There are two pandemics. The virus makes the headlines, but the anxiety that is sweeping the nation just a few steps behind (or in some cases a few steps in front of) the virus has serious and lasting consequences. Much like the virus itself, the mental health impact of this situation is invisible to many. Front line responders, like doctors, nurses, and PAs have to fear the virus and the lack of PPEs. Grocery store workers, postal workers, and pharmacy employees fear the virus and losing their jobs if they do not show up to work. Service industry workers fear the virus and when (and from where) their next paycheck will be coming. Small business owners fear the virus as well as what to do if their life savings disappear overnight. Many people are facing anxiety that most certainly will cross a threshold into trauma and some of those people will ultimately develop a traumatic stress response. Those who already deal with anxiety disorders like PTSD, OCD or GAD may be especially triggered. We are all facing traumatic circumstances and our brains are being stretched outside our natural coping capacity.
Our short-term stress response is depleted and we are already operating on reserves, and yet we likely have months to go. Brene Brown states that “perspective is a function of experience,” and very few living Americans have any experience with anything even remotely like this global pandemic, therefore it is nearly impossible for most of us to gain any perspective. COVID-19 isn’t like other traumas we have faced as a nation. It is an unfolding, evolving, ever changing, invisible threat. We can’t put our hands on it. We can’t hear it. We can’t send our military in to eliminate it. We don’t know what the enemy looks like, and we are only just beginning to learn how to stop it. Even if you are one of the people who will manage to avoid a positive test result, you are still at risk for facing the mental and physical impact of this threat. The social distancing required to contain the threat adds yet another layer that affects mental and physical health. For those with a pre-existing mental health condition like an anxiety or mood disorder, you are likely feeling the impact of the social distancing significantly. If you have a current or past eating disorder, you may also be triggered by the real or perceived food restrictions that are occurring as a result of the panic buying and more limited access to grocery stores and online ordering.
You CAN take steps to keep your mental and physical health intact. You must start now to proactively shift your thinking into long-term anxiety management. You cannot stay in fight, flight or freeze. Instead, adopt the long-game mentality now. Build routines and structures while allowing for flexibility, practice gratitude daily, move your body any way you can to release held tension and anxiety, eat nutritious foods often and yet offer yourself compassion when you don’t. And most of all, remember that you are building resiliency right now. This experience will change you, and change can be good. And while we do not have control over the events ahead of us, we can care for ourselves proactively. Viktor Frankl once wrote “We have absolutely no control over what happens to us in life but what we have paramount control over is how we respond to those events.