What if COVID-19 is making me LESS anxious?

We’re hearing a lot lately about how COVID-19 is causing people to feel anxious, depressed, irritable, and even suicidal. These feelings are real and need to be taken seriously. But I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret. Not everybody feels worse. Some people report a sense of lightness and calm that they haven’t felt for years. They are sleeping better. They have new-found interests and goals. They are more deliberate and creative in their meal choices, even if the ingredients come from a can. And some are enjoying the delights of a walk around the neighborhood more than they ever thought possible.

So what gives? For a start, natural disasters, wars, and other human challenges are known to bring people together, with a sense of common humanity, of being “all in this together”. Even the US Government’s public service slogan is #alonetogether. COVID-19 is not just a national disaster, it’s an international one, affecting every country on the planet. Kristin Neff, Ph.D. a leading researcher on self-compassion, notes that the word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with,” which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering.  It makes sense that our anxiety goes down when we know other people are worried too.

But it’s more than that. One of the most common anxiety disorders is social phobia, which relates to our standing in comparison to others and our place in the social pecking order. While COVID-19 is a valid concern for all of us, many people are experiencing a reduction in FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). Our friends’ Facebook posts seem to be less about their spectacular Colorado ski trips and more about toilet paper shortages and the challenges of dark roots when one can’t get to the hairdresser. To be sure, quarantine bragging is a thing but it seems to be more manageable.

For many people with a pervasive worry about health, finances, work, relationships, and other things (perhaps warranting a diagnosis of an anxiety disorder), COVID-19 has finally given them permission to feel their fears and not feel ashamed of them. Authorities are providing detailed instructions on how to stay safe such as mask wearing, hand washing and social distancing guidelines. These instructions are not just suggested; they are required. For anxious people, this is their moment. Those with obsessive compulsive tendencies who are usually ridiculed for germ-phobia are today regarded as heroes. Some jokingly refer to COVID-19 as the pandemic they have been training for all their lives. This is not just validation for anxiety – it’s a celebration of it. For an anxious person, it makes sense that they would feel better right now.

I mentioned that owning up to feeling less anxious right now is a dirty secret. Why might that be? Well, people are dying from COVID-19, or are seriously ill. We know that essential workers in health care, janitorial positions, and transport are risking their lives just going to work. For them, there is no option to shelter in place. And let us not forget the millions who have lost their jobs as a direct result of COVID-19. Feeling anything other than guilt under these circumstances might seem insensitive, disrespectful, or frankly selfish. But let’s remember that human beings are complex. We are capable of feeling many things at a time, and for all feelings to be real and justified. We can feel profound empathy and sadness for those who are suffering. At the same time, we can feel liberated from our own fear and a sense of gratitude for others. That is not selfish. That is the human spirit.