The Thing About… Panic

There is panic and there is panic.

January 2020, I was in panic. I had started reading articles about the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China. I live in a flat with a few people and two of them had been to China for Christmas. I didn’t know what part of China they lived or visited. So, in January 2020 when people were going about their days normally, I was in a state of panic. I was obsessively washing my hands when I touched anything in my flat. Anything. The thing is I tend towards the dramatic, so I was not taking any risks. 14 days after their return, none of them fell ill, I felt safe. The worst had passed. In retrospect, I could have just asked them if they went to Wuhan and saved myself the anxiety, but I didn’t know how to do that without making them feel some type of way.

February went by and I didn’t give corona much thought. By March, cases around the world started rising. I started panicking again. I refused to touch traffic lights, handshakes were a big no, I was obsessively washing my hands again. I remember a friend wanting to meet up and I was terrified. I still met up with my friend; my panic had not paralysed me, but it was coming. A week before the lockdown was announced, I had stopped going to the gym and uni; if they weren’t going to put us on lockdown, I was going to put myself on lockdown. I bought groceries and meds, ready for when the virus got me. I sneezed once and was sure that was the end.

23rd March, the UK went into lockdown and I was in panic. This time, my panic paralysed me. My mind went into lockdown as well. I was terrified. I could not see past my fear. I was still obsessively washing my hands, I was not leaving my house, I was only leaving my room for food. If I’m being honest, I was convinced I was going to die. I have asthma, so I’m technically in the vulnerable group. I was convinced that if I got the virus, my respiratory system would collapse. In the two weeks that followed, I was a ball of panic. I did not get any work done, I was stress-eating, I was sleeping for half the day, I was not really speaking to people but anyone I spoke to had an earful of my panic. My panic was all I could think about.

In those two weeks I was panicking, the “this is the time to get things done or you lack discipline” narrative started floating around. I remember telling someone all I had done was watch Netflix, and he basically said he expected more from me. So along with my panic came shame. I was wasting time that I could be spending on my goals. I had been asking for more time and I had gotten it, but I was faffing around. This may sound like an excuse to the high achievers, but the truth is I could not get myself to do anything. I wish I could put the bleakness I felt into words. For me, there was no point after my panic, so no need to do anything for my life after it. I think that sentence sums up what I felt in that moment.

It is now week four of the lockdown and I’m not panicking anymore. I am okay with the reality. At least as okay as you can be in the middle of a pandemic that is forecast to have effects on your life for months after it ends. My productivity is back up. I’m eating right, I’m working out (at home of course), I’m leaving my room more often, I’m doing schoolwork again, my conversations with my friends are not all doom and gloom. I have even done things I wouldn’t normally do; I have baked, tried new recipes, read a novel, listened to new podcasts and written. In summary, I see past the bleakness. On some days, I don’t even see the bleakness. Don’t get me wrong, there are days where all I can do is wrap myself in my duvet and watch Netflix. There are days where my throat feels tight and I’m convinced I have coronavirus and I’m going to die. But they are not as frequent as before.

I don’t know when exactly the shift happened. How did I go from thoughts of global annihilation to “it is what it is”? This made me do some research on how the body responds to high stress situations. What happens when for example, a lockdown is announced?  

The amygdala, the emotional part of the brain, fires up. This overwhelms us with emotions because there’s a high stress situation. Sometimes, the logical part of your brain can regulate the emotions, other times not so much. Being sad and bingeing Netflix all day in the middle of a pandemic? Not completely unnatural.

Then your brain kicks in to find ways for us to react to this novel situation. Ordinarily, we operate on autopilot because we are used to the situations around us. When there is a drastic change in these situations, we are forced to actively use our brains.  The brain works overtime to make sense of what is going on and form responses to this. This overtime leaves the body exhausted even if much is not achieved. Not achieving a lot but still feeling exhausted? Completely natural. I think this is the phase I was in for two weeks after the lockdown was announced. I was always tired, pretty sure I raked in about 12 hours of sleep a day. In week four, I am down to 7/8 hours.

The first time I tried to do uni work, I watched a one-hour video in two and a half hours. I was so disappointed in myself. However, science suggests there is no need for disappointment. The brain has limited capacity and whether we like it or not, a significant chunk of that capacity is occupied by coronavirus related information, leaving just a little room for everything else. In my two-week panic period, I read every single article on coronavirus. I am not kidding. Every single article I found, I read it. I was a coronavirus facts pack, I even read the conspiracy theories. I have now limited my coronavirus readings to news headlines and one (or two on days where I cannot stop myself) article. Reducing the number of corona-related information I read has helped me a lot. I am no longer continuously thinking about it and I can think about other things.

What I’m really saying is don’t let anyone put pressure on you. This is the first time we are experiencing lockdowns across the world. Take the time you need to adjust. Do whatever thing you have to do to adjust, as long as it’s legal of course. You do not lack discipline because you can’t do 50 backflips when you’ve just read that over 10,000 people have died. You do not have to have completed a PhD, built a multinational and started a family by the time we come out of lockdown. Just show up for yourself, whatever this means to you. In some cases, it could mean taking courses or starting a business. The point is do not let the capitalist ideas of ‘having’ and ‘doing’ put unnecessary pressure on you. With time your brain will adjust and find new ways for you to be productive and guess what? Capitalism will still be there to stress you when you are ready. Mine took 2 weeks, yours may be shorter or longer, but give yourself room because fighting it will only elongate it.

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