This year has tested our collective mental health again and again — from fears over the coronavirus to the isolating effects of social distancing, the reckoning on racial injustice, financial struggles, natural disasters and a contentious presidential election just weeks away.
With all that’s gone on, even people who may have never struggled with mental health issues like anxiety before are dealing with them now. But what about those who have lived with an anxiety disorder for years, long before 2020 took its toll?
While many people with pre-existing anxiety report their symptoms have worsened in 2020, there’s also a subset who say they’ve been less anxious. For some, it’s because they feel equipped to handle the present moment, thanks to all the time and effort they’ve put into working on their mental health. Others say it’s because they feel less alone knowing so many other people can now relate to their struggle.
“When COVID hit, it felt like the outside world finally matched how I’d been feeling inside, which oddly quieted my mind.”Kayden Hines
“During COVID, my anxiety improved because everyone else felt anxious too,” illustrator Kayden Hines told HuffPost. “So I finally felt like I was on the same wavelength as everyone else.”
We asked people with anxiety to share the ways in which their mental health has changed over the course of this turbulent year. Here’s what they said.
1. Being at home used to ease my anxiety. During the pandemic, it’s made it worse at times.
“Self-isolation was harder than people would think. It’s easy to assume a person living with anxiety would thrive being forced to avoid stressful situations and thrive in the comfort of our own homes. To some extent, this was true pre-pandemic. But when the isolating isn’t by choice, and it’s to avoid a deadly disease, it can be the cause of panic-inducing thoughts that you can’t escape from.” — Shelby Goodrich Eckard
2. Early on, my anxiety got better because the bad thing I always feared would happen finally did.
“Not that I was predicting a pandemic, but my anxiety always gave me this sinking feeling that something bad was going to happen. When COVID hit, it felt like the outside world finally matched how I’d been feeling inside, which oddly quieted my mind and gave me a sense of clarity.” – Hines
3. My old coping mechanisms stopped working.
“Pre-pandemic, I used coping methods to help me break through panic attacks — and a lot of time, I used the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ technique. I would concentrate on something positive coming up in the near future and tell myself, ‘If you can just get through this hard moment, you have a sisters trip coming up!’ Or, ‘It’s going to be OK! Your daughter is starting school next week!’ But COVID dimmed the light on a lot of the things many of us were looking forward to. It’s hard to break free from anxious thoughts when you’re consumed with the world falling apart with no end in sight.” — Goodrich Eckard
4. My anxiety has intensified — and it’s especially bad right when I wake up.
“I find myself waking up anxious almost every day. It’s as if the worry and anxiety is always at the back of my mind even when I sleep and as soon as I wake up, it overwhelms me immediately. I try to limit how much news I read and watch throughout the day, and I know that having that choice in itself is a privilege considering everything going on in the world.” – Debbie Tung
5. With all of the police violence against black people in the news, I’ve had to stay offline to protect my mental health.
“Racial injustice doesn’t mix well with trauma, so I’ve had to do my mental illness a favor and log off of social media. It’s hard because I know I have a voice and have influence, but it’s absolutely draining and triggering to see people who look just like me being killed in the streets. Daniel Prude’s murder was another reminder that it’s not safe to be Black and mentally ill.” — Sinclair Ceasar III
6. The weight of my responsibilities, both as an individual and as a member of my community, feels especially crushing now.
“As someone with anxiety, I already feel an unrealistic and heavy responsibility on how my actions and words affect others. I spend a lot of time rethinking what I said, what I did, and how I reacted. These thoughts often cause a lot of self-scrutiny. And that’s pre-pandemic. Now, the weight of my choices feels astronomical. It feels life or death because IT IS life or death in so many ways.” – Goodrich Eckard
7. At first I was filled with panic, but now I’ve adjusted to this new normal.
“The losses worldwide were staggering and devastating. It felt like there was nothing to do except wait for the tsunami wave of disease to hit here, too. Going out for essentials became psychologically exhausting. The empty shelves were alarming, and being in the same space with other people made my heart pound. I began to have panic attacks if I was in a store for longer than a few minutes.
