When the COVID-19 crisis pushed us all indoors, I knew I was going to have an especially hard time handling my anxiety. Previously, I dealt with mental illness by keeping busy, surrounding myself with friends, and constantly moving forward. Basically, I would distract myself. But hey, it worked. A therapist might have called this avoidance, but I just called it manageable.

When the world shut down and all my coping mechanisms shut down with it, I had no choice but to face my anxiety directly. No biggie, right? Through the last two months, here is what I’ve learned about addressing anxiety in quarantine.

Routine

My classes moved online, two of my jobs stopped completely, and I couldn’t hang out with anyone. Basically, I had nothing to do except PANIC. At first, I woke up at noon, didn’t exercise, and ate irregularly. I spent entire days half-watching bad Netflix shows and letting my anxiety consume me. I was frozen.

Two weeks in, I woke up around 8:00am and went for a walk. There was no real reason for it, but I told myself that maybe I would feel better. Miraculously, I did. It wasn’t that waking up early was magically better than waking up late. Holding myself accountable jolted me out of my helplessness. It turned my whole day around.

Okay, I’ve never been the most self-disciplined person. I’ve relied on my friends, courses, and work to keep me busy from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I had to figure out how to keep myself going while acknowledging the fact that the world had slowed to a crawl (and so did my motivation). I started with a couple vague rules:

  • Wake up before 9:00am
  • Exercise
  • Clean OR cook
  • Do something creative
  • Do something I don’t want to do (homework or job-hunting)


Five things. Only five things to do every day. Plus, they were open ended, so I could never disappoint myself by not getting around to writing that specific paper or doing a specific exercise class. I could move at my own pace and change my mind.

This list kept me moving. It was a much slower place than before COVID-19, but at least I wasn’t frozen anymore.

Staying in the Moment

I’ve taken yoga before, so trust me, I know what it’s like to have someone preach “be present” at you. Personally, I have never been present a day in my life. I can still mentally plan my next 50 tasks from a downward dog.

In quarantine, however, without class or work to think about, my wandering mind leaps to issues out of my control. What I’m going to do next? How I’m going to get through virtual classes? How am I going to make money? When will everything open back up? It was too much. Without staying present, I spiral.

Becoming a yoga/zen master was a little out of reach for me, personally, but I needed to do something. So I found ways to CHEAT at being present. I picked up activities that required 100% of my attention. For example, roller skating. I am so terrible at roller skating, it’s not even funny. I have to use every ounce of focus to not fall on my face. By the time I take my skates off, I have had 30 minutes where I’ve been thinking about nothing except for the task in front of me.

That was an entirely new and thrilling experience for me. I picked up some other tricks that don’t involve immediate danger, like leaving my phone in a different room while I watch a movie, or stop listening to music while I read. Now that I can’t overstimulate my brain with all my activities, I realize I could (and maybe should) invest in the current moment. My yoga teacher would be so proud!

Letting it Out

By staying busy and distracted before COVID-19, I never had to admit anything was wrong with me. It was important to me that I always stay strong and never let my mental illness slow me down, so I rarely took the time to genuinely feel upset. It may not have been healthy, but it was manageable.

Once quarantine took my distractions away, this technique completely failed me. I don’t know about anyone else, but I find that the COVID-19 crisis tends to cause a little extra anxiety. By ignoring this anxiety, I let it build and build until it would overflow in unhealthy ways, like panic attacks and meltdowns.

Instead of ignoring my anxiety, sadness, and anger, I’ve been learning to accept the fact that life can be hard right now, and I’m only human. This makes it a lot easier to release the negativity. I can go for a run or a walk. I can talk to my family or Facetime a friend. I can put on a sad movie and cry (psh- like I even need the movie). Basically, I just let myself be sad. My mood has since stabilized, and I haven’t had a panic attack in weeks.

Forgiveness

I know it’s common to hate messing up, but I HATE messing up. At the beginning of quarantine, I was angry at myself for not functioning normally. This pressure started to manifest itself in unhealthy ways. I would call myself worthless for not getting up on time. I would make myself skip dinner if I ate junk food. I would ignore a call from a friend if I didn’t complete an assignment.

Forgiving myself for not having the answers, for getting upset, for breaking my routine, for being a normal human being, has been the most difficult part of my experience.

It took me a couple weeks to realize, but I noticed my family and friends remained fiercely loving and supportive, even despite my ‘failures.’ They didn’t care if I snoozed my alarm clock or if I couldn’t finish an assignment on time. And I extended the same compassion to them. I would never expect my friends to be in a perpetual good mood right now, or my parents to act perfectly normally. So why couldn’t I extend this same empathy and kindness to myself?

I’ll admit it. This lesson didn’t just click for me. It’s still a challenge. Little by little, I’m learning to forgive myself for my flaws. And the more I do this, the less they seem like flaws.

Two months ago, being alone with nothing to do was my worst nightmare. I never attempted to do it because I didn’t think I could. Now, I know that I can do more than ignore or distract myself from my anxiety. I can do more than manage my mental illness.

Author: Kit Fitzsgerald, Senior at University of Iowa