Anxious people of the world: This is your time.
At long last, every thing you’ve ever worried about is Happening. You could die of not washing your hands. Everyone finally agrees that air travel is dangerous and foolhardy. That fear you’ve had about strangers? Justified. Now staying six feet away and holding your breath is just good common sense.
It is a very strange time to have an anxiety disorder. I do feel like I’ve been practicing for 30something years for this moment. I find myself confused by what anxiety to listen to, and what anxiety to let go of.
Much of the healing work I have done on depression and anxiety is about being aware of negative feelings and finding mindful ways to ensure they don’t run your life. But I’m confused now. I am the recovering anxious person in the crow’s nest of the Titanic, watching an iceberg emerge from the mist and thinking:
Just breathe, Evan. You cannot control the iceberg. You cannot control the captain, or the helmsman, you cannot steer this ship. You and the iceberg will meet. You can only control how you feel about it.
Which, honestly, when I am in the depths of acute anxiety, does not soothe my soul. In the past two weeks or so I have found a new anxiety… I am experienced with the anxiety of: Will I ever find a career or a partner? Am I worthy of love? Will I ever know peace? Will I ever own my own home?
The new anxiety is: Will I get pneumonia from COVID-19, and when I need to go to the hospital, will there be any beds, or any ventilators? Will I die alone, a drowning death in my own home, or in some triage tent?
This is a new animal, an acute anxiety based on real events, real dangers. There is actually a tiger in the woods. In recent days I have found myself in the depths of a fight or flight response that I could not meditate away.
The pain was so unbearable and constant, morning, noon, and night, that I began to act. I made noise in my community about my concerns. It seemed to me that my community—the island, the county, the state, the nation, the world—was not responding quickly enough to the Iceberg. I emailed and called county and state officials. I wrote to community leaders. I wrote a letter to the editor of our little local paper.
And then I felt some relief.
There’s this Buddhist idea that feelings like anger are useful because they flag our attention. Hey, look at this. And the feelings are so intense we find ourselves energized and we can respond. I think in some cases anxiety or fear also can work this way.
I learned another thing in writing my letter. I was about to send it to a paper on neighboring San Juan Island and I saw that a person named Liz Smith had written a very similar letter. I felt relief in knowing I wasn’t the only one worried about our coronavirus response. I had been feeling quite alone about it.
I googled Liz and found out she too is a writer: the Writer-in-residence for the Washington State Ferry system, no less.
I was reminded of something I had read last year about highly sensitive people (HSPs). There’s a particular researcher, Dr. Elaine Aron, who began studying HSPs in the 1990s. She found that roughy 15-20% of people are highly sensitive. HSPs feel things—sounds, emotions, smells, sights, pain, and so on—more strongly than their fellow human beings.
I took her HSP questionnaire and I got my first A+ in years. I am a card-carrying member of the Highly Sensitive People of America (not a real organization).
Her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, goes into great detail about what life is like for the HSP, from early childhood to parenthood, from work to romantic relationships.
I recommend the book to anyone, for your self-awareness or for understanding those strange sensitive loved ones in your life. But the one sentence thesis is that highly sensitive people have super powers that make them critical members of a community, but these same super powers can make life very difficult for them. The reason is that most human cultures are dominated by the normal majority, not the sensitive minority.
I’ve been told countless times that I’m too sensitive, or delicate, or wimpy, or that I complain too much, am too particular, or too stubborn, or too shy. I now know that these are code words that society uses for HSPs.
I want to amend what I said at the top of this post:
Highly Sensitive People, this is your time.
One of the critical services that HSPs provide to their community is the early warning signal. Aron mentioned an evolutionary theory that HSPs evolved to protect the tribe from danger. They noticed tigers, poisonous berries, and dangerous strangers. Their normal friends were less troubled by these dangers and could venture out and take risks for the tribe. The HSPs provided a balancing caution, and the imagination to foresee far ahead dangers…What if tigers learn to use firearms? I bet you’ve never thought of that. Well, I did. You’ll thank me later.
According to Aron most artists and writers are highly sensitive. So, too, are most scientists, judges, advisers, healers (medical, mental health, and otherwise), spiritual seekers, and so on.
So when I saw a follow writer (HSP fo sho) sounding the alarm on San Juan Island it clicked for me. This is our role in an emergency. To take in all the subtle stimuli and suss it out. To look for dangerous patterns. To sound the alarm, even if we find ourselves painfully alone.
I suspect at the heart of every tale where a lone person doggedly pursues an injustice or sounds the alarm, you’ll find an HSP.
So, society, be gentle with us when we complain about the temperature or the saltiness or the scratchy label or the vague hostility in the room.
I’ve managed to surface from the depths of the I’m-gonna-die anxiety I’ve been dealing with for the past two weeks or so. In case you’re following along and you’d like to try my patented 17-part method, here are some things that have been helping me:
- DIY EMDR
- News fasts (I’m looking at you, NY Times)
- Cultivating faith that I can survive this pandemic. Where faith is a belief based on scant evidence and plenty of hope.
- Cultivating faith that WE can survive this pandemic. Particularly looking to the medical and public health heroes who are fighting this fight for us.
- Cultivating an acceptance of death. I heard recently that most people don’t fear death as much as the process of dying.
- Compassion for the anxious, crazy monkey that lives inside my head and makes my mouth say things and my hands and arms do things.
- Metta (loving kindness) meditation, directed toward myself and others.
- [redacted psychedelic substance]
- Music, art, reading, writing
- Speaking to, and more importantly, *listening to* loved ones
- Hundreds of dollars of costly and probably ineffective dietary supplements
- So much Neti pot
- Physical touch with whoever you’re NOT social distancing with
- Hiking, except when I see tourists. You guys, there are still tourists here.
I have more to say about all this. Stay tuned. Stay well.
Sam Harris had the same idea. Very timely thoughts on the usefulness of mindfulness in a crisis.