COVID-19 has changed the way of life for nearly everyone in its path. The mental toll is real and relevant, even if the devastating physical toll makes us hesitant to acknowledge it. However, there are a few of us whose lifestyles have changed remarkably little by all this.
As a severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) anxiety sufferer, and someone with a compromised immune system, I know that people like me have been spending our entire lives self-isolating, compulsively washing our hands and dealing with systemic exploitation of our plight. For example, seeing laws passed to help us that really are mainly a tax cut for the privileged, or seeing laws that should benefit us become loosened to the point of being pointless.
But the point of this is not to complain. What we are seeing now is that a much larger part of the general population is suddenly dealing with a lot of the stressors we have been processing for years. And suddenly, people like us are in a uniquely interesting position to help those people find ways to cope.
People who had been yelling things like, ‘Look, we all would love to work from home, but stop misusing accessibility as an excuse to take a vacation from the office’ are now saying things like ‘I had no idea how hard it was to work from home; this is harder. I miss going to the office and meeting people.’
People who had been saying, ‘You have SO many accommodations, how many more privileges do you want?’ are now saying things like ‘The state of our sick leave policies and measures to accommodate employees in a crunch are shameful!’
People who had been saying, ‘I’m sick of seeing your snowflake issues in the news all the time, how much more do you want to harp on your hardships in our faces?’ are now saying, ‘I’m getting so triggered seeing how at risk we are, how going outside may be fatal and how we have to wash our hands and self-isolate all the time!’
We, however, don’t feel smug seeing people suddenly experience what we have dealt with for so long. We know just how terrible it feels. And that’s something we should start with — acknowledging how difficult this is to handle, whether you have a disability or not.
Things are not OK
We are all being affected, whether we realise it or not. We are affected every time we see our leaders betray us by politicising this pandemic rather than strategizing ways to help us.
We are affected every time we open any website — everything from craft vending websites to MailChimp — and are greeted by an enormous startling image of the deadly COVID-19 virus followed by the website’s stance on the infectious disease.
We are affected every time we see people yelling, ‘Wash your hands because your lives depend on it!’ the moment we try to escape by watching a fun YouTube video.
We are affected every time we want to go outside and get inundated with grim reminders of what we’re actually up against — empty streets, closed businesses, and people wearing face masks.
We are collectively going through a certain kind of OCD and claustrophobia together. But we are not helpless and we are not alone! It is possible to take back some modicum of control over our lives, at least in some spaces.
People living with agoraphobia and PTSD prepare to start each day with equal parts flexibility and intention. You may say you already have a calendar or a planner for things you will do each day. But when you are home all day, every day, you really have no idea how much time has passed or how long it takes you to do anything. You will find yourself constantly wondering, ‘How is it this late already when I haven’t done anything?’ or, ‘I can’t believe the day is almost over and I didn’t do anything I planned to!’
First of all, it is okay that you didn’t do anything today. This is where you need to be kind and flexible with yourself.
People living with PTSD and other mental health conditions have always found it hard to function. And because of this reason, they also often get grief from others, ‘You did nothing? I can’t believe you spent all that time at home and didn’t accomplish anything!’
But actually, when one’s brain is occupied in trying to make sense of things, it is difficult to do anything but that. In such a situation, it is usual to feel exhausted without knowing why, because your mind is desperately trying to process persistent anxiety.
Then, there is the intention. Try — really try, although you may be unable — to create a routine that provides structure to your day. Start your day by grounding yourself with meditation and breathing exercises to clear your head, or by reading something other than work or news-related articles. You may rediscover things you like, things like books, language learning apps or sketching tools. Focus on anything other than exposing yourself to bad news or the immediate demands of the day the moment you wake up.
Exercise; any activity is better than none, of course. Depression sufferers know that immobility creates a momentum to do nothing, just as much as movement creates momentum to keep moving. Movement and activity, when possible or achievable, are the ways some PTSD sufferers manage their depression.
And for times like this, there are specific exercises that will help. There are various helpful videos on YouTube like yoga for post-traumatic stress or meditation movement exercises. These exercises help you find where in your body you are holding your tension in stressful times, and knowing this is going to help you immensely. Also, at this particular time, a lot of gyms are putting their classes online for free. So you could also check them out if that is what you prefer.
Keep monitoring how you are doing, at least twice a day. Things that seem like no big deal, like whether it’s cloudy or sunny, will have an exponential impact on your mood when you are home every day.
And while self-monitoring, you may immediately start to look for ways to make contact with others when you realise you are feeling very lonely and isolated.
Socialising (and therapy)
Everyone is craving to socialise right now, and the internet is one of the only ways to do it now. People are discovering the joy of Zoom parties and internet socialising.
But be very careful when socialising even online. It may seem like a good idea to get together in groups online and commiserate about how terrible everything is. But any therapist or PTSD group therapy member will tell you that this could turn out to be a terrible idea. While talking about how difficult things are can sometimes be cathartic, it can also land you in a vicious cycle, making you feel entrapped and worsening your anxiety. And often, in situations like these, venting can become competitive before you even realise it: ‘Oh you think THAT’S bad, listen to this!’ — and this will have the opposite result of what you were looking for when you started.
