Is It Possible That The Pandemic Has Reset My Anxiety-Prone Brain?

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Nick Knight

Now, in the third year of the pandemic, I’ve become somewhat desensitised to the concept of finding “a new normal”. As lockdowns came and went, restrictions tightened and relaxed, it’s been tricky to find a sense of equilibrium in such a changeable environment. But, having said that, there have been certain aspects that have been constant and have left an indelible mark on how I look at things. I’m much more used to being alone now, to being isolated and home, and to keeping my distance from others. Even fully vaccinated and masked, I still tend to veer out of people’s way when walking, maintain a six foot distance, and feel quiet frustration when others don’t do the same. It’s an impulse now, an instinct that I expect I’ll find difficult to drop when “normality” fully returns. And its effects have a backwards lean, too. When watching crowd scenes in films made long before the pandemic, I find myself uneasy watching people so closely grouped together, shaking hands, kissing.

Perhaps it’s unrealistic to try to establish a “new normal” in such weird times. In the back of my mind, the cynical part, it feels like a commercial endeavour, a way to continue commanding our attention while we all deal with a collective trauma. Much has been said about how we can’t return to normal, normal wasn’t working (or, even more darkly, “normal was killing us”), and I tend to agree with this. I know it wasn’t working for me, at least.

Since I was a child, I’ve lived with various forms of mental illness, ranging from depression to anxiety, and bipolar disorder, though the latter diagnosis came very late in the game. I’ve wavered from saying that I “suffer” from these conditions to saying that I “live” with them, because although I take medications and practice a number of therapeutic techniques to manage them, they are a part of me and affect how I exist. I had weekly talk therapy sessions for five years, I tried cognitive behavioural therapy, and researched quite deeply into meditation practices to try to help.

One of the worst, most destructive symptoms of my condition has been my tendency towards catastrophic thinking. It’s an expression of anxiety, I suppose, but it can be debilitating. An unanswered phone call can have the same physical anxiety response for me as being accosted in the street (sadly, I have the experience to compare). They feel the same, because for me the unanswered phone call is the start of a story that races through to a similar trauma. The phone isn’t being answered because the person I’m calling has died, and this can happen in seconds. I don’t think this is particularly unique to me, to some extent we all do a spot of catastrophising, and it’s been exacerbated by how reachable we all are now with phones, the internet, etc. But a peculiarity for me is that I’ve had a lot of trouble distinguishing between real threats to myself, and threats further afield, which may not touch me at all.

An example: following his knee replacement surgery, my dad collapsed in his recovery room. My mum and I were waiting outside at the time, and we were alerted to this by a nurse barrelling down the hallway towards his room with a crash cart. Alarms were sounding and people started pouring into his room. (Dad’s fine, by the way, his blood pressure dropped, making him dizzy. We joke about it now.)

A second example: at 3am on the night of the 2016 US election, I went to bed convinced that Trump would lose, and woke up to the opposite result.

For some reason, these two instances provoked almost identical symptoms of panic for me. The same icy blood, nausea, pins and needles over my entire body, hyperventilation and inability to speak. Even though one was a direct, personal, local danger, it felt indistinguishable from the other, which might, in truth, never touch my life in a tangible way. I don’t live in the US, although I have friends there – all it would take for me to disconnect from this reality would be to turn off my phone. And yet I was incapable of doing so.

I’ve thought about whether this could be a form of over-empathising, but that feels inaccurate. Intellectually, I know the difference between a threat that is mine, and one that isn’t. But my body hasn’t been able to take that on board. It’s not that I see Donald Trump or transmisogynistic legislation or racial disparity as threats to me, Erin; I’m not centring myself in these issues, it’s more ethereal than that. Almost as if the knowledge of the threat is threatening enough, even if it will never come near me. But it does follow a pattern of catastrophic thinking. “Event A” happens which will lead to the collapse of society, “Event B” happens which will lead to the rise of fascism, which will lead to the collapse of society. Following the Brexit vote, I was terrified that there would be a rise in xenophobic attacks, which there were. When Trump lost the 2020 election, I was scared that there would be huge unrest in the US, and there was. Sometimes, paranoia masquerades as perception, and unfortunately the same is true in reverse, which is confusing for someone who always expects the worst; we’re not always worrying unjustly.

When I tried to explain this to friends, therapists and family, they would often react incredulously, asking why I was worried when I’m not in America, and I’m unlikely to be attacked by an Islamophobe. Why not just turn off the news? Why not just put on a movie and ignore it? I tried to explain that switching off was an expression of privilege, and on the occasions I did try to disconnect, the narratives I built in my head continued on. It never seemed to end.

And then, suddenly, it has – at least tentatively. I think it’s possible that perhaps I have developed a type of new normal for my mental health, and I’m curious about what has caused it. World events (and there have been a lot, haven’t there?) seem to be hitting differently these days –  not so much taken in stride, but accepted more peaceably, more rationally, and without the accompanying personal despair, the mythologising, the narrative building and the racing to mental destruction. So what’s changed?

Well, we’ve had a global catastrophe, haven’t we. We’ve experienced a global event which has, to varying degrees of severity, touched everyone on the planet. And I wonder if this has provided something of a hard reset to my brain. Not the worst, but a worst, has happened.

A popular reading of the film Melancholia by disgraced filmmaker Lars Von Trier suggests that those of us who live with depression and anxiety are unmoved by actual catastrophic events, because we’ve become accustomed to catastrophic responses in our day to day lives. In it, Justine, played by Kirsten Dunst, experiences a depression which floors her. So, when, at the end of the film, a rogue planet smashes into the earth, annihilating us, she is calm, pragmatic, methodical, almost as if this is the day she has been training for her entire life. Though I struggle to give Von Trier any credit, I’ve always liked this idea, because it gave me a sense that perhaps I had some hidden super power, that my constant struggling with disproportionate panic was preparing me for something bigger. Maybe, when the worst does come, I’ll actually be OK?

It’s not been quite as cinematic or grandiose as that, but I think there’s something in the idea. When the pandemic took hold of the world, it was an inescapable reality. There was no option to turn off the news and ignore it. It was here, and finally, my inability to switch off, my instinct to identify with what was happening kind of worked. There was a point at the beginning where my catastrophic mind started to rear up, but it faded quite quickly, almost comically – a mind trying its hardest to freak out according to habit, but failing to. I suppose a key element here was that this, finally, was a moment of unanimous freakout, of global consequence. And whereas in the past, my catastrophising was done privately and internally, here it was being shared by everyone, celebrated by no one, and my brain short-circuited.

This is a microscopic positive to take from a global pandemic that has claimed so many lives and decimated the lives of so many more. But I can claim it as a notable personal development. The thing that has ruined me for such a long time is the panic and anxiety that has prohibited me from acting. I’ve skipped protests that I wanted to attend with all my heart, but couldn’t because I was paralysed with an ominous fear. Over the years of panic, I’ve sacrificed my effectiveness as a support. It’s limited me in what I can do to help, because I’ve consumed and learned and digested vociferously, but been overcome by fear. What I’m hoping is that the tiny, personal shift that I’ve gleaned from this collective experience will have fixed what was “wrong”, and that from now on, I can help.