Discover more from My Sweet Dumb Brain
For your sweet dumb brain: Small comforts
The things we’re doing to manage these anxious times.
Lately, my mornings have gone something like this:
Wake up, a few minutes before my alarm would normally go off. Feel either relief upon realizing I had a miraculously good night’s sleep, or—more likely—a sense of dread knowing that I didn’t get as much shut-eye as I hoped. Fight the urge to immediately grab for my phone. More often than not, lose that fight. Spend several minutes catching up on what I missed on social media. Finally crawl out of bed, just as a wave of anxiety washes over me.
Some days are tougher than others. On Tuesday, I was so anxious about all things COVID-19 that I could barely focus all day. The next day, though, I was relatively chill—able to meet my work deadlines, watch some distracting TV, and enjoy a long walk. Still, every day is pervaded by at least some low-level anxiety and dread. No matter what, I find myself cycling through a persistent series of questions: What am I going to learn about coronavirus today? How bad is this going to get? Is that tickle in my throat allergies, or something worse?
In Tuesday’s newsletter, I wrote that being overwhelmed by all of this is normal. I also noted that it’s unsustainable. I know that my morning approach needs to change. Currently, I’m looking for ways to better manage my anxiety—to make sure I not only sleep better, but also wake up feeling less awful. Thankfully, several of you offered up simple yet effective approaches that are working for you.
Anna, who is 34 weeks pregnant, has plenty of reasons to feel anxious. She worries about the prospect of giving birth alone, her midwife being quarantined, getting the virus and passing it on to her child, family members not being able to meet the baby, and so on. Fortunately, there’s an equally long list of things she’s found comfort in: talking to her parents and friends often, spending time in nature, avoiding the news, planting a garden, baking, and taking deep breaths. “I try to remember that this will pass and, in the meantime, the planet and nature are in fast recovery from our misdeeds,” she said. “We slow down and nature returns. That is nice.”
Linnie worries most about her parents, who are both over 70 and have underlying health problems. “They're also stubborn and independent,” Linnie said. “I wish I could tuck them away somewhere safe until this is all over.” The activity that’s helping her manage those fears is origami. “It gives my anxious hands something to do, and the creative process seems to drain some of the underlying stress,” she said. “There is now a mountain of paper hearts on my sofa—maybe one day I can give them to the friends and family I'm missing.”
“With countries closing their borders, I am extremely anxious about how far away my family is and how I can't get to them, even if I want to,” said Dhiya. “I've realised through this that what is causing me stress is less the actual facts, and more my tendency to try to plan for the worst case, which means imagining the worst case. And that helps no one right now.” Dhiya’s counter approach includes making daily lists of things she wants to accomplish and striking through each one. “The list includes silly things like, walk the dog two times, which I do every day anyway, along with more concrete things,” she explained. “There is something reassuring and helpful in realising there are things I can control even in these unpredictable times. And those dog walks? I take a lot more of them now.”
Becky was planning a cross-country move in a few months, and now is unsure whether it will happen. She also worries about the impact of living alone, and the long-term effects of a lack of physical contact. “What’s been most helpful for me is reframing the situation, and asking myself: If social distancing is going to be my way of life for X months, how do I want life to look for that duration? So far, her answer has included daily walks, bodyweight workouts with upbeat music a few times a week, talking to at least one friend or family member each day, deep belly breathing when she notices she’s tensing up, and letting herself be sad and frustrated at times.
“The thing that takes the biggest toll on me is the underlying burn of how long this will last,” said Lauren. “I've been able to find a general sense of peace and optimism, but I do wonder what that will look like after 2-3 months. Or more. And with people still gathering and our leadership indicating we will ‘reopen’ soon, that burn grows into something bigger.” One thing that’s helping Lauren douse that burn is regularly getting outside. “Yes to daily walks. Just yes. Especially if there's sun.”
“There are so many reasons to be anxious right now,” wrote Haley. She worries about her grandparents, who are in their 70s; her mom, who has a rare autoimmune disorder; and her friends who have lost jobs as well as those who have yet to graduate. “But, as I've found throughout many of the most difficult parts of my life, action is the answer. Since I'm lucky enough to still be employed, I've donated to fundraising campaigns for struggling Dallasites and sent money to my friends' PayPal accounts, seeking them out and asking if they need help. I'm bearing witness to their pain and anxieties, which makes me feel like I have a larger purpose than just remaining stagnant in my house.”
I'm seeking hope in the belief that this time will pass, and that we will have more love for our fellow humans on the other side of it. That instead of ignoring those asking for our help, we will seek to offer it without judgment. (And on a less deep note, I'm also finding comfort in nostalgia, investing in that extra $7 for ESPN+ so that I can watch old 30 for 30 documentaries that my brother and I loved when we were growing up).
I've also turned to this quote, from the ACLU's David Cole: ‘I fundamentally believe that hope is more the consequence of action than its cause. It seems to me you have two choices in this life: you can be a fatalistic spectator, or you can engage and produce hope. If those are the two choices, there is really only one choice.’ I hope I can remember these words as I resist the urge to disconnect and retreat to my comfortable mental hideaways. The discomfort and anxiety we are all feeling is necessary in order to help each other survive this unprecedented time.
Amen to that. I appreciate everyone who shared their coping mechanisms. They are truly helpful and inspiring. I hope you all are being gentle with yourselves during this time of uncertainty. It will eventually pass, I promise.
Good job, brain
I'm reading: Give a Girl a Knife, by Amy Thielen. This memoir has been sitting on my nightstand for a while, and I decided that now—when my partner and I are doing SO MUCH MORE cooking at home—was a good time to start it. I’m glad I did. Thielen’s writing is captivating, and this book has been a good distraction so far. (Thanks, Ileana!)
I’m inspired by: The local businesses that are rolling with the punches and being wonderfully creative and responsible in handling COVID-19 restrictions. I’m rooting so hard for everyone.
I'm aiming to: Keep working on our backyard to make it a nicer place to hang out—and to realize how lucky we are to have that space. Last week, we trimmed back overgrown palm trees to create more room for moving around. This week, we’re breaking out the pressure washer!
From The Atlantic: Here’s how to manage your coronavirus anxiety.
This was maybe the most helpful thing I’ve read all week: “There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us.”
“Crisis moments also present opportunity: more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, less polarization, a revived appreciation for the outdoors and life’s other simple pleasures.” POLITICO predicts the different ways that coronavirus will change the world.
This Chicago Tribune column has a very Sweet Dumb Brain tone to it: It’s OK not to feel OK right now. But here’s how to feel better.
My friend Catherine is hosting regular meditations via Instagram (and donating money to food banks based on the number of viewers she gets!) and they’ve been a wonderful respite for me.
For your sweet dumb brain
Many of you are already doing this, and I’m going to get on it, too: Make a list of the activities that will help you manage your anxiety during this time of uncertainty. You can write down reminders of the things that generally help, or you can follow Dhiya’s approach, and jot down what you’re planning to do each day—including the fun stuff, like taking a couple of walks outside. And if you need more help in figuring out what most benefits you, I’ve got you covered!
This newsletter is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who is currently managing her anxiety by keeping up with laundry better than before. It all helps!