The world is ending and I’m calm.
Instead of being panicked about getting sick, my loved ones getting sick, running out of food, supplies, or income, I just feel a little bit uneasy. And I only feel uneasy because I feel eerily calm. Everyone is freaking out, why aren’t I?
As someone who has had an anxiety disorder for most of their life, I’m used to feeling a sticky sense of dread. I’ve spent a decade trying to manage it — often unsuccessfully. This year I started trying a new approach. The first step has been taking a step back and observing my anxiety then rating it on a scale of one to 10.
I was surprised when the psychologist told me that I was minimising my own anxiety.
Eventually, we came to the conclusion that my everyday level of anxiety was a six. It wasn’t unusual for it to fluctuate to an eight. Sometimes even a nine. The worst part was that there was no discernable reason for my base level of anxiety to be so high.
It was just my everyday existence and I had grown so used to it that I thought it wasn’t that bad. There’s a common analogy that a lot of folks with anxiety might be aware of that explains this: the boiling frog scenario.
In short, the boiling frog analogy (even though, no, frogs don’t actually do this) demonstrates that someone will stay in a situation that slowly grows increasingly uncomfortable and not realise how dangerous it is until it’s too late.
The analogy works on two levels.
One, you grow used to your “normal” level of anxiety, even if it’s actually very high compared to neurotypical folk. Two, you learn to either ignore, tolerate, or function with your brain and body constantly trying to tell you “SOMETHING REALLY BAD IS GOING TO HAPPEN REALLY SOON.”
So for me, and a lot of other people, we’re used to feeling this way. Every day.
Then a few weeks ago the rest of the world went upside down.
At first, I was a little worried, like everyone, about what COVID-19 might mean for people in the high-risk categories.
More people started to take notice.
But my anxiety about the situation didn’t get any worse. The situation was concerning, sure, but it was, for the most part, something you could take some precaution against.
Other people started to get worried for other reasons — what if everyone else started to stockpile essentials and you were the only one left with only two rolls of toilet paper?
Similar to everyone else who wasn’t stockpiling unfairly and without reason, I started to get frustrated. I couldn’t afford the last expensive 24-pack of toilet paper on the shelf. People will come to their senses in a few weeks, I thought.
It’s strange going to the supermarket and seeing empty shelves. I know that more stock will be coming in, I just have to be there early to grab a couple of things before everybody buys it all. It’s a weird feeling, but it’s different to panic.
I offer to buy my mum a couple of her lactose-free milk. There’s only skim left. Just in case people start to buy that now the full cream is gone. She told me not to worry about it, she was heading down in half an hour. In that half an hour someone bought the carton and a half that was on the shelf.
People also bought every other brand of lactose-free milk.
I was frustrated but no more anxious than usual. There will be more stock deliveries, she can try again after work.
My partner is sick, I can’t leave the house. My mum had to help me hunt down some toilet paper rolls because now there aren’t any anywhere. I didn’t stockpile so we’re about to run out. But now there’s only a 2 item per person maximum, so we could only get one each.
But strangely my anxiety is only a five. It’s not even the worst it’s been in the last month. If the worst thing that could happen to me is I run out of toilet paper, who cares?
Instead, I feel compassion and concern for people who have nowhere to go, nobody to shop for them, no money to buy even the cheapest supplies. It’s different from the anxiety.
Now everything is being shut down. The local cases are rising and people are either hugely anxious, actively panicked, or they don’t care at all.
But my anxiety is a three.
I should be more worried, but I know that my family is taking safety measures seriously, it’s not so likely that they will get sick. I’m worried for the people who can’t take these measures; the nurses, doctors, supermarket workers, police, the homeless, anyone who is put at risk by the people who deem the virus scare-mongering, fake, a conspiracy.
I feel compassion for those people.
So why aren’t I panicking?
After asking this question for days on end, I think I realised why.
It’s because this is my everyday.
Instead of being worried, my anxious brain is comforted by the idea that other people are finally taking notice of what’s going on around them. That there is something wrong with the world and the state it’s in.
People who have previously had no concept of this feeling that something awful could happen to them or their loved ones — something that you can only do so much to avoid — now know what it’s like to live in that bubble; to be constantly analysing, thinking about the impending doom, be stuck fiercely by creeping tendrils of dread, knowing that at any moment it might rise up and swallow you whole.
Everyone else has finally caught up.
Now we’re all in the same boat, and it’s slowly sinking.