Stir Crazy: The Chronically Ill Person’s Guide for Healthy People on Dealing with Anxiety, Uncertainty, and Boredom

Hello Healthy People! Your Friendly Neighborhood Person-with-Chronic-Illness here to share some hard-won wisdom about how to stay home and stay sane at the same time. The truth is, it’s not easy. But it doesn’t have to be the hardest thing in the world either. Honestly, I’m kind of excited that my illness finally has some obvious purpose!

So, you’re stuck at home and worried that you’ll get coronavirus while simultaneously going stir crazy at the very idea that you might be here for days – nay, weeks! It’s okay. I’ve been there. No, seriously. I’ve been stuck in an actual bed for a month with only healthcare professionals, PBS, and my parents to keep me company. And then I lived with my grandparents for months, only leaving the house to go to the doctor. I know just how rough it can be!

On top of the monotony of your own four walls, the change alone can be stressful. And we’re dealing with a pandemic virus that can scar your lungs for life. It’s scary stuff! If you’re constantly checking your socials, reading every news headline, and eating up all the snacks in the house while worrying that you’ll never get back to “normal,” you’re not alone. Whether you’re immunocompromised like me or a bastion of health like Idris Elba (::sobs::), you’re not immune to viral infections. And that can be terrifying! Especially if it’s the first time you’ve thought about your health as something that happens to you as opposed to something you control.

I remember when my rheumatologist told me I’d probably be on medication the rest of my life. I remember when my therapist explained that sustained anxiety over years meant I’d never be neurologically “normal” again. I was pissed. Both times I hit the denial stage hard and fought their difficult truths until my health spiraled downward. It took years – about five, actually – for me to stop feeling like a victim and instead learn how to have some control over my health situation. I learned that sometimes health trauma just happens and is unavoidable, but that I always have control over how I deal with it.

For many of us in the chronically ill, mentally ill, and autoimmune communities, anxiety and uncertainty are a daily accessory that we carry with us. Some days it’s a giant backpack, other days it’s a thin wallet, but we carry it nonetheless. The secret to this accessory is to learn how to let it be a part of your ensemble rather than dictating your entire way of being.

My hope for all of you, dear Healthy Ones, is that you can learn how to coexist with the anxiety and uncertainty of the times much more quickly than I learned to live with them. To help you in this process, I have a few tips and things to keep in mind as you sit at home waiting for your next phone notification.

FOCUS ON THE 3 S’S: SLEEP MORE, STRESS LESS, STAY ACTIVE

I was recently listening to one of my favorite podcasts, The Paleo View, about their advice on how to avoid getting covid-19, the current strain of coronavirus that’s become a pandemic. I think my biggest takeaway from this is something that I feel is just good sense in taking care of ourselves. High anxiety thrives when you give it leverage. The same methods you can use to keep your body healthy can be used to diminish anxiety. Plus, following these steps help to minimize that feeling of uncertainty. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but we can have control over what we do to help us face it.

Get adequate sleep! That means, the time from when your head hits the pillow to when your alarm goes off to wake up should be at least 7.5 hours. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep per night for their bodies to keep up with the stressors and activity of daily life. Your brain and immune system in particular need that sleep to keep you high functioning.

Lessen your stress. This can look like taking things away, like avoiding social media in the morning so you can drink your first cup of tea or coffee in peace. It can also look like adding things in, like cuddling your pet or calling someone who makes you smile. Find ways to feed positivity in your life as well as ways to let go of stressful things you don’t need.

Stay active! Moderate exercise stimulates the mind and the body, and it keeps your immune system strong. Take a walk if you can safely do so. Look online for simple exercises you can do around the house. Try some sun salutations or take a virtual yoga class. Just keep moving.

BOREDOM IS THE GATEWAY TO GREATNESS

computerI don’t mean to sound harsh, but if you’re bored, it’s your own fault. Have you seen the Internet?! I don’t mean social media or email. I mean the actual depth and breadth of knowledge available at your fingertips. Ask Google a question, search for articles on your favorite hobby, maybe go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole – there is so much to be read and seen and learned. Granted, the Internet is neither sentient nor all-knowing, and it is certainly not always factual. Keep this in mind, but by all means explore!

Even if there were no Internet, there are so many things you can do at home. Read a book, doodle, play board and card games, move your furniture, exercise, try to invent something based on random items you have lying around the house… the storage closet is your oyster! If you live with someone else, challenge them to a game of Pictionary or Charades, have a dance party, rummage each other’s closets and style a fashion show, put away your phones and see how much you can remember about an old movie, game, or educational topic you’ve both watched or read about.

Also, being bored is not a bad thing! Boredom is the incentive for creation and fun. It gives the brain a chance to come up with new ideas and perspectives. Write something. Paint someone. Give your inner creative the open gate it needs to shine through. Basically, have fun!

DON’T SELF-MEDICATE

We’re all sitting at home right now with a constant stream of updates that are specifically written to get your attention and spark fear. News media figured out decades ago that the best way to get you to watch/read/click their story is to induce anger and fear. Add this tactic to an actual scary thing that is literally all over the world, and of course everyone’s anxiety levels are up!

Unfortunately, when we’re bored we tend to turn toward things that put our anxiety on hold, or even amp it up, rather than shut it down. Checking social media with the intent to connect to friends means further exposure to these news stories as well as your friends’ fears. I, too, find myself posting and commenting only things about the pandemic the past few days. You turn to social media to feel better and often end up feeling worse.

