Editor’s Note: This story is part of a Globe Magazine special report, appearing in print on Sunday, March 29.
You might think that this is a terrible moment for someone with a clinical anxiety disorder. But here’s the thing: It’s like the rest of you have finally caught up with me. Hyper-vigilance? Insomnia? Catastrophizing? Extreme fear of uncertainty? Welcome to my Isle of Dread. Care for a cocktail?
I’m kidding, sort of. Panic disorder and extreme health anxiety have alternatively propelled and paralyzed me for two decades. For the most part, I exist as a fully functional human being thanks to 10 milligrams of Lexapro, an insightful therapist (now available on video chat), and long-practiced behaviors that keep me even-keeled.
But many friends, thankfully never touched by the cold paws of anxiety, are now asking me how to deal. They don’t know what it’s like to awaken each morning wondering what kind of mood they’ll be in, or to contemplate whether today will be the day that mortality — in the form of a rash, a lump, a tremor — descends. They have never gasped for breath, ridden the acidic wave of heart palpitations and clammy sweats, and clawed for reassurance like a feral cat only to retreat into a mind that offers no solace, only more questions.
Most people move through the world assuming it has a veneer of predictability, or what psychologist Luana Marques calls a “thin veil of certainty.” We are not wired to deal with open-endedness; under normal circumstances, for example, we can feel fairly certain when we go to the grocery store that we’re not going to contract a virus. That has changed.
“But uncertainty is there all the time, and we just don’t feel it,” says Marques, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety sufferers know this intimately. You might be realizing it for the first time.
Please know that it will be OK. What I’ve come to learn over the course of 20 years is that you really can master your anxiety. I’m not a New Age guru or a doctor; I’m just a person who’s ridden it out. Here’s the trick: Don’t deny it. Accept that you are absolutely, 100 percent going to feel awful sometimes. I know, I know — the world is rife with mindfulness apps, breathing strategies, glamping retreats, and drugs aplenty to keep your unease at bay. These have their place. We cannot live in a state of heightened vigilance at all times.
But engaging with discomfort is its own therapy, too. It’s the most un-American thing ever, yet: You must sometimes feel bad. So accept the anxiety. Don’t blunt it; summon it. This sounds counterintuitive, I know, but anxiety isn’t a mark of shame to hide from people whom you assume are far more resilient than you. (They’re not.) It will continue to bounce on your shoulders like a thorny goblin until you grab it, stare it in the face, and have a firm chat.
“The first thing I’ve been making people understand is that anxiety is a normal response to a threat,” Marques says. “We want to run away from discomfort, but pushing anxiety away makes it worse. We’re living in times when most of us are comfortably uncomfortable at a minimum. Understand that by embracing our emotions and labeling them, we can ride the wave a little more smoothly.” It’s like surfing. You’ll be jostled by the ocean, tossed around, and eventually tumbled back onto the shore.
Of course, this is all academic until you’re hiding under a weighted blanket scrolling Twitter, wondering about that tickle in your throat. A behavioral way to cope is by doing something action-oriented, Marques says: cooking dinner with your kids, going for a walk. You’re forcing your brain to deal with what’s right in front of you.
Yet those of us with anxiety disorders also know that the only way out is by sitting with the discomfort until it dissipates. It’s like stepping into a hot tub and staying there until the water grows lukewarm. Acknowledge that you’re scared, and then tell yourself that you’ll sit, and you’ll breathe, and you’ll exist — yes, you will exist, minute by minute — until the feeling goes away. And, of course, reach out for professional help if you feel you need it.
Frame it as what we’re being asked to do in quarantine, on a smaller scale. Your mind is your own private bunker. You can’t just get up to leave, but when the door finally opens, think how much stronger you’ll be.
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