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How to Regulate Pandemic Anxiety? Trust Your Body
Two weekends ago, I was lying on my living room couch for hours, staring blankly at the textures of my ceiling. My body was anxious, but I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, nor did I have the willingness to trace its possible origins. I don’t even recall my mind going toward any specific direction or topic; I just gazed at the wooden design above me as my body endured the mysterious disquiet.
Moments after, I realized that I had just heard news about the omicron variant being detected in my current location of the world, which resulted in increased quarantine restrictions. I questioned if the degree of my heightened anxiety was warranted, because, after all, I experienced this kind of hypervigilance before. But we are confronting a new global upheaval: another variant, more infectious than the last. Another variant that demands our collective and personal responsibility to increase caution, given the capitalist system we live under that infuses abhorrent ableism into public health guidelines and deliberately disregards the immunocompromised. So my fear seemed justified.
Even then, the extent of my distress did not feel aligned with the chaos at hand. It felt like I was hearing news about the pandemic for the first time again, as if I had never experienced something like this before. I was reliving the same emotions of 2020. My body was remembering.
Memory is a living process.
Memory is a living process. Unlike a box of inanimate photographs or heirlooms from past experiences, memory is a malleable, nonlinear reel of our subjective interpretations of the past—almost like an organism that reshapes and reappears over time. Whenever we are exposed to certain sounds, scents, images, and textures, our senses link them to earlier events our minds associate them with. From there, our bodies respond, and they do so accordingly. For instance, if I smell pine, I recollect memories of Christmastime, which often makes me feel nostalgic and tender. If I taste a fruit from my childhood, it is as if I am teleported back to a younger state. The same goes with tragic past experiences. Whenever I am under a dim sky and stormy winds barrel through the trees around me, my body feels a certain fright from memories of super typhoons I experienced as a kid growing up in Southeast Asia. Whenever love songs I once shared with past lovers play in films, my stomach drops, burdened with feelings of regret, heartbreak, or longing.
More often than not, we are not consciously aware we are remembering and responding to specific events that have already happened. This is known as implicit memory, where we rely on sensorimotor skills for our everyday activities and routines, or we experience the phenomenon of being transported back to a specific time in the past that has deep and even life-altering significance.
Remember to sing.
During my time on the couch, I had a “felt-sense” something bad was going on in real time, but I was not consciously aware of what it was. I then assessed my anxiety as irrational, but I later realized it was tied to the anxiety I felt when we first went into lockdown in 2020. It was my birthday that day. The panic then matches the panic now.
The body can be incredible. In this context, I take apart the meaning of the word: in-credible. The body can be hard to believe. Our sensations and responses often do not feel reliable, because of a seemingly untraceable source the moment they are felt. We are especially susceptible to memory distortions in high stress or in the face of danger. With that, it is important to remember that although our memories sometimes don’t seem trustworthy, our bodies are.
It is time to believe them and compassionately soothe them in the midst of pandemic anxiety. Here are some suggestions on how to do so.
IMPORTANT NOTE: These invitations are not a substitute for clinical support or mental health services in any way. Please seek professional help if it feels needed. I also listed these invitations while being mindful of access, ability, and various styles of learning. Please lean into the learning style or practices that are most accessible, helpful, and enlivening to you.
1. Commit to taking screen and social media breaks. Screens and the ever-changing state of public information can be overstimulating. These breaks do not have to be full days. They can be as short as two hours.
2. Return to breath and to the here and now: the 4–7–8 breathing exercise is a good place to start. Describe your surroundings to yourself. Experiment with the five senses grounding exercise.
3. Drink ginger tea or other anti-inflammatory foods and beverages, while being mindful of the values and ethics of the companies from which you purchase these products. As much as possible, support local and BIPOC-owned businesses.
4. If accessible and desired, diffuse clove, lavender, or rosemary oil to lower cortisol levels.
5. Be mindful of your caffeine and alcohol intake. Caffeine stimulates fight-or-flight responses, which may worsen anxiety. Alcohol, on the other hand, is a depressant to the nervous system.
6. Do hydrotherapy at home. If you have access to it, adjust the water temperature from your shower to the hottest you can handle for about 2–3 minutes, and then the coldest you can handle for the same amount of time. Please do not go beyond what you can handle. This type of therapy helps increase blood flow and circulation into the tissues throughout your body, which may reduce fatigue, swelling, and muscle soreness.
7. Create a physical container: Wrap a blanket around yourself. Weighted blankets are good for this but not necessary. If you are able, embrace yourself, caress your skin, play with fidget toys, or hold your face (after thorough hand-washing).
8. If you are able, invite more music, singing, creativity, dancing, stretching, or just general movement and rhythm into your life!
9. And finally, consider writing a love letter to your younger self. This may be sent to who you were in 2020 when they lived through those first moments of the pandemic. They are, after all, a younger version of you.
If it is helpful, you may refer to this letter I wrote to my younger self on the first day of lockdown in 2020:
Happy birthday. I know it ached to inform your friends that you need to cancel plans today, but the version of you right now is relieved you made this decision. You’re doing great.
I am writing to you from a time of at-home COVID test kits, vaccine inequity, managing a budget for takeout, continued and livestreamed racialized violence, virtual workshops and concerts, and multiple “I miss you” texts to friends and family.
I’m so sorry that this pandemic won’t end at a time you and your friends predict and hope. I’m not quite sure if it ever will, as long as we are under the oppressive structures of capitalism. But you and your community chose not to despair. What a sacred thing.
Your home today is quiet and still, coexisting with the unrest and volume of tears and groans of a rebirth to come. For someone whose sense of home is incessantly threatened due to anti-immigrant policies, you make a mighty good one.
There will be friends and lovers who will unearth true colors. It will sting to see some go. But you made it through. You are making it through. The metamorphosis of your tears have fed the soil of the community and personal growth you are relishing in today—the sort you have been dreaming and manifesting about.
I might not constantly embody the highest self you aspire to become, but I am most certainly my most favorite self I’ve ever been. And that is enough. I am enough. You are enough.
Remember to hydrate.
Remember not to be ashamed of how big and loud your hope can be.
Remember to sing.
G in 2022
Gabes Torres is a psychotherapist, organizer, and artist. Her work focuses on anti-colonial approaches and practices within the mental health field. She also focuses on abolitionist organizing on a global scale. You can find most of her work on her official website, www.gabestorres.com, and social media platforms, including Instagram.