Don’t Panic! – Yeah, That’s Not Helpful
As it turns out, a global pandemic is not good for one’s anxiety. The panic over the past few weeks and days has been steadily rising as businesses shut down, projected timeframes stretch out longer, and life as we know it changes drastically. And of course, everyone is telling us to stay calm. Panicking does nothing. I’m inclined to agree. But as anyone who has ever suffered from a panic attack can tell you, telling a person to just calm down is about the least helpful thing you can say in those moments. The best result you are likely to obtain is getting screamed at if the panicking person is not already crippled under a shame spiral.
My husband and I are currently facing the very real possibility that we may soon have no income. My husband is the office manager at a small t-shirt printing shop. And with all the closed business, rescheduled events, canceled baseball seasons, and general chaos, you can guess how many people are lining up to order shirts. He’s coming home from work early today, and I don’t know when he’ll be going back. As for me, since a severe career burnout several months ago, I have been engaged in regaining my mental health and writing a novel, two pursuits that unfortunately do not pay the bills.
But I’m not panicking that we will suddenly find ourselves with the electric turned off or an eviction notice on our door. We are very fortunate to have a sizable savings put away. In a pinch, we could live off this for a year. So I know we will be fine if my husband is not working for a few weeks. But I’m still freaking out. Why? My brain is playing the “let’s imagine the worst-case scenario” game, a pastime I am very accomplished in. And in this spectacularly terrible future, I see us out of work for months, maybe even a year. I see us scraping by on rice and beans and cutting every possible expense, all the while steadily dripping away our savings until it is all but gone.
Again, what scares me about this nightmarish future, is not the fear that we will find ourselves destitute. It’s knowing that the savings we put away is supposed to be the downpayment on our first home. It’s supposed to be the start of a family we build together, a future we’ve been dreaming of. I see the house, the children, the garden, the dog, slipping through my fingers as we steadily dig into our savings to make it through this time.
Rationally, I know even if this worst-case, awful scenario comes to pass (which it likely won’t), we would rebuild. We would save again, start again, and eventually figure out a way to build the life we want together, albeit in a delayed timeframe. Still, I look at all that potentially lost time and it grieves me, deeply. In the same moment, I also know that today many people are facing the same reality of loss of income with no savings, no comfortable safety net. And those people are absolutely terrified about how they will eat, much less pay rent. So I ask myself, in shame, who am I to be afraid of the loss of my entitled future plans?
And here I am stuck between my fear and my shame. Why are we so trained to see pain in orders of magnitude? It’s as if I’m only allowed to feel it if I can’t possibly point to someone else who has it worse than me. But one thing I’ve learned through a lot of therapy is that as long as I sit here and condemn myself for feeling afraid or lost, I can’t move past those feelings. Instead, I will only shove them down, covering over them with a heavy dose of self-sabotaging shame.
So here is the point, no matter your circumstances today, what troubles you are facing, large or small, it’s okay to be afraid and it’s okay to be hurting. Right now it’s a perfectly justified response to feel fear and frustration over a potentially changed future, a lost sense of security, a canceled party or event you were looking forward to, even just the loss of normality to your days. Our instincts tell us that acknowledging fear will make it grow. But it actually does the opposite. It will lessen the hold that fear has over us.
When we allow ourselves to feel the things inside us we are afraid of, it can be like walking barefoot through a pitch-black room full of legos. You never know which step is going to feel safe and which one will cause pain. Giving our feelings space to breathe, can make all kinds of things come out of the woodwork. Be gentle with yourself, like you would a child in distress. Hold the hand of that terrible thought or feeling and say to it, “There you are, I see you, and I am not ashamed of having you with me. You have space here. You don’t get to make all my decisions, but you do get to express what is troubling you. I will listen. I will hold you, and then we will get through this together.”
Sometimes it can be too much to handle these feelings alone. Human life is fragile and none of us like to be reminded how slippery our hold on controlling our own little worlds can be. That is why human connection is so very important, especially in times like these. Grab your spouse, a parent, a roommate or call a friend if you live alone (still need to maintain that social distancing). Share your fears, cry together, and laugh at the silly things we get hung up over (for me it was being unable to buy bananas for my daily smoothies). And know that whatever order of magnitude of grief you are facing over this crisis, it’s okay. Your experience is your own.
When we acknowledge our own negative emotions, we choose to have the courage to confront our difficulties and we make space in ourselves. And when we’ve done that in our own life, we almost always have room left over for someone else. The reality is still true that there is someone struggling more than we are. So what can we do? How can you help? Maybe it’s donating to a charity. Maybe it’s getting groceries for an elderly neighbor. Maybe it’s just staying home for a few weeks and not being the cause of a worse outbreak. Maybe it’s being kind when everyone else seems so angry. Whatever we can do to lessen this rising tide of anxiety, let’s have the courage to do that thing first in ourselves, then for our neighbors, and for the broader communities around us.