Humanity is dealing with a crisis and there are a huge number of ways in which this is making people anxious. We’re all aware that there’s a lot of anxiety around at the moment: it’s on the news, it’s in the shops, it’s in our homes. However, what is lockdown like for those who were already anxious? With many years of anxiety and panic disorder behind me, I’d like to share a little about lockdown and anxiety as I’ve found it: the fear of it, the relief of it, and everything in between.
One really interesting thing about the current situation is that so many people are experiencing – and vocalising – anxiety. For someone who has spent most of her life clinically anxious, this generates mixed feelings and I’d like to try and explain them. Firstly, it’s incredible that there are so many conversations happening about this collective mental struggle. More than one person has asked me if this (the way they feel) is how I’ve always felt. The answer to that isn’t an easy one.
It doesn’t take very long on social media to stumble across people minimising the very anxiety that has coloured my life. I choose to believe that there is no harm meant by people advocating that we should all calm down or offering trite advice about relaxation or being good to yourself. They’re not wrong but, let’s be honest, it’s not as simple as that and superficial positivity has little to offer the truly anxious.
There’s a sense that the world is now behaving in the way that many of our anxious brains have for many years. Naturally there is comfort to be found in being part of something collective but, for me anyway, there is also an odd sense of grief that so much of my troubled past is now writ large in my community, my country, and beyond. Might it be worse to have people think that they understand how you feel, rather than admit to you they don’t? Or am I being weirdly territorial about my mental illness?
When lockdown began, I glibly answered the question of how I was with jokes about how I’d been in training for this for years. It wasn’t altogether untrue: my catastrophic thinking has meant that I’ve lived life in preparation for all manner of apocalyptic eventualities. It’s just that I was told they would never come to fruition. A lot of the therapy I’ve had has been to help me think more rationally. How then do you cope when the irrational voice in your head is proved right?
In many ways I’m coping very well, and it should go without saying how grateful I am for this. However, I can’t overstate how confusing and difficult to be encouraged by the government to behave in the self-same ways that a mental illness forced me to for many years: stay in the house, keep yourself to yourself, withdraw from others. The rational brain that knows why we’re doing this has to compete with the frightened anxious brain that screams, but what if we get ill again?
Approximately fifteen years ago, when I was at my most severely unwell, I barely left my flat for six months. It wasn’t that I wanted to hide away. Quite the reverse: I wanted nothing more than to be “normal”. I couldn’t participate in the world. Even now that I write and talk a lot about my mental health issues, I – slightly disingenuously – tend to write in the past tense. It’s time to get real: sometimes I still can’t participate in the world. And that makes it feel very odd and uncomfortable now that we’re put in the position of such confinement indoors. Frankly, it’s taken me years to broaden the scope of my world and there’s a small voice inside me, terrified that this is all a massive, irretrievable step backwards.
There’s another side to this though, and that centres on the comfort of the familiar, something I’ve found to be true even when the familiar is unpleasant. This is our new routine now, and I’ve adapted to new ways of living life. I’m scared at the thought we’re steadily approaching the day when things return to how they used to be (if they ever can).
The prevailing current narrative is that it’ll be great when lockdown is lifted, wonderful when life gets back to normal. However, what if normal life was hard sometimes? What if lockdown makes some things easier?
I want to confess a guilty relief at some of the limitations that lockdown has imposed. I’m also trying to deal with feeling ashamed of the part of me that is relieved to be inside again after all these years. The part of me that relishes not having to put myself in situations that frighten me on a daily basis: crowded shops, public transport, social obligations. The list goes on.
Of course, lockdown brings with it a huge amount of new anxiety and dread. Who knew that supermarkets could become scarier?! don’t think I know anyone who isn’t worried about the health of their loved ones. Over and above this though, many mental health conditions are being massively fuelled by our current circumstances: health anxiety, OCD, issues relating to food, and so on. For some people, lockdown may have triggered the start of a mental health condition. And, for others, it’s just making it all much more challenging.
So, what’s it like to be anxious in lockdown? I hate how many of us know the answer to that question. I hate that I can’t articulate it properly. It’s scary and frustrating; both harder and easier than normal life; it makes me oddly grateful for my ‘normal’ anxiety and maybe that’s the hardest thing to reconcile myself to.
by Rachel Alexander
Rachel lives in Edinburgh. Interested in writing, feminism and mental health, she’s an English teacher to trade, and passionate about learning as well as teaching. She loves stories of all kinds, and believes they are a uniquely powerful way of changing the world. Tweets at @rachalexwrites and Instagrams at @rachjanealex.