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How It Feels to Begin Therapy for Anxiety During the COVID-19 Outbreak

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It’s getting dark. I am sitting on my bed, staring at my phone: 18:28. The call I am waiting for is at 18:30. For around two weeks I have been expecting this phone call. I don’t know what to expect, but I sort of do because I have had family members go through the same thing. It’s been two long months, and now I am scared of not being believed.

When I first called for counseling, I had to take a test. The higher the score, the more severe your depression or anxiety is. I scored fairly high on the depression questions and low on the anxiety questions.

Ever since I asked for help, it felt as if a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. It was like breathing a long and healing sigh of relief after holding so much inside for so long, like unlocking that dreaded cupboard where you store the things you really ought to throw away but for sentimental reasons just can’t, and as the doors are flung open everything spills out and you finally don’t mind examining the wreckage and being ruthless. I hoped I would finally be able to let go of the bad things I had been holding onto for so long now that I was getting some help.

Two months later — Tuesday, March 24, was my first ever counseling session. Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects the lungs and respiratory system — the four sessions will all have to be offered on the phone. It felt surreal, sitting in the dark and staring at my lock screen, knowing any second now I would have to talk about my past against the backdrop of a dystopian present, one that I had not dared enter yet but had heard about on the news and through my partner, who had been going to buy essentials from the shops.

The phone rings at 18:35. I take a deep breath and pick up.

The conversation feels pretty normal. I feel as if I am talking to a friend, to someone who genuinely wants to help me. She explains she wanted to give me face-to-face counseling but with the current situation, she obviously cannot. We would be compromising each other’s health. She says that phone sessions are shorter than face-to-face sessions. She explains why but I kind of zone out. I don’t mean to be rude, but I often freeze up when I have to talk about my past, so I’m rehearsing lines in my head so that she doesn’t think she has lost connection later on.

It’s gone really dark, which somehow amplifies her voice and the meaning of this monumental session even more. This was meant to be the start of my life — of being a healthier person and a better mumbut now, I can’t even go outside. The concept of healing feels non-existent when you’re stuck in the same four walls with a lot of time to think about the past whilst simultaneously worrying about the future.

She does the questionnaire with me. My scores are low, suggesting that I am in recovery, and when she tells me this, she sounds confused. I explain that I have felt fine since asking for help. This interests her and her tone changes and I breathe a sigh of relief because for a moment, even though I feel I have been fighting all my life and I am permanently stuck in survival mode, I felt undeserving of therapy.

“I get that you will be up and down,” she says gently. “That’s perfectly natural.”

I tell her how I have been feeling and what I’ve been dealing with for the past few years as best as I can, even though it hurts my chest a little to speak, and I wish I could be a little more articulate.

“You have a case of the ‘what-ifs,’” she says. She doesn’t need to explain. I know exactly what I have been doing all this time. I need to know how to stop it if it happens again.

“Imagine a big red stop sign when you get stuck in this cycle,” she says. “And go do something else. Watch a film. Play with your son. You are worrying about things that might not even happen and you are exhausting yourself. Step off of the hamster wheel.”

“If only you knew how many times I have told myself that,” I think, but I don’t say it. I just say OK and tell her yes, it’s helped, like it is fresh advice to me.

The session is over in 30 minutes and I am left sitting on my bed in the dark. I’ve been offered another three 50-minute sessions. “You’d be surprised what can be achieved in four sessions,” she says. I’m not so convinced. She doesn’t know the half of it, yet.

I was convinced that counseling would help me heal, but now I’m not so sure. I feel like the world sees me as not severe enough to treat because now everyone is in the same cycle of anxiety and depression with the current situation. I feel like my feelings are “old news.”

Long after the phone call is over, one of the things I said to my therapist stays in my mind like an echo:

“I worry that when all this is over,” I said, “I’ll struggle to go outside again after being stuck in for so long.”

It sums up how I feel. After experiencing the same life for so long, I’m afraid that things will never change whilst concurrently afraid of the change.