“But as the days have gone by and isolation has become the new normal, I’ve found that I’m having fewer high-anxiety days overall. There’s been less daily stress as I have fewer engagements and obligations. Situations that exacerbated my social anxiety are practically non-existent. Although danger seems to lurk beyond the front door, my home feels like a sanctuary. I do worry that it will be challenging for me to adjust and rejoin the world once there’s a vaccine.” — Marzi Wilson
8. The constant uncertainty has been hard to handle, but I’ve also found new outlets to soothe my anxiety.
“The pandemic has been both a curse and a blessing for my anxiety. Initially, it wasn’t hard to imagine myself living a life in isolation and staying home, as that’s where I feel more comfortable. But as the months went by and the pandemic seemed to be a never-ending nightmare, my anxiety started to stem from not knowing when this will end or when things can go back to feeling normal.
“On the flip side, I started a YouTube channel where I started making connections, having meaningful interactions and even made new friends online because of this community I wouldn’t have found if it wasn’t for the pandemic. In many ways, 2020 has eased my anxiety. And even though sometimes it feels like I’m stuck in a rut, I have to remember to stay positive and find ways to keep my mind occupied and happy.” — Javier Montalvo
9. The pandemic has made me realize how much is outside my control — and that’s weirdly comforting.
“Before COVID, I put a ton of pressure on myself to succeed and attributed my failures to my own shortcomings. Now, I realize that the world can change in a second and that I have to learn to let certain things go. Who knows what is going to happen next. It’s been both scary and freeing to realize that the sense of control I was feeling or seeking was an illusion.” — Hines
10. I’ve found myself catastrophizing more these past few months.
“My mind immediately goes to the worst-case scenario and that’s when things start spiraling for me. I worry more about my family, my parents who I’ve not been able to see for weeks due to local lockdown rules, and how my son could be missing out on so many things. I try to practice mindfulness, focus on meaningful work, enjoy the time I have at home with my son. I try to be grateful for the wonderful simple things we still get to do every day.” – Tung
“I find myself waking up anxious almost every day. It’s as if the worry and anxiety is always at the back of my mind even when I sleep.”Debbie Tung
11. My top anxiety triggers have shifted.
“COVID-19 is very scary. I am fortunate enough to be working from home since March. I don’t go out at all and I do not want to ever go back to working in the office. I feel that if I ever catch COVID-19, I will die, which is probably due to my anxiety.
“There’s also the rise of racial inequality events: the murders of Black people by the police; the messages that the president sends to white supremacists, encouraging them to be violent towards us; the children in cages due to current immigration laws. Every time I hear something that has been done or said about this topic I feel extreme anxiety and pain on my chest.” — Sandra Spellman
12. COVID-19 has amplified the anxious loops of thoughts in my head. But incorporating new healthy habits has helped.
“Because of my anxiety, I am usually worried about everything. COVID made it all stronger: Will I lose my job? Will my appointments with my therapist be useful on the phone? How am I supposed to think about my future? How can I sleep normally? Will my friends still want to see me after the quarantine? Will I be able to go out again?
“The fear of being sick is also a big part of the daily anxiety. I don’t want my friends and family to die. I don’t want to get the virus and contaminate them or kill them. The thoughts are darker and darker and it never stops. It gets strong enough to paralyze me in bed.
“So I tried to take action and to add new positive habits in my life. I wanted to get busy and to focus on one day at a time (since we no longer know what tomorrow will be made of) and to have some victories in my days. Even small ones. Being stuck at home all day is the perfect time to start. I started by exercising at home, stopped checking my phone first thing in the mornings and in the evenings, and several other things. I replaced the phone time by reading or sketching for future webcomics. Today, after a few months, the COVID anxiety isn’t as strong as it was – when, strangely, COVID is stronger than ever in my city in France.” – Sow Ay
Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length.