My Mental Health Issues Are Helping Me Through Self-Isolation

The heightened sense of collective stress about COVID-19 hasn’t taken my anxiety away, but it *has* made me feel less trapped with it

I started overbuying toilet paper long before the novel coronavirus came on my radar. I know it’s totally irrational to buy more than I need when there is no imminent threat of a shortage. Growing up, my mom used to do the same, and I would always criticize her habit. That is, until she passed away unexpectedly a few years ago, and I suddenly found myself exhibiting the very behaviour I used to mock. In the years since, I’ve come to realize our illogical behaviour was a coping mechanism we developed in response to our own experiences of trauma; an attempt to prevent us from ever feeling out of control again. 

But no matter how much my anxiety has led me to catastrophize in the past, even I couldn’t have ever predicted this moment. The grocery store shelves are empty, my inbox is overflowing with event cancellations and company statements (apparently I’m subscribed to Tim Hortons, who knew?) and my Instagram is a constant scroll of unsolicited advice. The pandemic feels inescapable. It’s caused such a disruption to daily life that even those who don’t normally have mental health issues are feeling more anxious than usual. And for good reason—there is a lot to be worried about right now. Our natural “flight-or-fight” response might be useful in building smart habits (*ahem* have you washed your hands lately?). But for those who struggle with chronic anxiety, paranoia, and obsessive compulsions on your average Tuesday, this new reality can feel like the end of the world.  

A month ago, my social anxiety looked like “Are my friends mad at me because I haven’t reached out in a while?” Now it’s, “Are my friends mad at me because I haven’t been supportive enough during their social isolation?” Before COVID-19, I would overthink well-intentioned comments from strangers about my Asian ethnicity, but now I actually feel physically unsafe because of the way I look—last week my neighbour angrily yelled “Chinese!” at me as he walked by. What were once unjustified fears are now valid and real. Thankfully, I can safeguard my sense of safety by staying at home. My mental health issues don’t require institutional treatment and I’m a freelancer with no dependents. I don’t have to put my health at risk to survive. But what about those who don’t have the same privileges I do? 

When the novel coronavirus first started affecting my work (assignments dropped, events cancelled, trips postponed, etc.), my anxiety symptoms ramped up immediately. For the first week, my heart was racing more than usual and my mind clung to every fear. But everything shifted when my immediate community started taking proactive measures to curb the spread of the virus, like closing businesses and social distancing. It used to be that I’d go on Instagram and see people living out the life I wish I had the courage to pursue—traveling with their partners, getting married, spending Friday nights at the bar with friends. Now, I go on Instagram and see people talk about going stir-crazy after two weeks of social isolation and working from home

All the behaviours I’ve been most ashamed of are now being mirrored back at me—it’s like watching a movie of my daily life. You see, in the years since my mom’s death, I’ve retreated inward to protect myself, and developed some pretty neurotic habits as a result. I avoid filling my social calendar, I have major anxiety around working in office environments, I overstock on basics, and I’m obsessed with cleaning (although I stand by my habit of wiping down my phone daily). I’ve unknowingly been preparing for the quarantine lifestyle for years. All that’s changed is that I’m now freed from the pressure to make social plans (*an introvert’s dream come true*). Suddenly, I feel confident and capable that I can make it through social isolation. Could it be, that what I thought were my greatest flaws might actually be assets? 

A former therapist once told me, “You adopted these behaviours in order to survive, and now, they no longer serve you.” But the widespread panic over COVID-19 has made me realize: What if my coping mechanisms are actually my mitigation mechanisms? Rather than simply Band-Aid solutions developed in response to trauma, they might actually be making me more resilient, better armed for the next battle (like an unexpected pandemic). Over several years of living with anxiety, I’ve learned how to distance myself from it—I notice when the irrational voice gets too loud and can prevent myself from spiralling into a panic attack. So now, even when some of my worries are valid, I know how to dial them down when the ruminating has gone too far. 

I’m not saying it’s necessarily healthy to live the quarantine lifestyle when you don’t need to. But it’s also not healthy to shame yourself when you do. As Olivia Laing recently wrote for the New York Times, Loneliness is a taboo state in our social world, and part of its extraordinary pain has to do with shame. Seeing my own lifestyle projected back at me has prompted me to reframe my perspective—I’ve stopped viewing my coping mechanisms as signs of failure and as a result, they’ve lost some of their grip on my daily routine. I haven’t had a panic attack, or obsessively cleaned, or even bought toilet paper since learning of the Coronavirus. All because my seemingly abnormal behaviours have become normalized. The heightened sense of both collective stress and support online hasn’t taken my anxiety away, but it has made me feel less trapped with it. I just hope we can maintain this level of compassion—for others and ourselves—when life returns to normal for some, yet continues to feel apocalyptic for those with mental health issues.

For now, I’m seeing the silver lining in my neuroses. Irrationally preparing for a worst case scenario makes me more braced for change when an unexpected crisis, like COVID-19, emerges. Whether it be having my go-to self-care tools, like long walks and steaming hot baths, or simply knowing that I’ve survived the unimaginable in the past, living with anxiety has ironically made my inner world feel more in control as my outer world unravels. When the road ahead feels uncertain and the powerlessness starts to feel paralyzing, I know to pause and remind myself the only way forward is to take it day by day.