I almost didn’t write this post. Truth be told, I’ve had it pretty lucky so far in this pandemic. My province took comparatively early action on physical distancing, and both my husband and I have jobs that can be done from home, so our income is steady. I didn’t want this to sound like some privileged idiot moaning about how hard it is to stay at home.
But it has been hard. Not the staying at home bit (I would rather work from home all the time, to be honest), but the rest of it. Uncertainty is hard when you’re autistic, and at this point I don’t know when my karate dojo will reopen, or when I can nip to the supermarket to pick up an ingredient forgotten in my weekly click-and-collect order. I don’t know if the current measures will have to get more severe (just last night they closed public open spaces like beaches and dog parks in my province), or if other people are obeying the restrictions.
I also have anxiety, which particularly tends to manifest as health anxiety. I’m constantly worried about all my loved ones, especially those with underlying conditions. My youngest sister passed away five years ago from a sudden, infectious illness, and I think that’s really affected my anxiety for my family members because I’m absolutely terrified that it’s going to happen again.
Because I’m autistic, I can get really fixated on a particular interest. This is something I normally love about being autistic. How dull it must be, I usually think, to not get so deeply immersed in a subject that you forget to eat, that your mind is always pointing you back towards it like a compass towards the North Pole. I love that feeling of obsession, when my every waking moment is filled with my latest special interest.
Until that special interest becomes a global pandemic.
Suddenly I’ve found myself, not reading about Gaelic sentence structure or sustainable haircare, but constantly refreshing the news, Twitter, and the handy coronavirus tracker someone has made for my province on GitHub. When I run out of new information from one source, the process repeats. Over and over and over again. When I’m not reading about it, I’m thinking about it. Because I have anxiety, I’m constantly seeking out information to reassure myself, but the information isn’t reassuring and only serves to make me more anxious.
So, yes, I’m not going to pretend my situation is like that of a supermarket cashier in NYC, or a nurse in Lombardy, or any of the people who have been laid off without pay as their workplaces have shuttered to stem the tide of this pandemic. But I’m hoping that I can still offer some help to others who are struggling with anxiety at the moment by sharing what I’m trying to do to keep my mind on an even keel.
The key word here is ‘trying’. I am definitely not doing any of this with 100% compliance. Probably not even 80% compliance. Truthfully, some days I’m not doing any of these. I’ve had more than one weekend day spent in my pyjamas bingeing Netflix while eating chocolate and scrolling through Twitter.
But these are the things that I know help keep my mood more level, and I’m sharing them in the hopes they may help some of you.
I’ve never really been one for gratitude journalling. It always felt kind of trite, when something bad happened, to focus on the things I was grateful for as though they somehow made up for the bad thing.
But as I said earlier, I know I’m lucky right now. My province took comparatively early steps to staunch the spread of this pandemic. This has put many people in precarious financial situations, but it’s made us all safer from the threat of Covid-19. I, along with most of my loved ones, am in the very fortunate situation where I get the benefit of physical distancing without the financial repercussions.
This is something to be immensely grateful for. I don’t have to add financial worries on top of my health worries. I don’t have to put myself in danger to retain my income, like many key workers.
I’m also reminding myself that, though my family has many underlying health conditions, they’re generally mild and well-managed. Half of us, myself included, have asthma, but none of us are on steroid preventative inhalers for it. This doesn’t mean we’re not at risk (even young people with no underlying conditions have died from this virus) but it helps put things into perspective.
It also helps remind me that I’m not just doing this for myself. It’s easy to centre myself and my family in my actions, but, really, my husband and I aren’t staying home to keep ourselves safe. We’re doing it to keep the people who can’t stay home safe. We’re doing it to flatten the curve to keep our ICUs from being overwhelmed. We’re doing what we can for everyone, not just for ourselves.
Controlling what I can control
I can spend hours worrying about other people not following instructions, getting angry at pictures of packed beaches in Toronto, but the fact is I can’t do anything about it. What I can control is my own actions.
I stay at home as much as possible to avoid potentially spreading the coronavirus, because I never know for certain if I’m pre-symptomatic, or even just so slightly symptomatic I pass it off as my asthma.
I wash my hands when I get home, and after handling anything new in the house (mail, grocery orders). If I’m going to be touching things other people might touch in future, I wash my hands before that as well (though I haven’t actually set foot in a supermarket in over a fortnight).
I can’t force other people to do these things. I can’t know whether or not they are doing these things. But I can be confident that I’m taking the right actions to reduce my risk and flatten the curve.
