Anxiety in an Anxious Age

Written by
Kelly J. Baker

Apr 2, 2021

Apr 2, 2021 • by Kelly J. Baker

A few months ago, I had a video call with a physician's assistant. I had called a bit frantically days before. I couldn't fall asleep at all or I was awake at 2 a.m. and unable to go back to sleep or I woke up from nightmares with my heart trying to beat its way outside of my chest. I was also having more panic attacks. My anxiety was out of control.

Managing Disorder

Having anxiety is not new for me. I have generalized anxiety disorder, which is ongoing and severe anxiety characterized by constant worry, restlessness and problems with concentration. With therapy and medication, I had been managing my disorder better than I ever had before. I learned what my triggers are and understood that sometimes anxiety appears with no clear reason. I had an arsenal of coping mechanisms.

After years of being anxious all the time, anxiety was no longer a constant buzzing in my brain. I finally realized what it was like to not be anxious all the time just some of the time. I had made progress.

The Pandemic's Effect

But then, the pandemic hit, and COVID‐19 swept the globe and millions of people died. In an instant, my anxiety surged. I constantly refreshed my newsfeed to see what dire news each day would bring. I worried about loved ones. I worried about all the people who contracted the virus and those who died. I worried about the then‐president's negligent response to the pandemic. I worried about work and school. I worried all the time and I couldn't stop.

Before the pandemic, I already worried about the endless dangers of our world. I frequently played the “what if?” game, in which I pondered what bad thing might happen. I fretted over how the smallest choices and decisions could go wrong. I stayed up at night agonizing over how the things we can't control—illnesses, loss and natural disasters—could upturn our lives. Bad things happen, and there is often no reason. “What if” helped me prepare for an uncertain future, while also keeping me afraid.

The pandemic confirmed all my worries and fears. Everything was as dangerous as I had imagined. Our choices, like going to the grocery store or meeting up with friends, could be deadly. I already suspected that the mundane things could kill us. The pandemic showed me that I was right. It was no longer “what if.” It was reality. My irrationality appeared rational.

Anxiety was no longer simply buzzing in my head. Instead, it felt like bees were buzzing in my brain and under my skin. It was a constant hum that I couldn't escape. Sometimes, it seemed that the bees would burst out of my skin. I was no longer a person, but anxiety made flesh.

My therapist upped the frequency of my therapy sessions. My doctor increased the dose of my anxiety medication. The little white pill that I took twice a day became one I took three times a day. I now also had a new “take in case of emergency” anxiety medication to stave off the panic that plagued me. It worked. Mostly.

Increasing Anxiety Again

So, in the recent video call with the physician's assistant, I found myself describing my increasing anxiety. Again. My panic had transformed into full‐blown panic attacks—more than I ever had before.

“Why are you more anxious now?” she asked with a kind smile.

I looked at her for a moment and gestured wildly with my hands before saying “Everything.”

She smiled again and admitted it was a silly question. We were still in a pandemic. Of course, I was more anxious because there was much to be anxious about.

The dosage for my anxiety medication increased. Again. One little white pill four times a day. Maybe the buzz would recede some now.

Before the call ended, the physician's assistant asked me what else I was doing to manage my anxiety beyond therapy and medication. I explained that I read romance novels, spent time in the sunshine, binged baking shows with my kids and tried to find moments of quiet.

She recommended meditation. I smiled at her and didn't admit that I have tried meditation, which makes me more anxious not less. I need less time with my thoughts, not more, thank you very much. Self‐care, she noted, could help. I nodded and got off the call. At least, she didn't recommend yoga, or I might have lost it.

Later that same week, my therapist asked about self‐care too. What have I been doing for myself? Am I taking time just for myself in a house with two kids and three cats that we never ever leave? Am I doing things for me?

This time I felt less generous about the suggestion. I left the phone call frustrated and angry. I was not frustrated by my therapist, who is a remarkable human being trying to help me survive. I was frustrated by the idea that I could self‐care myself into being less anxious. But I can't meditate my way out of a pandemic and all the stresses and difficulties it brings. Yes, I should take care of myself, and I'm trying. Truly. Self‐care isn't a cure‐all for an anxious brain in an anxiety‐inducing time. I wish more folks recognized this.

Instead, I'm trying to focus on what I can control and what I can't. It's hard to do, but it helps. I can't make my anxious brain somehow not be anxious. However, I can keep managing my anxiety as best as I can, even in a pandemic. With therapy and medications, I feel more like myself. The buzzing is still there. But it's not as loud, which might be the most I can hope for.