I had what I’m pretty sure is my first panic attack a few days ago. The coronavirus has me constantly on-edge, and I can’t tell if this means that I have an anxiety disorder or if everyone is freaking out as much as I am. How do you know the difference?
I want to preface this by emphasizing that I am not a mental health professional. I’m just someone with a lot of lived experience of mental illness, and a nerdy journalist with an insatiable appetite for psychology research.
So my response to this is not going to be diagnostic or clinical.
This is just going to be a human-to-human conversation about the world that we’re living in — because frankly, it doesn’t take a professional to validate how hard it is to be a person right now.
Friend, here’s the short answer: I don’t know that the difference really matters.
Maybe you have an anxiety disorder and it’s finally bubbling up to the surface! Or maybe you, like everyone else to varying degrees, are experiencing very real trauma and fear as you watch the pandemic unfold.
We’re worrying about our loved ones while most of us are simultaneously unable to be there with them. Many of us have lost jobs, or we’re supporting someone who has.
We’re waking up each day to a world that has (yet again) changed dramatically overnight.
Honestly, I would be surprised if you weren’t anxious right now.
What you’re feeling — including the concern around your mental health — is completely valid and worth paying attention to.
Because whether it’s a disorder or a reasonable reaction (or a little bit of both), one thing remains very, very true: This panic response that your body is sending you? It’s an alarm bell. You need and deserve support right now.
So rather than trying to parse out the differences between global trauma and anxiety disorders, I imagine it’s best to place the focus on managing anxiety, regardless of where it stems from.
No matter where this panic is emerging from, it still needs to be addressed.
To start you off, I’m going to give you some quick and dirty resources that can help to address anxiety and self-care:
Your digital toolbox for managing COVID-19 anxiety
FIRST AID: This interactive “you feel like sh!t” quiz can coach you through moments of high anxiety or stress. Bookmark it and come back to it as often as you need to.
APPS FOR YOUR PHONE: These mental health apps are my personal favorites, and are worthwhile downloads that offer immediate support whenever you need it.
GET MOVING: Movement is an important coping skill for anxiety. Joyn, an “all bodies” joyful fitness app, has made 30+ of its classes FREE for folks who are self-quarantined.
SOUNDSCAPE: Keep some playlists, podcasts, and ambient noise available to you — whatever helps you chill out. Spotify has a Musical Therapy playlist as well as the Sleep With Me podcast for some soothing sounds, but there are also plenty of ambient noise apps that can be helpful as well.
LAUGHTER: It’s important to laugh. Stand-up comedy is a blessing right now. Personally, I like to search for comedy playlists on Youtube — like this playlist of queer comedians.
CONNECT: Can you talk to a loved one or friend about your anxiety? You might be surprised how understanding they can be. I recommend creating a group text with friends (you could even call it something clever, like “Panic Room”) to create an intentional space to share your fears (with the option of muting notifications as needed!).
DIGITAL PROFESSIONALS: Yes, if possible, reaching out to a mental health provider is ideal. This roundup of low-cost therapy options is a great place to start. ReThink My Therapy has both therapists and psychiatrists available to users as well, if medication is something you might want to consider.
It makes perfect sense that you would be struggling right now, anxiety disorder or not.
The most important thing is to get support sooner rather than later.
The truth is that none of us really know how long this will go on for. The world is changing in ways that are hard to anticipate, so it’s more important than ever that we fortify our mental health.
There’s a lot that we don’t have control over right now. But thankfully, especially in the digital age, we do have a lot of tools for keeping ourselves steady during such tumultuous times.
When we prioritize taking care of ourselves, it benefits us not just mentally, but it strengthens our overall health, too.
More than anything, I hope that rather than self-diagnosing or self-shaming, you’ll choose to be compassionate with yourself.
Now is the time to take advantage of all the supportive resources available to you — not just because you need them, but because you deserve to be well, now and always.
Sam Dylan Finch is a writer, positive psychology practitioner, and media strategist in Portland, Oregon. He’s the lead editor of mental health and chronic conditions at Healthline, and co-founder of Queer Resilience Collective, a wellness coaching cooperative for LGBTQ+ people. You can say hello on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, or learn more at SamDylanFinch.com.