Let’s talk about anxiety, let’s talk about you and me… (#workingfromhome week 3/n)
Hamlet, our university cat, showing me what to do now some time ago … nothing.
The first two weeks were easy. Almost too easy. I was busying myself with helping everyone around me cope with a crisis situation. The third week turned out to be much harder – for me. I am not sure what happened; whether looking after others slowly started moving into the background, or whether slowly but surely, the anxiety that a crisis like Covid-19 creates got to me. I started feeling more anxious and stressed out by the smallest things, feeling like I wouldn’t be able to deal with the work and social obligation load that I started experiencing.
Let’s unpack this – or maybe not?
I always think of myself as pretty resilient, but I know that my combination of stepping back, thinking things through, compartmentalising away the things I cannot deal with, and then step by step working towards a solution has its problems. The main problem is that sometimes the boxes that I compartmentalise away into keep stacking up and I’m not always able to unpack them in a way that is good for myself and others around me. Imagine the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark; that giant warehouse in which all those buried secrets sit in boxes labelled ‘top secret’, filed, and then just put away forever. They may never be retrieved, and that can become a problem.
But I do what I always do when I’m dealing with a problem…
I do all the things that I think are best in the situation: I keep a routine, I train slightly more even than I would normally do, I eat well, I socialise – admittedly a lot of it is online now and I am more of a people person, but everyone has been really really trying to make this all work. So what was it? Even as I write this – I feel as if I’m already too late for some grand project that I’m supposed to have completed last week.
A video this week helped me, as it reminded me that this actually a perfectly normal reaction: it is normal to react with stress to a stressful situation, for example when we are all surrounded by a dangerous virus, a threat we cannot and that isolates us from most of the people we know and love. We might even miss those we don’t a little bit. IT. IS. NORMAL. It helped me understand on a cognitive level that my reaction wasn’t something I was supposed to fight, but to accept, and then find ways to deal with it without overcompensating.
Now that is the hard part, because I think I am one of life’s great over-compensators. Just like I compartmentalise things I cannot deal with, I over-analyse things I think I can deal with, play through a variety of scenarios, work on general strategies on manage each of them, and then wait for them to unfold. You see where I made my mistake? The mistake is that the challenge in this situation is to do nothing.
I am Major Kira!
I remember a deep space nine episode where a religious leader tells one of the main protagonists who has, for her own safety, been brought to a monastery where she can sit back, recover, relax and be safe from the forces that will threaten her. She tells him that she feels useless. The wise – and reasonably hot – priest tells her to change her perspective:
Major Kira: I’m useless here. Vedek Bareil: So? Major Kira: So? I… I need to feel useful. Vedek Bareil: It might be interesting to explore ‘useless’ for a while – see how it feels.
Deep Space Nine, The Circle
I’m very much like Major Kira in this exchange.
Doing nothing as an option
Reflecting on last week’s blog where I describe my Prussian Lutheran upbringing, I recognise there is no space for embracing inaction and uselessness within the belief system that I grew up in. I am not religious anymore, but my upbringing has taught me valuable lessons and I think this one is being tested now. Sitting and letting things happen is neither in my nature nor a part of my socialisation.
And this is, I think the challenge, for week four, and all the upcoming weeks thereafter: to remind myself that feeling anxious is the right thing to do in a stressful situation. I need accept that I’m anxious and that will make me slightly less productive. I will not write that novel I never wanted to write anyway. I will not master two new crafts. I will not finally break that anxiety I have about the social expectation that I am supposed to love sitting down and reading books. It is not the time to challenge my anxieties, but to learn to live with them. They are part of the natural reaction of what is going on around us. What I can do is share this experience and I think the lesson is to just embrace being useless for a while.
PS: I recognise that my anxiety is still really mild in comparison to what others may feel. If this affects you more than you think you can manage, please check out the NHS guidance on what to do. A lot of employers (like mine) also offer employee assistance programmes which may be able to help you, too. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK – seek the help you need.