It was sometime in March when I got a text message from my sister-in-law informing me my niece had a virus. Immediately, my room heated up to what felt like 150 degrees— I was sweating, my insides were knotted and I had to remind myself to focus on my breathing—a basic human need that felt nearly impossible at that moment.
I called my husband to re-live every encounter my daughter and niece had recently. I spewed off a series of repetitive, what-if questions.
This was March 2019, well before the coronavirus existed. The virus my sister-in-law was referring to was a run of the mill, 24-hour stomach bug. But in living with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) triggered by germ and health-related matters, what’s common to most people feels catastrophic to me.
My obsessive thoughts and internal battles are ones most people have never understood. Until now.
Now, the world feels about the coronavirus the way I feel about all viruses all the time. I have friends who have never had anxious thoughts, calling me to talk about what their anxiety feels like and how I’m keeping mine in check.
“I have chest pains. Is that a panic attack?” one asks.
“I can’t breathe. If this is what anxiety feels like? It’s horrible,” shares another.
My response to this global pandemic has shocked everyone—but mostly myself. Because during this COVID-19 outbreak, I’m surprisingly calm. I feel better now than I do when I learn someone has a common cold, slight fever, flu or stomach bug. And while friends have started speaking to therapists, I’ve cut back on seeing mine. Right now, I don’t feel like I need it.
For 16 years, I’ve worked to keep my anxiety and OCD at bay, and I’ve been mainly successful. When I share with people I have anxiety and OCD, they are often taken aback. Thanks to years of therapy, medication, holistic practices and learned coping mechanisms, I can usually keep it together externally, even when feeling so out of control internally.
So why, during one of the most frightening viruses in our world’s history, do I feel at peace?
“Anxiety is all about feeling a loss of control and now, you are in control of your environment and what germs you expose to that environment,” Vicki Hervitz, a Licensed Certified Social Worker-Clinical explains to me. “Not only do you have control over your home and family, every public space has meticulous precautions in place to ensure germs aren’t being transferred.” (I’m also in control of whether we leave our house or not, for the most part.)
Vicki doesn’t work with me professionally, but she is one of my childhood best friends who has watched me struggle over the years. She’s my rational voice easing my irrational concerns, like my postpartum fear of germs that took on such a life of its own, it was painful to leave my house.
When I told Vicki I was calm about COVID-19, she wasn’t surprised. “The world is now on your side and believes in the power of germs,” she tells me. “You have this feeling of validation that all your worries about germs are suddenly rational.”
Rational or not, don’t mistake my calmness for complacency. I am scared and worried. I am taking proper precautions like social distancing, wiping down some groceries and most importantly, a lot of handwashing.
But I’m not letting myself go to extremes like bleaching any item my family comes in contact with, yelling at my children if they are outside and accidentally touch a neighbor’s swing set or wiping down every piece of mail that comes indoors.
In a sense, COVID-19 is my own form of exposure therapy. I’m watching all my worries play out and recognizing I have tools and strategies to combat my inner battles—like exercise, positive self-talk and a wonderful therapist if I need her.
But for those of you experiencing this feeling of anxiety for the first time and don’t know how to proceed, I see you and understand you. These feelings will come and go. After feeling a sense of calm during what’s arguably my biggest fear, I realize I’m stronger than I thought.
And so are you.