So, I’ve hit a wall, guys, an emotional and mental wall. My nerves are fried, my emotions, an exposed nerve. As if living through an historic global pandemic isn’t enough, I’ve been experiencing shitty life stuff, one shitty thing after another. I’m a strong person. I think I’m strong, anyway. I’ve been through a lot of shit. I’ve come out of some pretty awful, terrible things and I always seem to be able to keep moving forward.
But because I know what awaits me on the other side of my (managed, for now) depression, I’m not ashamed to admit that the steps I’m taking to take care of myself right now are motivated by fear. I’m afraid to sink back into that familiar darkness. I’m afraid that if I do, I might not get back to the light this time. This feels urgent, vital, like everything is on the line.
So, here I am, finally with the clarity to write about this because I kind of staged an intervention on myself. Something had to give, I needed to do something if I wanted to protect my mental wellbeing because if I didn’t, I was going to break. And I mean for real this time.
I took a couple of weeks off work and got outta dodge. I’ve basically been holed up alone in my apartment for the last three months, barely leaving, except to take walks and pick up stuff from the store occasionally. I was losing touch with reality a bit, and suffering from the lack of human interaction. Phone calls and video chats just don’t do it for me anymore.
I’m spending the week with a friend (don’t worry – we’re both COVID-free and being very careful). I cannot express how much better I feel having stepped outside of my life for just a few days now. I can breathe, I feel lighter, I have slept well.
As we know, it’s not just the pandemic that’s causing so much pain right now, but I can’t write about that yet. There’s too much to process about the state of humanity for me to articulate into words. I will, but I need some time.
Instead, right now, I want to share some of my thoughts about the effect of the pandemic on my mental health, on our mental health, universally.
Please know that it’s OK for you to not be OK right now.
The whole world is hurting. Everything has been turned inside out and upside down, and while there are plenty of wonderful, heartwarming and inspiring things to focus on (and we should!), we also need to recognize the universal sense of despair we’re experiencing as a collective.
Some of us are navigating this strange terrain while balancing work, children, partners, pets, and/or elderly dependents. Some of us live alone and are grappling with an isolation never before faced, feeling alone with our fears and worries.
But we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. We need to prioritize our mental health above all else, otherwise we cease to be productive, engaged, empathetic, and flexible. Our ability to cope and be resilient, both for ourselves and for those around us, is paramount.
It’s entirely OK to feel what we’re feeling, to struggle to process our individual circumstances and to not feel like ourselves right now.
Remember: there’s no precedent for this. No one, not even the experts, definitively knows the right thing to do. We’re all just winging it, trying to focus on the day-to-day of our lives, while not dwelling on what’s to come, because the fact is that we have no idea what’s to come.
Easier said than done, right? The truth is that the mountain peaks seem impossibly far away when you’re withering on the valley floor.
But here are some scientific, physiological explanations for how we’re all coping with this worldwide pandemic that might help us make our way out of that valley.
Do you feel flaky and inconsistent?
That’s because your brain doesn’t know what to brace for next. There is so much uncertainty, and your brain is simply reacting to that.
Do you get tired easily?
That’s because your brain is burning your energy 10 TIMES faster than it usually does, in a perpetual state of fight or flight.
Are you having a hard time staying focused?
To protect you, your brain has temporarily shut down some functionality in the prefrontal cortex – the part of your brain responsible for complex thinking and planning. Your brain is simply trying to help you survive, to keep you alive – it’s a perfectly normal stress response.
Do you feel creatively blocked?
Your brain is temporarily diverting all its creativity (the ability to problem-solve) to simply keep you alive. Seriously! Your brain is in a state of a sort of slow-burn fight or flight, trying to keep you focused on not dying during this pandemic.
Do you suddenly not care about things?
It’s hard to care about goals and plans when you don’t know what’s coming next. We are in a constantly evolving situation, and whether it’s a work project or a future vacation you don’t know if you should cancel, your feelings of ambivalence about those things now is your brain’s way of coping. Your brain knows that being short-sighted is the safest way to think right now.
Give yourself (and your brain) a break and remember that this won’t last forever.
Stop feeling guilty for not working the way you did before (in the office or not), for simply not being the way you were before. This pandemic is not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and we must take care of ourselves – physically, emotionally and mentally – in order to make it to the finish line.
And we simply must do what we must to stay healthy and, in my case anyway, alive. There are no rules, this is uncharted territory for everyone. Do what you need to do.
I am, and I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that I’m certain that I’m saving my life.