and car alarm were all going off simultaneously, and you’re expected to function as if everything were normal. Believe me, I get it. This is how I often feel under “normal” circumstances.
I wish for you and your loved ones that this moment, and these feelings, pass with minimal after-effects. I wish to see all of us get back to our regular routines of work and play. But although my anxiety can drive me toward pessimism, I’ve actually seen a bright spot amidst the radical changes taking place around us. In our isolation, we are each privately grappling with fears that look and feel quite similar.
I am by no means seeking to minimize or ignore the anguish that this pandemic has caused, and the damage it will continue to wreak. But by narrowing the emotional and psychological distance between us, this crisis has already given us a rare opportunity to combat the stigma around mental health issues that keeps people from being gentle with one another and themselves.
Let’s hang on to that sense of shared experience, and bring it with us to the other side of this nightmare.
Philip Eil is a writer living in Rhode Island.