Drinking, playing video games, watching shows – these are all ways of blocking or dulling that anxiety. Brooke Castillo, founder and CEO of The Life Coach School, talks about these activities on her podcast as ways of buffering from our real lives. When you do them occasionally, they can be great sources of entertainment and enjoyment! But when you do them to procrastinate or to block out emotions you don’t want to feel – cough, anxiety, cough – you’re just putting those feelings on hold and letting them fester. It’s a cycle that keeps us stagnant and gives control over our lives to inanimate objects. Plus, the anxiety doesn’t even go away. It just gets bigger!

MEDITATE!

Instead of self-medicating with alcohol or entertainment to calm your anxiety, I recommend meditating. Meditation has a lot of different forms. Most people think about sitting in stillness or even guided meditation when they think about this, but it can also look like deep breathing, reciting a phrase or mantra, mindful movement and yoga, rituals like making and drinking a cup of tea, or walking meditations… Try some of these out and find one that works for you. It will not be the easiest thing you’ve ever done. We’re used to being constantly stimulated. But with time, it may become one of your favorite things you do.

Daily breathwork and centering, even for just a couple minutes, is the second most important thing I do to stop my anxiety (adequate sleep is first). Every morning when I wake up and every night when I crawl into bed, I do three rounds of the 4-7-8 Breath. You breathe in for four counts, hold for seven counts, and then blow out for eight counts (see a more detailed demo here). It’s been scientifically shown to reduce overall stress and, when also practiced twice daily, can be used at the start of an anxiety attack to stop it. I have complex PTSD, and this has been the single easiest management tool that I’ve used that’s also very effective.

USE THIS TIME TO GET TO KNOW YOU

walkingMeditation can also be a way of just sitting with yourself. You get to watch your thoughts and see clearly the things you tell yourself all day every day. When you do this, you can see what you like about those thoughts and what you might want to change. For example, I used to look for negativity and disapproval everywhere. While sitting in silence, I noticed that I was constantly bringing up thoughts of worry about what others “really meant” when they spoke to me. By observing this in my meditations, I could see how ridiculous that was. I began to notice when I was doing it throughout the day and reminded myself how unhelpful those thoughts were. Now, I rarely have them.

Even better, spending time alone means only having to do exactly what you want to do. Don’t want to wear pants? Take them off. Love a certain kind of music? Turn it up (while being respectful of your neighbors). Being alone with your body and your thoughts gives you the opportunity to see who you really are and what you actually like and dislike in the world – IF you choose to embrace that opportunity. Since no one is out there meeting up, FOMO is no longer an excuse.

UNCERTAINTY IS A JERK, BUT HE CAN BE MOLLIFIED

We’re all talking about anxiety levels being high right now, but I think it’s also important to look at the causes of that anxiety. For me, and probably for a lot of you, uncertainty is a big factor creating anxiety right now. What if I can’t go back to work? What if the economy collapses? What if our healthcare system collapses? These questions are HUGE and VERY scary. But the thing is, we don’t know the answers. And we won’t know the answers until they happen. These questions are just hanging over our heads, blocking out the beautiful sun.

What can you do to combat this uncertainty? People with chronic illness have been dealing with this for a long time. What if we lose health insurance? What if we can’t afford our medication? What if the worst-case scenario happens? For months last year, I held tightly to the question, “What if I go blind?” when my vision took a sudden dive.

In my experience, there are two helpful ways of mollifying the Uncertainty Monster that hurtles these questions at us: pick an answer or accept the now. I’ve lived with the questions of possible blindness or being crippled by arthritis for more than a decade now. When I first came out of denial, it was comforting for me to pick an answer to these questions. “What if I go blind?” Well, I can still type and write stories, even if I’ll need help with editing. I have family who will help me if I can’t live alone (my biggest fear is losing independence). And I can get in as much travel as possible until that happens – which took me to China, Cuba, Ireland, Pakistan, Costa Rica, and France. Picking an answer can give us a solid path to work from.

In recent years, I’ve more often decided simply to accept the now. I do not know whether I will keep or lose my vision in the long run, but I know where I am now. I accept where my vision is today and choose to enjoy it to the fullest extent. We don’t know if the grocery stores will be open, but we can accept that uncertainty and still enjoy the delicious meal we were able to make with the food we have today. We may not know what the economy is going to look like next week or next year, but we never actually know that anyway.

We never know if today is our last day or the day before something incredible. So, we can choose to answer our questions and fill in the potential blanks so that we feel ready. Or, we can accept that the future is never fixed and choose to experience fully what we have right now. I don’t mean party like there’s no coronavirus tomorrow, but I do mean enjoy your home and make the most of your time to yourself. Enjoy the sunshine. Find new ways of staying connected. Reach out to someone you love. Today.

THIS TOO SHALL PASS

This old adage sticks around for a reason: it’s true. No matter how frustrated or worried (or even excited) you are, the feeling will pass. Time keeps moving forward. Whether things get better or worse, you’ll always have tomorrow to start again. When my anxiety gets really heavy, I take a deep breath and remind myself that it won’t be heavy forever.

Remember, it’s not the actual end of the world. We’re a long way off from that. It is, however, the end of the world as we know it. But I feel fine, and so should you. I know that no matter what, I get to choose how I feel about it all. Every day I wake up to a new normal – a fresh moment to experience and enjoy and grow from. The Earth and our societies are ever-changing, but that doesn’t have to be scary.

So stay home, stay safe, and stay sane. We’re all in this together, right?

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