Navigating COVID-19 with an anxious mind

It is no secret that I live with anxiety. Since a child, certain triggers would absolutely shake me, but it wasn't until my early teens that I was formally diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and have lived with it since.

I say live with, rather than "suffer" from, because I do not know any other way of life. To me, having an increased sense of fear that something might happen is all that I've ever known. I believe that my experience living with anxiety has ultimately made me a more compassionate empathetic person. It allows me to notice the little things, including people's body language, subtle facial movements, and reading between the lines. The anxiety and my empath personality (I shift between INFP and INFJ personality types; during the time of this blog post, I am INFP) I find myself contemplating how life is for others during this pandemic.

Two weeks ago when I checked in with my Expressive Arts Therapist, she invited me to explore how COVID-19 is affecting me. With that prompt, the image above was born. For some reason, the image of mold kept coming up for me while I was creating this piece. Just two days prior to our session, I text her letting me know I was riddled with anxiety. By the time we had our session, I had reached a new level of calm. What does that have to do with mold, might you wonder?

According to WebMD (trust me, I didn't fall down a WebMD hole when writing this blog post): "Mold is a type of fungus. These small organisms can be black, white, orange, green, or purple and live almost anywhere indoors and outside. Molds thrive on moisture and reproduce through lightweight spores that travel through the air. You’re exposed to mold every day. They’re usually harmless in small amounts. But when they land on a damp spot in your home, they can start to grow. They release spores that you might breathe in. If you're sensitive to mold and inhale a lot of spores, it could make you sick."

Right now, we are at risk at being exposed to a virus. This particular strain of virus can cause immense damage and in some cases, even death. Those that have a weakened immune system, especially those with disabilities and the elderly, are even more prone to having this virus wreck havoc. When mold starts to develop, it can expand and grow quickly given the right conditions. Similarly, Corona Virus (or COVID-19) had just the right conditions to grow and tear through communities on a global scale. During our session, the image of mold kept appearing. Mold is good and bad. Without mold, we wouldn't have cheese. Did you know that brie requires FOUR different types of mold? Of course there is blue cheese that is strewn with mold and it has that funky delicious, but acquired taste. We have kombucha, which requires good mold and bacteria to ferment. All of these things require the ideal conditions in order to form.

Good mold is my calm. Good mold is my North Star. I am very much a silver-linings kind of person. With my INFP personality trait, I like to imagine new possibilities. It is probably one of the many reasons as to why I was drawn to explore Expressive Arts Therapy as a career path and it is absolutely why, as massively anxious person, I am calm in the midst of this pandemic storm.

I am looking for the good in all of the bad and there is a lot of good. Queer and disabled communities have known for ages how impactful community support is and now the general population is seeing that showing up for your community is crucial to human livelihood. People are resting. I didn't realize how exhausted I was and how much was on my plate until COVID-19 removed nearly everything off of my plate. My sleep has gotten better and I wake up actually feeling rested for the first time, in like, ever. There is not a doubt in my mind that the affects of COVID-19 will cause trauma in many people, myself included. COVID-19 is a traumatic event that has not yet past. Many people around the globe are experiencing this shared trauma, but in order to heal from trauma, the trauma has to end and COVID-19 is still very much alive and rampant. People may find themselves more tired than usual, feeling blue, having lethargic bodies, a loss of interest in hobbies, unable to focus, or sudden feelings of complete overwhelm and despair. You are having a trauma response.

I have spent my whole life training how to respond to fear. My body used to shift into fight and flight mode at the drop of a hat and because I spent a large portion of my life on edge, I fully believe it is why I am handling this pandemic in a tranquil way. Living in anxiety prepared me to learn how to ground and I would like to offer some guidance to you.

1. Breathe in a conscious way.

Seriously, inhale through your nose and out of your mouth. Do this several times throughout the day. Set yourself up in a quiet area and focus on your breath. In a world that feels out of control, knowing that you can control how big, loud, quiet, or slow your breath is, is so incredibly soothing.

