how COVID sent my mental health on a rollercoaster ride

If you’re a living, breathing human being, you might’ve found yourself angry, confused, and hopeless during this COVID-19 pandemic. Hey, that’s totally normal- in fact, it’s welcome here. You have what I call, a caring pulse, you know, the underlying, ever-present compassion you have for the world around you, beyond just your friends and family.

I want to share a little about my mental health journey (read: rollercoaster) during the first couple months of this pandemic. You’re definitely not alone, and not in a cheesy way. Now more than ever, I hope that we continue to shatter the stigma surrounding mental illness and mental health in order to help us adjust to the highly dynamic environment we’re now living in.

 

The Lows: WFH Burnout & Depression

General agitation is now my natural response to the phrase “during these unprecedented times” on social media and tv ads, and worst of all- in replacing the age-old email greeting “hoping this email finds you well”.

Rarely does an email find me “well”, whatever that means, but during my work from home time, I found myself poring over each email in my lonely little inbox as if I were getting a handwritten letter in the 19th century. Soon enough, the novelty of receiving digital interaction within the confinement of my home wore off. It wore off real fast. I began getting annoyed, almost angry, that we were emailing about banal things when the world seemed to be at a standstill- people are dying, yet here I am trying to complete a small task that I felt wouldn’t even matter in the end.

And so the cycle began- first, the annoyance, then anger, distrust, detachment, and then the depression to top off the pretty little mental illness parfait. I realized I was getting burnt out. Hours of sitting at a desk in the living room, overthinking each email that came in (“why did they say it like that?” “are they mad at me?”), getting fatigued by long meetings that could be more efficient if they were clearly worded emails, and the constant worry surrounding losing my admin job.

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(Via GIPHY)

Burnout is characterized as a state of exhaustion (emotional, mental, and physical) caused by prolonged stress. You might feel so drained or overwhelmed that you lose all interest and motivation.

Burnout might look like:

  • Being exhausted all the time
  • It feels like you’re wasting energy caring about work, relationships, etc
  • “This doesn’t really matter anyway”
  • Aching body and pains
  • Forgetting to eat or binge eating to combat stress
  • Frequent headaches
  • Feeling withdrawn from others and responsibilities

A tip I received from my coworker is to use at least one PTO day a month as a mental health day to prevent burnout in the long-term. I took one day off and I can’t begin to tell you the 180 switch I felt. I slept in, worked on a DIY craft, watched a movie, and made myself a cocktail. Indulging without feeling guilty for missing work was something I realized I needed to start implementing to balance my work life and my personal life.

Some practices I found helped me get back on track from burnout:

  • Get up from your chair and open a window. Take a couple deep breaths, then continue.
  • Once every hour, get up and walk around or chat with roommates.
  • Got 15 minutes? Hop onto Youtube and find a quick low-impact workout. You’ll feel a little clearer afterward!
  • Set your alarm 5 minutes earlier. I found that when I had time to settle into my mornings, I felt more prepared for my day. I chose to meditate for 10 minutes as soon as I’d wake up. This has turned into saying my personal affirmations to set my daily intention.
  • Use that PTO time! This is often the most difficult for young adults because of the pervading assumption that if you aren’t ‘on it‘, then you’re not a valuable employee. Having a healthy mind will allow you to produce better work.

 

Depression

My depression during early quarantine emerged as self-loathing. I reminded myself constantly ‘some people have it much worse than you’. You’re healthy, still able to pay rent, have a roof over your head, and nutritious foods available to eat. I started hating myself knowing that many others right now were struggling with fulfilling these basic human needs. Here I was at the end of every workday, absolutely unable to relax or watch anything as well as unable to create anything. I got angry with myself because I could easily transition from work to home in order to work on my personal writing projects- yet, I wasn’t finding any inspiration nor motivation to do so.

Which brings us to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, or better known as the self-actualization pyramid.

According to this psychological theory, the needs in the lower tier of the hierarchy (like food and water) must be met in order for an individual to attend to the higher level tiers. We can view this pyramid as a study in how we are motivated and affected by our own physiological and mental needs.

