Waking up in March 2020, while the whole COVID-19 pandemic was unravelling, was no cup of tea. I was foolishly thinking at first that this pandemic wouldn’t change much in our daily lives. After a couple months, I got hit really hard by the observation that things couldn’t be further from the normal we used to know. I was forced to realize that this situation would remain so for a very long time. Given that I had to plan my wedding for summer 2021 and manage a website by myself which got launched no earlier than January 2020, I found this situation considerably troublesome. I won’t hide that this ordeal was a huge anxiety trigger for me. My biggest concern was especially the difficulty getting food. Before the pandemic started, I usually proceeded to order my groceries online, but now it was simply impossible to find an available delivery slot. My fiancée and I came to realize that we had no other choice than to walk down to the grocery store ourselves.
Yet our troubles were still far from over. Before we could even see the entrance of the grocery store, we were forced to notice the interminable lineup. I’ve heard that Montréal got hit pretty hard on that front compared to other regions in Quebec, and from what I experienced, I couldn’t agree more. The lineups were often so long that it would typically take us, my fiancé and I, well over an hour to simply get into the store. At the entrance, we were informed that only one of us could enter. So naturally I went in. I only started picking up the grocery to discover suddenly that most essentials were out of stock. Think about flour, sugar, eggs, canned foods, toilet papers and more. This was all so far out of my already established habits that it was sufficient enough to trigger an unbearable anxiety episode. It got so bad, at one point, that I had totally given up on even contemplating being productive. Watching Rom-Coms was my main distraction and was definitely what kept me going day after day. Months into the pandemic, with the help of my already busy fiancé, I decided to kick myself in the rear and do something about it.
The change of mindset was accompanied by summer and its relaxed restrictions. The possibility to see friends and family was more than welcome. Altogether, it was sufficient to have me overcome the anxiety which made me go through somewhat resembling more of a normal life. With perspective, I can say that my anxiety had manifested itself through avoidance and immobility, often referred as Freeze when we talk about this topic. There are, nonetheless, other possible reactions when faced with this same situation. The reactions can be so different that if we compare two of them, they may look completely contradictory. For example, some may become slobs, not doing much really, and some might develop a full-blown panic, hoarding everything on their paths. From a narrow point of view, we may interpret the latter reaction as selfish; however selfishness is not the driver behind this behaviour, fear is.
I feel confident enough to state that most of us have never experienced anything similar to this before. The closest thing that we may have experienced are natural disasters, accidents and attacks. All of those are very localized and in all of those situations we might expect help from outsiders. In the case of this pandemic, everyone was affected. We could only seek help from within us. A lot of people were quick to jump to the most horrific conclusion. Without toilet paper, what would we do? People got so afraid of missing essentials that they hoarded as much as was possible creating a massive shortage in grocery. This was perceived to be enough to validate their actions when in fact it was just the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, this shortage may have been avoided if people kept their buying habits unchanged and not going full rampage mode on the grocery aisles.
When we learn to understand the elements that contribute to the development of anxiety, we are in a better standing to act in a more moderate way. A way that doesn’t give in to a state of panic, or even fear for that matter. Truly enough, years ago, I thought that anxiety merely originated from being overwhelmed for a very long time. It was only from one of my university courses that I discovered that anxiety was truly more complex than this. I found out that much like pain, anxiety is an adaptive response that is meant to protect us. It was so finely tuned to detect potential threat, that even now in the absence of significant threat to our life, it still fires up. After much research on the topic, experts came to determine very specific factors that can trigger anxiety, which they summed to the term “NUTS”. NUTS is an acronym for Novelty, Unpredictability, Threat to ego and finally Sense of control. Typically, the more of these elements are present in a situation, the more anxiogenic (causing anxiety) this situation is said to be.
Let’s use this current pandemic as an example to illustrate these elements. The novelty aspect speaks for itself. We have never encountered anything even slightly similar in our life. The pandemic was the result of an exposure to a new strain of coronaviruses (Sars-Cov-2) that, even though was not very deadly, was efficiently spreading. When we came across this virus last spring, we knew barely anything about it. This brings me to the second aspect, unpredictability. We certainly didn’t know what the proper protocol was to apply when dealing with this, nor did we know how long this pandemic would last. We clearly didn’t know if we were in contact with it or not, viruses are invisible to eye scrutiny and this particular virus could even be spread by asymptomatic people. Also unknown was what our immune reaction would be if or when we came in contact with it. This last unpredictability was also appealing to the third aspect of anxiety, threat to ego (self). At last we have the sense of control aspect of anxiety which in this case is not very impressive. The only real control we have over the situation is our reaction, which we don’t have much control over to begin with.
With all that said, it’s not surprising that the anxiety triggered may have been intense for many of us. Sometime so intense that it would have translated into fear in some and panic in others. Panic is often accompanied with emotionally compromised decisions that are taken in the spur of the moment and wouldn’t be repeated in normal circumstances. This brings me back to the toilet paper hoarding problem I’ve mentioned earlier. This behaviour is not very popular in our everyday life, but in times of panic, it is widely common. People momentarily stop thinking about the wellbeing of others and primarily think about theirs. Considering that when anxious people are easy to jump to the worst-case possible scenario, rumours about possible toilet paper shortage is enough to instigate fear in people’s mind and react accordingly. Hoarding also proves to be a way for people to gain a sense of control over the situation.
In a couple of months, we will be marking our first year into this pandemic. Things have now begun to feel like a new reality. We still would prefer our life to go back to normal, but this new everyday existence has now become more bearable. Without the common state of panic that many experienced early on, people have currently resumed to think about the wellbeing of others. We can again observe acts of generosity and compassion to others. We have come a long way and, as long as we remember to look for the components of anxiety, we can learn to better cope with what life decides to throw at us.
To help you respond better when anxiety starts to hit, you need to wonder about NUTS and ask yourself how you can decrease novelty (e.g. Reading, be careful not to become obsessed, which you exacerbate anxiety), diminish unpredictability (e.g. plans for as many scenarios as you may be able to come up with), lessen the possible threat to ego (e.g. set measure to protect yourself, for COVID-19 pandemic, it could be distancing, wearing protective equipment or even staying home) and finally increasing control (e.g. learn ways to control what you can, could be trying to moderate emotion, maintaining relationship, fixing a work schedule, etc.).
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