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that anything can happen. Life can change quicker than the flick of a dime. We cannot control the events around us, but we can (with a bit of work, dedication and willingness) change our thinking habits and the way we perceive unprecedented matters. That is the point of counseling. It cannot erase the past but it can change your thinking in order to change your future.

I’m still feeling uncertain about counseling. I wonder what my therapist will say next time when I tell her everything that’s happened to me and has lead to this point. I wonder how I will be able to work on my social anxiety when I am having to stay in the house for my own safety.

The way I now see it, I have two choices: I can obsess about the things I cannot change, or I can use the current circumstances as an opportunity. I can see staying in as a break from the outside world. It is finally about me. There is time to heal, an endless amount right now to work on my mental health. I can use this time stuck inside to prepare for the future when things go back to “normal.”

It turns out my counselor is right. Her advice about the stop sign may seem obvious or very simple, but it works. Since my first counseling session, I have imagined a big red stop sign anytime I am overthinking, self-criticizing or I am feeling fearful about the future. I have taken a deep breath and picked up a book, written a story, article or poem, or watched a YouTube video if I’m struggling to concentrate on words. I have felt better after paying attention to the red stop sign. I have felt calmer. I have felt surprised that doing something as simple as writing or reading or allowing myself to rest and reminding myself that I am deserving a self-care actually works.

The way we are living now is surreal. We have been forced to suddenly change our thinking. We are a society of pushers and perseverers. We only call in sick at our jobs if we are physically throwing up and unable to move. Our instincts tell us to push on and problem solve when faced with an obstacle. The coronavirus has thrown all of society’s coping mechanisms out of the window and has offered one viable solution that goes against every fiber: stop everything we’re doing and change the way we are living.

We can bite our nails and look out at the bleak and silent canvas that is the outside world right now,or we can view this as an opportunity and do what humans do best: adjust. Adjusting to life during the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean compliance or surrendering to a life we don’t want;it means finding the light in the dark. The light in the dark, in this case, is viewing COVID-19 like an unorthodox therapist.

Use this time wisely. Rest whilst you can. Binge-watch shows on Netflix whilst you can. Shower and brush your teeth in the afternoon whilst you can. Practice being gentle to yourself and administering self-care without busy everyday life getting in the way. Spend time with your family. Remember what matters most. Use this time to assess what parts of your old life you want to go back to and what parts you don’t.

For me, I don’t want to go back to everyday life worrying and dissecting and trying to control every little thing. I have the privilege of switching off from the outside world right now, and I am going to use this time to work on my anxiety and through my past so that I can leave all my baggage behind, with COVID-19, and enter “normal” life again as a happier, calmer person.

What COVID-19 is trying to teach us is that we will never go back to our old lives, and shouldn’t want to either. We should be striving towards a new and more socialist life: one that is more prepared to look after its community if disaster does strike. We should strive to return to a community that doesn’t exhaust itself over financial statistics and the economy, but one that prioritizes and respects the things that matter: people. Retail workers, cleaners, doctors, nurses, delivery drivers— they are called essential key workers for a reason. COVID-19 has taught us that we have been getting our priorities all wrong. COVID-19 highlights the areas that vastly need improving and is imploring us not to return to life the way it was before in its absence. It has stopped the world, which is terrifying, but it also means we now have a lot of time on our hands to realize the things that matter and the importance of being good people and prioritizing the right things.

I don’t feel adequately equipped for my life. I know I want to change it but I just don’t know how to. And now COVID-19 has forced me to imprison myself physically, which makes counseling seem almost pointlessbut therapy is designed to change the way we think. I can use these special circumstances to practice changing my train of thought. I cannot change the past or my present, but I can work on myself in order to have a brighter future.

It’s a strange time, but the acts of kindness I have seen on social media ought to teach me that there is always help and hope in a crisis. There is always a bit of peace or normality amongst the surreal. There is always a light to be found in the darkest of times.

I will find the ray of hope in my dystopian present. I will use this time to assess what matters. I will leave the world as I know it and heal.

A version of this story was originally published on Medium.

Struggling with anxiety due to COVID-19? Check out the following articles from our community:

Photo by Kaboompics from Pexels

Originally published: April 6, 2020
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