Back in April, social media discourse seemed to push around expectations of high productivity; “Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine.” If you didn’t come out of quarantine with that screenplay written, a new blanket knitted, or an entire cookie delivery side business created, you hadn’t used this time to your advantage. However, how can we devote ourselves to improving our craft or working on our passion projects when we’re anxious about the health of our friends and family? If our physiological need for stable health is in danger, we can’t focus whole-heartedly on our project.

My self-loathing started to change course when I watched a Brazilian rapper Emicida speak frankly about productivity and creative block during the pandemic. He mentioned that things will not be easily digestible, but “for as traumatic as these moments are, it’s the perfect time to reflect and learn how to be at peace with ourselves.” Productivity does not equal self-actualization. It dawned on me that being highly productive, something that I used as a crutch for my own internal self worth, was not cutting it anymore. I needed to pause, breathe, and figure out how I can take smaller steps to a) make sure I was taking care of my mental well-being and b) not feel guilty for not using this ‘extra time’ to create.

 

The Highs: Quarantine-Induced Anxiety

My anxiety had come knocking at my door in the beginning weeks of quarantine with a racing heartbeat, trembling hands, and the all-encompassing inability to focus. I reflected on common triggers that send my adrenaline rushing in ‘normal life’: presenting in front of a group, meeting new people, interviews, and planning big events. I wasn’t doing any of these, so why was I waking up with a thumping heart that only worsened with my morning coffee?

At its core, anxiety is the physical response to fear, whether that fear is irrational or rational. Anxiety is our natural response to fear, and for me, it began to be a constant state of being. Being restricted to a limited lifestyle, which upended the entire routine I had took so long to adjust to and excel at, caused some of the worst physical anxiety symptoms I’ve had in years. My thoughts were whirring 24/7, always thinking of the worst possible situation that could happen.

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(via GIPHY)

I looked at the big picture- this ominous black cloud that is the virus has impacted almost everything in our lives and it was natural to be fearful of it. No matter what small tasks or fun projects I have on my plate for the day, the black cloud still looms over my head. For many anxious people like myself, we tend to completely shut down when we feel we cannot control the situation. And a global pandemic is not fixed by one individual. Cue the anxious spiral!

I’ve noticed that intrusive thoughts can come along for the ride with my anxiety. A few methods I’ve learned to deal with these are: 

  • Let these intrusive thoughts come and go through your mind; imagine yourself them holding a dandelion of intrusive thoughts and blowing them away in the wind- or say these out loud, “tie” an imaginary balloon and let it float away. 
  • Remind yourself that you are not defined by these intrusive thoughts. They are merely nervous chatter. You are the main character in your own story!
  • Practice grounding techniques. A good method I like is to stop and connect all my senses to my surroundings. Ask yourself: What can I smell right now? What are my hands touching? What can I taste? What do I see around me? 
  • Try to limit your exposure to media and news when you first wake up in the morning. It’s so easy to fall in a negative spiral with the 24 hour news cycle. I had to delete Twitter off my phone for 2 weeks to reset my bad habit.

 

Rebuilding

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(via GIPHY)

Rebuilding my internal motivation meant venturing into online classes, learning how to practice more self-love, and seeing the changes activists were able to generate during a pandemic. At the end of the day, I don’t see those initial weeks as time wasted- instead, it was a period of self-reflection. What do I really want from life? How can I best contribute to make positive impact in my community? How can I be a better neighbor, friend, ally, girlfriend? How can I learn to put myself first sometimes and be okay with that?

It took time to reset my mental well-being to its previous, pre-COVID levels. I’m privileged to say that it also took eventually getting laid off from my job to finally give myself permission to relax. The external pressures, including the search to find my next job, aren’t lingering this time around. 

My mental health rollercoaster has stabilized for now; the anxiety and depression ride will be something I live with for the rest of my life, but I’m in no rush for back-to-normal.