The Pandemic as a Balm for Anxiety?
For most people anxiety worsened... but for a few of us, nameless fears were given a name.
In the earliest days of the pandemic, let’s say sometime around March 2020, a new kind of fear emerged. It was a fear of contagion, of an unknown monster with tendrils that could wrap around our hearts and lungs, making it impossible to breathe. There was a fear of our children being orphaned. There was a fear that hugging those we love could unwittingly destroy them. The stock market crashed. Grocery aisles emptied. Streets quieted, and even birdsong in the clean, blue skies became eerie. We made formal last wills and testaments, and codified who would take over for us as parents if we, as front line physicians, didn’t make it. No vaccines. Shitty masks. And although contending with infectious disease has always been part of the shaman’s work, this was a whole new level for our generation. Without a cure to dispense, I wrote more benzodiazepine prescriptions to calm trillions of anxious nerves than I would care to recall. So many of us suffered from the torments of anxiety - from the bitter moments alone in our own heads before dawn, to the exhausted surrender each night as we slumped into our fretful beds.
And yet I witnessed a few patients find their experience of anxiety paradoxically softened, tempered, and mercifully redirected. Gradually.
I noticed a few of my most chronically anxious callers not reaching out much, and when they did, they were tired, exhausted, yet somehow relieved. It seemed as if the formless ghost of generalized anxiety had finally become incarnate, unexpectedly, in a crown of spike proteins.
Imagine the terror a wounded gazelle feels. The herd moves on as a lion approaches. The herd suddenly sprints to safety, but the wounded gazelle’s terror only mounts. It is now singled out for destruction. And that lonely focus of terror and anticipation is worse than any pain the lion inflicts. In the case of the pandemic, we all became the wounded gazelle, together a crippled herd… and for some chronically afflicted, I imagine there was a strange comfort in that.
Or perhaps the fable of the boy who cried wolf helps capture this phenomenon. A few with chronic anxiety, who felt their minds continually warning of a danger that failed to materialize, could finally say: You see it now? The wolf. It’s real.
Other analogies come to mind. The immune system can become deranged without germs to fight. Metabolism can become dysfunctional without physical tasks to complete or exercise to perform. Can fear become unhinged without something to bring it into focus?
I will remind myself that for the vast majority of people, the pandemic has caused or exacerbated mental health troubles. Loneliness, fear, loss, and isolation have taken a terrible toll on our collective psyche. Many of our nightmares came true, and continue to loom, with 20 million estimated deaths around the world. That grim sum has created innumerable ripples in our spacetime.
But part of the distress of generalized anxiety may be a fear that our loved ones or ourselves are being singled out for a potentially tragic event. But if everyone is being targeted, perhaps for a few there is a reflexive relaxation, an acceptance of that mutual risk. We are all going to die. Troops en route to Normandy. We always knew that. But something about finally seeing an executioner, rallying to help ourselves and others during lockdown, watching the tragedy become manifest… for a small proportion of chronically anxious people this finally broke the wild horses of fear in the brain.
I know those horses are still there, restively snorting and stomping, and a reduction in fear is not necessarily akin to finding joy. Happiness is another race. But for those few people who confirmed an overall improvement in their mental status - the incessant whinnying has been broken by a calm sort of acceptance, justification, and validation.
If we can learn from these relatively rare case reports, perhaps we can channel the better parts of the herd as it is challenged by the lion.
Acknowledge fear, name it, and thereby disarm it. Recognize that we are all wounded in some way, and have more compassion for each other. Round ourselves into a collective defense of the wounded, instead of the strong effortlessly fleeing to individual safety. Dwell longer when we do reach fields of calm and happiness. And ultimately find a way to deny death its decades of power over us, until we are truly in its sights. And even then, honor how heroicly bright each and every conscious, sentient life burns in defiance of the dark, and how good it feels to stand on common ground while we are here.
This was an excellent analysis of the profound impact the pandemic had on the lives of those challenged with anxieties
Dr. McCormick's eloquence is absolutely amazing. Perhaps some of us are less anxious because the profound problems of our society and the world have numbed us. A fatalistic, but maybe, a realistic approach. The current situation is too overwhelming.