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Coping With Anxiety During COVID-19 As a Mental Health Professional

As a person with anxiety, I constantly live with the fear that the other shoe will drop at any moment. Living with a checklist of everything that could possibly go wrong, even when, or rather particularly when everything is going right, is almost second nature. This year was a year when my life was supposedly going very well. Everything was hunky-dory. I had gotten into the doctoral program that I had been desperately seeking to get into, found and gotten engaged to the partner of my dreams, developed a closer relationship with my loved ones and even begun to work toward the long-standing aspiration of founding my own non-profit. However, despite all of these great things that were happening, I was always worried that it would all fall apart. The panic and fear were driving me up the wall.

I had just begun to undertake the journey of savoring these successes unconditionally when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic struck. And just like that, in a jiffy, I was back to square one. The other shoe had dropped. The loud thud of the shoe dropping shook my entire being with an unparalleled intensity. It was almost like everything I had feared had come true. The unpredictability and uncertainty that my anxiety thrives on had suddenly magnified manifold. The anxiety monster was no longer a tiny black cloud but in fact had transformed into a gigantic beast. I felt dwarfed by this beast and was reduced to a tiny person crawling in the shadow of the beast, continually afraid of being trampled by it.

I, who was scared of losing my loved ones to road accidents, now had a legitimate reason to be anxious about their deaths thanks to an invisible entity that was on the loose. I, who feared not being able to make it to the U.S. despite getting an admission, finally had a legitimate reason to be afraid given the travel restrictions being imposed by countries across the world. I, who feared for travel and meeting plans going awry, finally had a legitimate reason to worry given that traveling or meeting my friends, who lived in the hotspot zones of this pandemic, seemed out of the question. I, who could not face the thoughts lodged in the recesses of my mind and sought refuge in going out with my friends multiple times each week, suddenly found that choice taken away from me. My most effective coping mechanism was completely removed from the equation and a long, long period of living indoors lay ahead of me.

In trying to rationalize and reason with my anxiety, I tried to seek out more information with the hope that information would be power. I read vociferously about each and every drug and vaccine trial, about the trends of the COVID-19 pandemic in different geographies, about public health measures that could facilitate de-escalation and whatnot. I read the WHO guidelines on the issue, scanned through all the CDC articles suggesting measures one should take to prevent catching the virus or while caring for a sick loved one. You name the article and I would have read it. But no amount of reading led me to any certain answers because, for the first time, there were no answers to give. Studies conducted in Singapore were no better than studies conducted in the USA or India, in giving me some stability or predictability. In fact, the more I read, the more disillusioned I became for every article I read made me believe that there was no reason to hope. However, I was obsessed with COVID-19 trends. Every evening, I would fall asleep to the COVID-19 numbers for the day. The anxiety created by these numbers was so significant that only sleep could quieten my restless mind. Over time, however, I was able to lay this habit of seeking too much information to rest. “What helped?” you might ask. Well, the realization that the news would be there to access even days later, coupled with the acute awareness of the manner in which this news was affecting my wellbeing.

Being a mental health professional, this pandemic hit me rather hard because the amount of distress that it had created in the populace was palpable. I knew that I had to step up and be useful. Reading about my fellow mental health professionals being featured in articles which aimed to help individuals cope with the pandemic, viewing publicity materials for the umpteen webinars that they were conducting, hearing from them about their increasing caseloads and whatnot, certainly amped the pressure even further, as if the pressure was already not intense enough. Even though I had promised to myself that I wouldn’t let capitalistic thinking, which told me that my worth was only measured by my productivity, win this round; I faltered. The world, with its emphasis on being productive and making the most of this pandemic, got to me and I ended up dipping my toes in the stream of all kinds of work that came my way.

Fortunately, however, work gave a structure to my day and prevented me from spending hours scrolling through my Instagram and Facebook feeds. Work helped me feel more in control given that it made me encounter challenges that I was more equipped to face, unlike the challenges of living in the pandemic, that too amidst a disillusioning socio-political climate (which I had absolutely no handle over). However, I will not glorify working amidst the pandemic because I know that being able to control how much work I took on, as well as the nature of work that I engaged in, helped with the crisis of lack of control. Further, ensuring adequate breaks and rest days, as well as constantly doing a mental check-in to ensure that I was not well over my head, helped the most. Being connected with my fellow mental health professionals, being comfortable with asking for help and ensuring that I was not setting unrealistically high standards for myself, were also important ingredients that made work doable and even helpful for me. Finally, work helped me stay connected with people, and in this time, when connectedness has become the most important pursuit; this characteristic of work made it quite lucrative, sustainable and even advantageous for my wellbeing.

Even as I write this article, I cannot claim that I am not bothered by my anxiety or that I have gotten a handle on it now and the pandemic doesn’t bother me. This pandemic did change all my plans, and even till now, I do not have any clear answers to whether I will be able to go to the U.S. and pursue my doctoral degree or get married to my fiancĂ© in the near future. I do not know when I will be able to step out for a round of drinks with my friends or go on a solo trip again. However, I do know that I can stay at home for prolonged periods of time, I can stay connected with my friends despite the miles and time zones separating us. I do know that I have been able to spend a lot of quality time with my family and foster closer relationships with my parents. I do know that I have been able to reconnect with my passion for cooking and writing. I do know that I have been able to rediscover my zeal for my work and get back to things that I had not done for a long long time, within the arena of work. But more than any of these things, what has helped is knowing, that despite my anxiety, I have been able to survive a pandemic (at least till now). Yes, I am still paranoid about contracting the virus or having a loved one contract it. However, I am still hopeful in the knowledge that it will be over one day and then tight, bear hugs will be in vogue again!

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Photo by Arun Sharma on Unsplash