2. Meditate

I use to be envious of people that meditated. I think it is such a beautiful contemplative thing to do that often gets brushed aside due to the busyness of life. We have time now. Try it. Meditation is not easy. I have been meditating for a very short period of time but have been doing it diligently every night for the last year and a half and I have noticed an immense difference in how I handle difficult emotions. I am currently working on incorporating meditation into my mornings in addition to my nightly routine.

3. Create for the sake of creating

One of the guiding principals of expressive arts therapy is the therapy is in the process, not the product. That seed of wisdom can be applied to being creative in general. We put too much pressure on ourselves to make good art (and by the way, who gets to decide what counts as good?) and neglect the wonderful soothing qualities that making brings. Yesterday my mum requested we make some hearts to put in our window as part of the #heartsinourwindows movement to show support to the front line workers and our community. My mum was filled with dread at the beginning of whether she was using the materials in the right way, kept second guessing herself, and I just let her know to enjoy the moment. When she was finished, she said how soothing the process was and that she felt proud about what she created. She thanked me for allowing her to play with the materials and I thanked her for giving me the idea to give back to the community. My mum does not consider herself creative (she is) but she allowed herself to get lost in the imagination.

4. Laugh

It sounds easy, but during this pandemic, when was the last time you had a full body, belly rippling, tears-pouring-from-your-eyes, on the ground rolling, laugh?

5. Turn off the news It is okay to turn off the news. In fact, we are not conditioned to be tuned into the news at every waking minute. It is a sure fire way to cause an anxiety attack, it will affect your sleep, and your general mental health. I check for new news regarding COVID-19 in the morning and then late-afternoon/early evening and that is the extent of my receiving news. I know enough to keep informed, but I am not tuned in and constantly refreshing because that will only cause an anxious mind to spiral. You have permission to take care of your needs.

6. Express gratitude

In all of this horror, look for the silver lining moments. It is what keeps us hopeful, living, and present. What are you thankful for today?

7. Acknowledge grief

We are going through something incredibly traumatic. You may be mourning the loss of a loved one or are grieving the fact what our future looks like is unknown. You may be mourning the loss of a certain way of life that you have grown accustomed to. COVID-19 is scary. We are all grieving in different ways and that grief may morph and change on the daily. Acknowledging it as what it is will help aid in moving into a more compassionate place.

8. Rest

For those of us who are not on the front lines, we have an abundance of time. Just because we have all this time does not mean that every second of the day has to be accounted for. We may be in active trauma response and shaming yourself (or others in your household) for not being productive enough is cruel. We are trying to navigate how to be in this pandemic. Routines will shift and for those of us who are working from home, productivity has to be looked at differently.

9. Check in with loved ones Before COVID-19, I spoke to my grandma twice a week on the phone and saw her once a week in person. I have not seen my grandma in a month, but I have talked to her on the phone every single day (sometimes multiple times a day). I am unable to show up physically for her and my grandpa, but my mum, brother, sister-in-law and I have been doing regular grocery shops for them as well as preparing them meals and doing drop offs. We have been doing the same for my disabled uncle and aunt. Even though you cannot see someone physically does not mean that you need to completely cut them off. In a recent Trauma Therapy Project podcast, Peter Levine argues that the name of 'social distancing' should be changed to 'physical distancing'. Under no circumstances should we give up the 'social' aspect. 'Social' has to look differently. We cannot be spatially present, but we can absolutely utilize the various platforms such as social media, Zoom, Skype, phone calls, texts, emails, etc. to let loved ones know we miss them. We need each other.

10. Love

Tell everyone you love that you love them as often as you can.

In closing, I want to extend my heartfelt thanks to all of the frontline workers. If it wasn't for you, we wouldn't be safe. Thank you for caring for us, making sure that we are well, and fed. You are our lifelines and every single one of you are heroes. Grazie mille.

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