On December 10, 2009, the CDC reported an estimated 50 million Americans or 1 in 6 people had been infected with the 2009 A H1N1 Virus, and 10,000 Americans had died, by which time the vaccine was beginning to be widely distributed to the general public by several states. H1N1, also called the Swine flu, was the last time the world had a pandemic. It began in the spring of 2009. Today we have a vaccination to help protect us against H1N1.
Maybe you’re wondering why I’m talking about the Swine flu when I’m supposed to be writing about the Coronavirus. I am because, at the time of the Swine flu, I purchased one box of Tamiflu for every member of my family. I was so anxious I felt like I was crawling out of my skin. I alternated between planning my funeral (bad) or one of my children or grandchildren’s funerals (much worse). The tab for Tamiflu for all was considerably higher than a luxurious weekend at a ski resort. I didn’t care. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing a loved one. Never mind that, had anyone developed the Swine flu, their doctor would have prescribed Tamiflu for them. I knew there weren’t going to be any supplies of Tamiflu left when any of my family needed it. I worried myself sick for months on end. I had very high anxiety.
There are different types of anxiety. There is a type of anxiety that seems to be hereditary, whether by nature or nurture. That type of anxiety is seen in generations of a family; great-grandpa had it, grandma had it, mom has it, two sisters have it. It’s called “free-floating” anxiety because it doesn’t involve a particular person, place, or thing. It just attaches itself to various situations or nothing in particular.
And there is a type of anxiety that is caused by a physical problem such as thyroid disease. The underlying physical illness has to be taken care of before anxiety will go away.
The third type of anxiety occurs when there is a legitimate threat to safety and well being. That type of anxiety is what many people are experiencing today—the Coronavirus is real.
It’s like waking up inside a science fiction movie you’ve watched. The world flipped like a coin. Before the Coronavirus, people were going about their lives doing what they do, experiencing life’s typical hardships that, at times, seemed unbearable but always worked out somehow. Then suddenly there’s a virus that man has no immunity to and has never known before. Entire states are shut down, all activities canceled, and many governors issued a mandatory stay at home order.
I’m sure there’s a diagnosis for the lone soul who is looking skyward, saying, “Take me. I don’t care.” For everyone else, your anxiety is normal. This is a big deal. Your anxiety isn’t a disease; it’s a reflection of something unfamiliar and awful happening. You’ve never experienced anything like this before, never even thought that something like this could happen.
But here we are. So, first, know that you’re in good company. Everyone is anxious about the Coronavirus, except the unknown person above.
Pay attention to your anxiety. Sometimes it wants you to listen. Your anxiety wants you to stay safe, practice safe distancing when going out if you have to go out to get food, gas, medication. Your anxiety wants you to remember to wash your hands after touching just about anything, to stock up on some extra food, extra household necessities, yes, like toilet paper but not enough toilet paper for the entire neighborhood.
Your anxiety is your friend. It just doesn’t feel like a friend because you want to fight with it instead of listening. What else might your anxiety be telling you to do? Maybe call an elderly parent or relative to check up on them, or to call your doctor if you have a fever and a sore throat or other symptoms the CDC indicates when you should call your doctor. Your anxiety wants you to be prudent but not stupid, to stay away from other people as much as possible. Your anxiety wants you to do what you’ve been advised to do by your city or county or state, or doctor. Your anxiety will not be appeased by getting drunk or drugging. For the moment, yes, but as soon as it wears off, your anxiety will be back worse than it was before. Accept what you cannot change. Take a deep breath, inhaling and exhaling slowly five times, three times a day. Make lists about the things you need to do. Lists create relief because you know it’s down, and items don’t have to keep rumbling around in your head. Do your best to reassure your children that this isn’t a good thing, but in all likelihood, it will pass, and life will go on. Life will probably change for all of us. In what ways we don’t know yet, but pandemics have a way of getting our attention, making us think about what’s important, what has meaning for us. Be creative with the time you’ll be staying inside, alone or with family or other people living in your house. Have you ever wanted time to slow down just so you could catch your breath, organize that closet, balance that checkbook, work in your garden, repair that fence, binge watch movies without guilt, stay up too late, sleep in a bit longer than usual? Yes? Well, now is the time.
When you feel so anxious, you can’t concentrate, sit down with a pen and paper, look at the clock and begin writing everything that pops into your mind, no censoring, no editing, forget punctuation or proper grammar, write without ever picking your pen up from the paper. Do this for a minimum of fifteen minutes, thirty if you get going. When the time is up, put the paper away, don’t read it, go on about whatever you’d planned to do. Exercise as much as possible, roll off your couch and do some leg lifts.
Know that some people will get sick, and some people will die, but not everyone. Just like my tale of Tamiflu, obsessively anxious over something that never did happen. No one got sick. The Tamiflu sat in boxes until the expiration date and I disposed of them. You’re more likely not to get ill or to get sick and survive than to get sick and die. Yes, some people will die. Some people will get into a car accident. Some people will get flowers delivered to their door. We haven’t ever been able to predict the future. We’ve just liked to believe we can because it relieves anxiety.
Listen to your anxiety, let it be your friend for productive and protective purposes, and then play as you’ve never played before. Take a slogan from the seventies, “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” That’s real too.