“During this extremely stressful time, I encourage my clients to stay in treatment.”
It was a line from a text message my therapist sent to everyone he sees last week, as coronavirus panic and prep began to settle in here in New York City. Social distancing, especially in big cities, is crucial right now, so I could have just switched to FaceTime sessions, but I didn’t. I had (what I believed to be) bigger fish to fry, so I cancelled a few weeks of sessions. I shouldn’t have.
Anxiety came for me. I’m sure a lot of you can relate. It manifests in different ways for everyone. For me, it looked like ragged, labored breaths and sweating, 30 minutes into standing in line at a crowded grocery store, elbow-to-elbow with older folks who shouldn’t have been out — but what choice did they have? For others it’s a throbbing, aching neck and shoulders — which ironically, can add to current fears as muscle aches are a coronavirus symptom. And some people quietly catastrophize miles under a calm, stoic facade as they stress about their paychecks and their parents, or healthcare worker children.
“During this unpredictable time, people with mental health issues can be particularly vulnerable to exacerbated symptoms,” says Shenitta Moore, a Louisiana-based psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry. This means that someone like me, who has their general anxiety disorder in control and functions pretty successfully on a pandemic-free day, can go to a dark place fairly quickly. “While you can reschedule sessions to minimize in-person social interaction, many clinics are offering online options,” she says, urging people to turn to those.
If you’re currently in therapy, it’s because you’ve chosen to work through something. Get to those sessions by any means necessary. It can be tempting to curl into yourself like a roly-poly bug or devote all your time to tending to people you love. It can also be daunting to think about expressing your fears out loud, into the universe or just to another human.
I have been trying desperately to escape my anxiety. I meditate, work out, and of course, 6:00 p.m. every evening is mandatory happy hour. I’m talking several vodka sodas and laughter-filled games of Uno with my partner.
Vodka as a salve for stress, I should mention, is an unreliable escape tactic and people who manage anxiety or depression should mind their booze intake. Moore explains that for some people, especially those on medication, alcohol will numb you in the moment but then make you feel worse. You know who you are, drunken sobbers (no judgement).
Processing fear can be a lot more doable when you have a professional to help.
And while games and laughter are temporarily soothing, being "with" my anxiety — feeling the feelings and acknowledging why they're terrifying — makes an uncomfortable moment an opportunity for growth. It's easier said than done, of course, which is why having a therapist to guide you through is invaluable. Processing fear can feel a lot more doable when you have a professional to help.
If you don’t already have a therapy routine in place and you feel like you could benefit from one, start. It’s a whole lot easier when you have insurance — don’t get me started on this country’s healthcare pitfalls — but here are some resources if you don’t. One thing we can control amidst this chaos is how we manage our emotions around it. While it might be super challenging, it could allow us to emerge even more empowered when all of this is over.