“I felt peace. Maybe peace is the wrong word? I felt… OK? The same.”
It’s 2:19 a.m. in a small London flat.
I’m awake in our apartment’s common room, drinking a screwdriver that’s more vodka than orange juice, and watching COVID-19 devour the world. I was studying abroad in London, tracking the novel coronavirus and how it impacted each nation.
China was f*cked. Japan was, too. The United States was (really, really) f*cked.
My program was in the process of being canceled. I had no idea where to go or how I was going to get there. And yet… I felt peace. Maybe peace is the wrong word? I felt… OK? The same.
The mayhem of COVID-19, a presidential election, and the implosion of my personal and professional life left me feeling more or less the same level of anxiety as usual. Why?
I knew I wasn’t alone in feeling (more or less) numb to the world around me.
When I asked my neurotypical friends how they were doing, I heard tales of daily anxiety and worry that kept them up at night.
However, when I asked my friends with trauma, generalized anxiety, and other diseases in their mental health DNA, I heard the same answer: “I’m more or less the same.”
What about our brain chemistry or our lived realities isolated us from the fear and despair the rest of the world was feeling?
Janet Shortall, a crisis manager at Cornell University and a trained chaplain, explained why some people feel “unaffected” by COVID-19.
“For those with anxiety, feeling better (or at least not doing worse), can be because, with coronavirus, their worries are actually grounded in fact,” she explained.
All my fears about how dangerous and unpredictable the world is were coming true.
In the face of a pandemic, an election, and the constant anti-Blackness that I’ve felt ensnared in, things were going… exactly as expected.
Experiencing intense stress day in and day out can negatively shape our worldview, making problems a part of our expectation on how the world functions.
As an example, for those who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a main symptom can be viewing the world as primarily negative; COVID-19 or other stressful events wouldn’t significantly change your outlook, only confirming how you felt previously.
For severely anxious people who view the world as dangerous, a world disrupted by a global pandemic wouldn’t affect their worldview either.
It’s easy to mistake mental illness as a collection of symptoms or experiences — but it’s important to remember that mental illnesses are disorders and diseases that contort the way we see the world.
“Numbness, generally speaking, is a natural and often expressed feeling in response to trauma,” Shortall noted.
“We are all, on some level, being traumatized during COVID.”
“Breathing into that feeling state to know what it is we need to integrate/cope/all of what is happening around us is a crucial task facing us all,” Shortall explained.
Even outside of mental illness, experiencing intense stress day-to-day can make the pandemic and other events feel less daunting.
People who work stressful jobs, like firefighters, or are constantly inundated by the media, such as journalists or activists, can feel “normal” as they are flooded most of the time.
The common theme for those of us who aren’t “panicking” about the state of the world is that our daily lives are already filled with so much dread and fear that even a pandemic, a general election, and weeks of civil unrest feel “normal.”
At face value, it may seem comforting to have a “shield” — albeit, ill constructed — during this time.
In articles where the author is envious of those with a mental illness — for instance, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) — the argument goes as follows: People with OCD constantly deal with anxiety, meaning they are better prepared to deal with an explosion of issues. Same goes for those who have experienced trauma.
Neurotypicals and people who don’t experience intense stress remain envious of the ability for us unbalanced folk to adapt.
However, as someone who isn’t freaking out any more than usual, I would hardly summarize my feelings as relief. I am constantly under siege because of my OCD and chronic mental illnesses.
While that may mean that I don’t feel an increased panic in the quarantine, my mind hasn’t quieted down.
People are under the false assumption that my mental illnesses make me a guru at staying well and happy during this time.
Unfortunately for them and myself, I am no more an expert on staying happy now than I was 4 months, when I was anxiously living my life then in the same trauma haze.
Moreover, sometimes what we understand as “numb” is actually emotional flooding: being confronted with so many feelings regarding current events that you “numb” as a coping mechanism.
While it may appear that you’ve handled the crisis well, you’re actually emotionally checked out and just trying to get through the day.
“This time has been very clear that we can’t just plow through our lives without a sense of prioritizing what is most essential and of value,” remarked Shortall.
So for those of us who are overwhelmed by the crisis or feel emotionally detached because the crisis matches how we view reality, what can we do to find peace? What coping skills are available for when you’re not feeling anxious or scared, but your body — heart, mind, and soul — is?
The first step is to acknowledge that our numbness is not the same as wellness.
No emotional response does not mean that we are immune to feelings of panic or worry. On the contrary, we may have internalized our anxiety in other ways.
Cortisol — the hormone related to stress — can cause extreme changes in the body that may go missed at first. Weight gain, weight loss, acne, feeling flushed, and other symptoms are correlated with high levels of cortisol, but can easily be interpreted as something else.
Dealing with our deep-seated anxiety is the most productive way of addressing the symptoms of high cortisol.
After acknowledging our “numbness” for what it is, it’s important to use appropriate coping skills to address how we feel.
Compared to heavy drinking or drug use while being quarantined, other coping skills are more effective and healthy in the long and short term.
Activities such as discussing our lived reality with a close friend, moderate exercise, making art, and other skills are all ways to process what we’re going through, even if we don’t know exactly what that is yet.
Doing things that actively help others can be a great way to feel empowered during this time as well.
Fundraising for personal protective equipment for your local hospital, widely circulating a petition, and other calls to action are ways to actively make a change when your anxiety tells you can’t.
Obviously, there is no perfect way to deal with everything the world is throwing at us.
However, being able to understand what you’re going through and actively address what’s happening is more productive than sitting with constant anxiety, even if it’s normalized for you.
Gloria Oladipo is a Black woman and freelance writer, musing about all things race, mental health, gender, art, and other topics. You can read more of her funny thoughts and serious opinions on Twitter.