Limiting my media consumption
As I mentioned earlier, I can find myself in this endless loop of scrolling through news websites, Twitter, and coronavirus trackers. The more I look, the more I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve set up App Detox on my phone and blocked Twitter, Facebook, and all the news apps between 22:00 and 09:00 every day. If I’m in the sitting room watching telly or reading a book, I leave my phone in another room to keep myself from idly checking it.
I’ve also installed LeechBlock for during the work day, when I can’t escape my computer. Every time I stop for a break, I get sucked back into the same charts and graphs, as though they might have changed in the two hours since I last looked. I used Leechblock when I was an undergrad for a while, but gave up on it because I found it so annoying how it would just cut me off while I was in the middle of reading a sentence, but I think that’s what’s needed now to keep me from getting sucked into the Covid-19 news black hole.
The last thing that I’m trying to do is what I think of as boring self-care. I’ve talked about self-care before, and how it encompasses more than just the scented candle bathtime with a face mask stereotype, but here I’m focussing on the really bland stuff. Things like making sure I get dressed in the morning and shower regularly. It’s the stuff that it’s easy to say, ‘Och, I don’t need to do it, quarantine rules aren’t normal rules’, but the reality is, I feel better when I do these things.
And that’s the key. I’m doing the simple, everyday things that I don’t ‘have’ to do, but that I know will make me feel better if I do them. Things like:
I mean this not just nutritionally, but emotionally. I’m making an effort to incorporate plenty of fruit and veg, while also realising that I’m eating more comfort foods. For instance, my husband made bread over the weekend, and to go with it I made some harissa-spiced soup with all the wrinkly veg in the fridge (and some bonus veg from the freezer). Plenty of vegetables for fibre and nutrients, but a warming, comforting bowl with soft, doughy bread to dip into it.
The important thing here is that I’m allowed to eat nothing but chocolate and ice cream if I want to. And sometimes I think I do want to. But I know that a creamy risotto with peas and shallots, or a bowl of porridge with peanut butter and banana, is going to satisfy that urge for comfort while also providing nutrients that make me feel better (but I still might have the chocolate or ice cream for dessert!).
When I was diagnosed with anxiety, my psychologist asked me if I exercise regularly, because it’s well-documented to help with anxiety. Personally, I find weight lifting in particular helps. I’m not sure if it’s because I have a very specific goal that I’m working towards (just one more rep, just 5lb more on the bar), or because it’s something in my control, or even if it’s just that it helps work off the nervous energy, but lifting until my limbs are jelly is definitely my go-to exercise.
Because my karate dojo is shut for the near future, I’ve decided to exercise more often, but for shorter periods of time. Normally I’m at the dojo for 1-2 hours, 3 days a week, and I do another 30-40 minutes of lifting at the weekend. Now I’m lifting 5x a week, but for around 40 minutes at once. I’ve been using Fitness Blender’s workouts off and on for years, so when they offered some of their most popular workout programmes at 70% off, I jumped at the chance to buy their strength training one (not sponsored/affiliate, I just like them). I like that it’s all planned out for me in my calendar, so there’s no wheedling with myself to do something else, and I can do strength training on weekdays, the recovery workout at the weekend, and one day off. This also helps me to distinguish between weekdays and weekends when the days all start to blur together.
Keeping my house clean(ish)
Okay, full disclosure, this is the one I’m the worst at. I loathe housework. I loathe it even though I know I hate my home being messy. So don’t get the impression I have a Pinterest-ready home after a couple of weeks at home. I do not.
But because I know that mess makes me stressed, I’m trying to do some basic housework every day to stay on top of it. One of the things I do is that if I have dinner cooking in my Instant Pot or in the oven (ie, where I can walk away and leave it), then for the 20 minutes or however long it takes, I do nothing but housework. Whatever I can get done in that time gets done, everything else waits till next time. I end up with a tidier, less stressful home, without feeling like I have to spend an eternity cleaning.
It also helps me with feeling in control and helps burn off some of the nervous energy. When my bones are rattling about in my own skin, it helps to find a few things that I can fix now that will make me happier. I can’t fix the world, I can’t fix the pandemic, but I can fix the basket of clean laundry that’s been sitting in my bedroom for a fortnight.
When all this is over, I might come out of it fitter from all the exercise and with a beautifully tidy and decluttered home. Or I might not. The goal with all of this isn’t to ‘take advantage of all the free time’ like that story going round about Shakespeare having written an entire play while quarantined for the plague. It’s to make the here and now a little easier to cope with. And I hope that something in this post will make it easier for you to cope, as well.