Dealing With Health Anxiety As Lockdown Eases
For most people around the world, Covid-19 has been their first experience of pandemic-related health anxiety – and thank God for that, right?
For me, however – and, I’ll bet, for many other health anxiety sufferers – this is actually the fourth time we’ve experienced the feeling that, OMG, the world is probably going to end. No, really.
There was the Bird Flu scare of 2006.
Then the Swine Flu in 2009.
Finally, 2014 brought Ebola: not to me personally, you understand, but I worried about it anyway. It’s what I do.
So, yeah, I’m an old hand at this whole, “Worrying you’re going to die in a pandemic,” business – and, if you also live with health anxiety, I bet you are, too. In fact, can we just take a minute here to say, “I TOLD YOU SO,” to everyone who ever doubted us? Because, OK, none of those other potential pandemics actually happened, obviously (In fact, when I mentioned them to my closest family members a few weeks ago, most of them had only the vaguest memories of them: which just goes to show how carefully they’ve been listening to ME, huh?) … but then this one did: and all of a sudden, we found ourselves thrown into our actual worst nightmare.
(OK, maybe not the worst. My ACTUAL worst nightmare involves me waking up to find a selection of crustaceans in my bed, but that’s a whole other story, trust me…)
Living through a literal pandemic has been a pretty strange experience for someone with health anxiety. In fact, it’s been a pretty strange experience even for people WITHOUT health anxiety, so you can probably guess what it’s been like for those of us who were anxious to start with, and then, instead of being told it was all in our heads, and that we should just stop worrying about it – which is what normally happens when health anxiety flares up – were told that, actually it WASN’T in our heads, and that we we should totally try to worry some more.
For the past four months, everything we’ve seen on the news, or been told by our governments, has served to validate our fear. My husband has received two separate letters, plus numerous texts, telling him that Covid-19 is such a huge risk to him that he shouldn’t leave his house – or, ideally, his room. Every day we’ve heard government advisers, scientists and doctors read out the death toll, and remind us to be scared of everything. Life has ground to a halt. We’ve washed our hands AND our groceries. Even the most level-headed of us have been encouraged to be terrified – and quite a few have succumbed.
It’s not been a great time to have health anxiety, in other words: but, at the same time, it kind of HAS.
For me, the first few weeks of lockdown actually brought some relief from the constant anxiety – and, OK, flat-out terror – I’d felt during January and February, as I tracked the progress of the virus through China and Europe, all the while feeling like no one around me was taking it seriously enough, and that we were all 100% going to die.
Those two months were actually the hardest part of this whole thing for me. The virus felt like a constant threat: I found myself worrying, not just about catching it myself, but about my loved-ones catching it, and possibly dying from it. I worried about what would happen to my son if Terry and I both had to be hospitalised. I worried about being stuck in hospital (Context: my irrational fear of hospitals), totally alone, probably in one of those plastic “bubbles” you always see in movies about infectious diseases (Context: those scenes in E.T. where the house is shrouded in plastic, because, reasons.), surrounded by people in hazmat suits, struggling to breathe, and knowing I was dying. Yeah, I was a TON of fun back in January and February: you’d have LOVED me, seriously.
Of course, all of that seems more than a little bit ridiculous when you see it all written out like that. It’s genuinely how I felt at the time, though: and it’s why, once we were in lockdown, and the chances of any of these things actually happening were vastly reduced, I felt a whole lot better.
Now, however, lockdown is all but over. The UK is slowly starting to return to something like normal. The pubs are open again – albeit with social distancing measures in place. Pretty soon, we’re going to be expected to get on with our lives, almost as if nothing happened, and we haven’t just spent a quarter of the year being repeatedly told we should be scared to death – and that, if we weren’t scared enough, then… well, literal DEATH.
It’s a pretty big ask, really – for some of us, at least.
That’s not, however, to say that I’m sad lockdown is ending, or that I want it to carry on for longer: this isn’t one of THOSE posts. Because, the fact is, grateful though I am for the break in the anxiety, and the relative safety lockdown provided for us, I’m not one of the people who enjoyed it, and who would not-so-secretly have liked a few weeks more.
Actually, I hated every second of it. Every single one. I was safe, yes – but I was also bored, stressed, lonely – you name it. I have missed my old life so much that it’s almost felt like I was going through some kind of mourning process for it at times (Yes, I know that’s ALSO going to sound ridiculous to some of you, but… wait: why are you reading a post about anxiety anyway, if you think it’s so ridiculous? WHY, THOUGH?), and if I were to rank all of the years of my life in order, starting with the ones I enjoyed the least, I have absolutely no doubt that 2020 would be at the very top of that list.
So, no, I will not miss lockdown one tiny little bit, and this is definitely not a plea for things to continue as they are.
What is it then?
It’s a request for a bit of empathy, I guess: for the people who are desperate to get back to normal, and who aren’t worried about catching the virus, to spare a thought for those of us who are dealing with a lifetime’s worth of health anxiety, or those who are particularly vulnerable to Covid-19, and who’ve spent the last 16 weeks being scared witless by healthcare providers, media outlets, and government advisers alike.
For some people, it’s going to be really hard to just file those messages under ‘Things That Are No Longer Relevant’ and push all of the fear we’ve been encouraged to have aside: especially when the death toll in some parts of the country is still pretty high, and we’re constantly being told to expect a second wave.
We don’t expect you to walk on eggshells around us, obviously, but we do hope you won’t be offended when we turn down your invitation to that social gathering, or take a few steps to the side when you stand too close to us, without realising. We’d really appreciate it if you’d give us some space and try to observe social distancing – even if you think it’s stupid, because you’re not scared any more. I won’t judge you for going to pub, or standing in line to get into IKEA – but, at the same time, I’d rather you didn’t judge ME for choosing NOT to do those things, or sneer at me for still being “scared” of something that – sorry – has been really freaking scary.
The fact is, we all have different levels of risk, and different coping mechanisms: we’re not all going to go through this at the same speed, or in exactly the same way. The very least we can do, though, is to get through it without constantly lecturing each other about how we’re doing it all wrong, and trying to insist that our way is the only way to pandemic correctly: which is what I seem to see happening every time I log into Twitter these days. On one side, there are people insisting that if you’re leaving your house at all, you’re a reckless Covid-19 spreader; on the other, meanwhile, there are people rolling their eyes and claiming that anyone who’s still scared is just a hysterical idiot. I just.. can we just NOT? Because while you’re all busy judging each other on Twitter, I’m just going to be over here worrying about the new bubonic plague – now, who wants to join me?*
(*I’m joking. Probably.)