Limit venting to safe and confined amounts and locations. If you can afford it, a weekly TeleDoc or phone or app session with your therapist is a perfect place to dump all your unresolved buildups from the week. Shake it off and leave it in the therapy session when you leave the session.
(Therapy is essential at times like this, but I’m not harping on that point because I know that whether or not you get it mostly hinges on how well off you are.)
Getting together with a group of friends to play games online to help everyone feel less alone and reminding each other constantly that you are there for each other, even if you’re not in the same room, may be a lot more accessible and helpful for a lot of us. But there are also more things you can do together to help each other through this trauma.
Helping each other
We are all affected negatively by how people in positions of power pass legislations under the guise of helping us, ones that mostly benefit the privileged rather than the suffering. It does not have to be political either.
We can get victimised by employers who reap government crisis benefits but discard us to fend for ourselves with little or no income during a pandemic. Or by bosses who blithely demand that we come into a crowded workplace or be fired, ignoring pandemic safety guidelines. We can stress out if friends are incarcerated for petty crimes, but they now suffer what could be a death sentence for it in overcrowded jails (with no ability to socially distance), with little sanitation to protect against COVID-19.
We can be berated by privileged and unsympathetic professors who demand the same work output as before, despite limited access to resources. We all get upset seeing this; it is a terribly difficult thing to try to process or not be completely despondent over. However, there are some things we can do to try to be in a slightly better place.
If the most powerful people don’t help us, we can still help each other. When you gather with your friends or community groups online, you can effect changes that can offset some of the suffering we are all experiencing right now. And remember, irrespective of what your profession is, you can use at least some of your skills to help better the situation right now.
Even the most basic things people take for granted are more difficult for some people to obtain now, like face masks for example. We can make face masks to donate to people who have COVID-19 or to people who are on the frontlines in the healthcare industry. I am extremely proud of my team members in my small nonprofit, who are using their skills to donate hundreds of masks to hospitals across the country.
Are you a marketing professional or a web developer? You can help people and organisations who could use those services right now. Do you know people who are finding it hard to access resources? Organise volunteers to bring them supplies or hold up signs to show that they are being thought of.
And let us all remember that some people could do with a lot more help than others.
People without access to the internet, or people with compromised immune systems, are at a huge disadvantage right now, and there is a greater need for volunteers who can deliver basic essentials. And it’s a great time to donate plasma and blood to prevent shortages.
Let us all look out for each other.
If you are someone who is not too keen on more socialising with people, animals sometimes make better companions in times of excessive anxiety. My own service dog has been my lifeline.
If you are unsure about being able to handle dog or cat ownership, now may be the perfect time to foster an animal temporarily. In situations where we are more isolated and lose our sense of time, animals can give us the structure and contact that we need. People with compromised immune systems, like cancer survivors, know the significance of having animals during recovery, and even become dog walkers for this reason.
Depending on where you are, there may be a sudden and huge demand for foster parents. In my organisation, our partners in Morocco are fostering countless newly homeless dogs and cats who have been abandoned by their owners in the fear that they will become infected from their pets (by the way, you can’t). Foster to save a life and get a loving thankful furry roommate during the pandemic — win-win!
Social media booze
Most people are flocking to social media right now. And it is understandable; people are looking for the comfort of cute animal pics and friends’ updates. However, we should also be mindful of the effect social media can have on us, especially in times of stress. Social media is designed from the ground up to make us feel worse. That’s not an anecdotal personal observation or a conspiracy theory. The design, implementation and continual development of social media apps are built to make us feel awful and be addicted to them.
Social media is designed to mimic gambling. Pulling down on the app screen to see newer updates is designed to mimic the addictive pull of a slot machine. Social media algorithms are designed to detect what outrages you the most and feed that to you the most frequently, which in turn worsens your anxiety.
Basically, if we’re not careful, turning to social media in times of stress can be like telling ourselves that we are going to get through our grief by drowning ourselves every morning in the same booze that will make us the angriest drunk. For those of us who need to see that cute cat account or make sure our friends are ok, we can try to limit our time on social media and be prepared for the targeted political ad or sponsored post meant to get our hackles up.
You may still not be OK
If you are unable to do any of these things, or even if you do all of them, you may still feel awful and worse than usual. But that doesn’t mean you’re failing. Everything is awful, and honestly, you are doing your best. As someone dealing with long-term anxiety, I know that you may need to use your time to simply process what’s happening to you. And that is okay. The upside is that now, there may be a lot more of us who can help each other through the process.
If anyone is curious, we are Darwin Animal Doctors, and this is our worldwide campaign to help people and animals during COVID-19:
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and may not be endorsed by Mad in Asia Pacific.
Tod Emko is a conservationist from New York City. He has saved animals from Antarctica to the equator since 2008, but his greatest accomplishment is probably raising Piggy, the three-legged dog, now his service dog, who was the inspiration that led to the creation of the education and conservation group Darwin Animal Doctors. Together, Tod and Piggy visit schools and teach children that they can overcome unimaginable struggles, both mental and physical. And that being different is just another kind of superpower.