Don’t Panic: Breaking down my high functioning anxiety during a pandemic.

It was 10 pm last Wednesday when I walked into my bedroom where my wife had already started drifting off to sleep. I tried to keep it routine — brush my teeth; lie down; close my eyes. But it was too late. The panic had already taken a hold.

“I need you to wake up,” I said to her. The words barely left my lips.

“What’s wrong?” she murmured through a stretch.

“I think I’m having an anxiety attack.”

That sentence led into at least two hours of shaking, uncontrollable emotion, trouble breathing and my heart racing, and, at some points (I wish I was being dramatic) thinking I could die from an overwhelming feeling of doom.

I do know that anxiety attacks aren’t a real medical term, and what I was experiencing was a panic attack, but it was hard enough just to speak.

A venn diagram displaying differences in panic attacks and anxiety. I typically experience all symptoms.
A venn diagram displaying differences in panic attacks and anxiety. I typically experience all symptoms.

I’ve never been very open about mental health. I try to be proud and supportive of people who are transparent with their struggles, but I’ve always kept mine hidden away. Problems on display just haven’t been my thing. I also learned to mask this symptoms as something more socially acceptable. As an adult I’ve funneled those stresses into outcomes, some of which may still be considered unhealthy (workaholic with minimal boundaries). This is called “high functioning anxiety.

Anxiety and panic attacks have long been a part of who I am. There have been many life events that have molded me into this person, and I remember panic attacks as early as 5th or 6th grade. And junior high. And high school. And college. And adult hood. And most recently, as a 33 year old man, unable to control his mind, thoughts, and physical body.

My first pandemic panic attack was set off after about 2 weeks of working from home, reading non stop gloom news, and things way outside of my control. Around midnight I had regained some reason and was able to drift to sleep with the help of my wife, some grounding techniques, and a comedy sitcom.

And then again at about 4 am this morning I jolted awake. It was much less severe than the first one related to coronavirus, and I was able to manage the symptoms myself and get back to sleep in about 45 minutes.

I’m sure COVID-19 has a lot of people feeling anxious. My panic specifically sets in when I get worried that I might have the disease. Plenty of the fear is unfounded. Spring in South Carolina means the air is yellow with pollen, lending me to dry coughs and some troubled breathing. I’m grateful I live in a rural area with a relatively low amount of cases. We are following all of the CDC suggestions and guidelines. We wash our hands regularly. My life rinks of privilege as our groceries get delivered to our doorstep. Now imagine me with obsession over these precautions, habitually checking my temperature while tidal waves of thoughts of the potential scenarios that could happen if I contracted this disease.

I could die.
Will my family be financially secure?
What sort of trauma will occur in my son if I die from this pandemic?

Pair my brain with the onslaught of headlines and first hand stories of those with the disease — it’s a perfect storm for me to be completely overloaded and unable to process everything that’s happening.

So what can be done? How can I make this stop? The reality is I can’t. But I can have some self-awareness and take ownership over the things that can be controlled to minimize these feelings. Here’s what I’ve put into place so far that are beneficial:

(1) Limit media consumption. Facebook is very bad for me right now. The news is very bad for me right now. Serious or dark television or movies is very bad for me right now. I’m doing my best to practice a lot of self control and avoid clicking headlines. We’re currently catching up on this season of Survivor and when I need a pick me up, I’ll watch an episode of 30 Rock, Brooklyn 99, SNL, or Scrubs.

(2) Prioritize relaxing. I typically listen to lyrically driven indie rock and hip hop. I’m not feeling the lyrics right now; just music to keep me calm. I’ve really enjoyed the youtube lofi hiphop beats radio. If I can stand the pollen, swinging in the hammock in our backyard in absolute silence is really beneficial for me. Looking at your to-do list and saying, “not today” is absolutely okay. I’m not big on meditation, but a lot of people are, so this list can be helpful too.

(3) Stay in tune with my body. I eat when I’m hungry, and even when I’m not if I want to (and sometimes when I don’t want to if I need to). I’m trying to drink a lot of water. I only have 1 cup of coffee a day. I’m exercising when it feels right. I definitely find a good sweat helps, but also sometimes adds stress to the body that I don’t need right now. I would say that we eat fairly healthy in our home too — thanks to my wife. I’m keeping the blinds open to let it as much sunlight as possible, and spending as much time outside as I can. I’m also trying to openly communicate with my wife when I’m feeling particularly anxious, and she helps me stay off of my phone, choose easy going tv, and regularly check in.

(4) Staying connected. My friends and I have group chats, and since we’ve all been working from home and not hanging out, we keep the conversation going with each other on Marco Polo. Again — we keep it light. But it’s good to stay connected. This week we’re planning a beer chat and we’ll all video conference in and have a few drinks and laughs. I’m also trying to be proactive in checking in on others.

(5) Therapy. I’m very grateful to be able to continue therapy via telehealth. I recognize not everyone is able to do this, or maybe doesn’t know how to get started. If you’re interested or need/want to talk to someone, here is a list of apps where you can connect with a counselor.

I mentioned earlier than I’m not the type of person who airs their laundry. This is not exactly a comfortable space for me. So why would I write this?

It’s not a sympathy plea; it’s an opportunity to connect. As a person who faces daily battles with anxiety (with seasons of ease, and seasons like I’m in right now), I find a lot of solace in not being the only one. There is also a lot of faux-masculinity that circles around hard times sending that message that we (men) must power through, rather than acknowledge and share a piece of ourselves that’s particularly vulnerable. When I read about others who are having the same struggles, I hate it for them, and I suddenly feel less isolated.

So I know in what I’m reading online from others — I’m not alone. And if you’re reading this and connecting to it, you’re not alone either.

Ramblings from another millennial dad.

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