The (Temporary) Upside of the Downside

When "shelter in place" means "avoid in place."

Posted May 22, 2020

 Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Source: Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The messages have been all around us: Take shelter in place, stay home, be safe. Go out only for necessary items—food, medicine, and work if you must. 

Avoidance has not only become acceptable, it has been recommended. In some places, it has been the law.

These days, most of us are more anxious and obsessive about physical distancing and disinfecting. This is a normal consequence of our struggle with conflicting and confusing messages about risk and safety, along with uncertainty about the future. However, there are actually quite a few people with sticky, anxious minds who have been surprised to be experiencing considerable relief at the same time that the world enacts public health measures to blunt the advance of COVID 19.  

For many people with OCD fears, social or performance anxiety, agoraphobia, or a fear of flying, those situations previously anticipated with dread and misery have been canceled or delayed.  Expectations about everything have changed. They have been off the hook—reprieved. They could—in fact, they have been encouraged—to stay at home, wash, avoid, cancel, and delay with impunity. COVID 19 has provided a pass. The pressure is off.

Here are some examples:

  • Afraid to fly? So is the rest of the world. Stay on the ground.
  • Do you wonder if you washed enough? Wash again. 
  • Trouble with competing responsibilities? No worries, work is canceled.
  • Are you afraid of public restrooms? You should be.
  • Hate all those comparing thoughts at the gym? Buy an exercise bike.
  • "Stranger Danger" keeps you off online dating? This is the perfect time for it. There will be no in-person contact. 
  • Social anxiety keeping you from interacting at work? Work alone virtually, and almost no one will notice your anxiety.
  • Feel panicky in malls? They have been closed.
  • Self-conscious or panic attacks when shopping? Order online. Everyone is doing it.

As soon as the specter of anticipatory anxiety is removed from the scene, a good number of people with sticky minds seem to flourish. A cloistered limited life relatively free from ambiguities, expectations, and uncontrolled elements seems like calming relief. There is permission and encouragement not to push the limits of one’s comfort zone. 

This seems like an ideal situation at first. But gradually, as we all start to consider the intricacies of how and when we will “open” up again, acute anticipatory anxiety starts rushing back in. Except for this time, it bombards us with even more ambiguities, unknowns, and unimaginables. For the general population, there is the haunting fear that relaxing restrictions too quickly will provoke another spike in COVID activity. 

But for people with sticky minds and fabulous imaginations, the “what ifs” are both broader and more personal. Painful worries and urgent questions, many of them unanswerable, start to flood in.

  • As the government stops providing rules for everyone to follow, how will I know what to do?
  • How will I know when to stop disinfecting my groceries? Or is this what I will always have to do? 
  • How will I decide what to do about contact with others and how will I ever feel safe again? 
  • What if I won’t be able to ever be comfortable again?
  • What if six feet apart is not enough when I do venture out? What if other people don’t do it?
  • Will my mask be sufficient? Do I have enough of them?
  • What if my neighbours don’t wear masks in the apartment elevator?  
  • Is this N95 mask from China really an N95? 
  • Will people think I am selfish if I use it myself instead of giving it to a healthcare provider?  
  • What if everyone else someday feels free to hug and I never do? Will I get depressed if I can’t hug?  
  • How can I ever feel safe to send my kids back to school—and then they will suffer if all their friends go back?
  • And what if I have to start dating/traveling/working/shopping/visiting my relatives and I panic? Will I be the only one left self-isolating? 
  • What if my coping skills that used to work are rusty?  
  • What if my reaction to this whole thing is crazy? Am I too sensitive? Not sensitive enough?
  • How on earth can I go back to the exposure therapy I was working on before all this happened?
  • What if…. The list is endless.

Anticipatory anxiety is a potent force. It is a complicated interplay of painful past experiences, interpolated to our imagined future. It is rarely accurate but motivates avoidance and chronic indecision. It is not a predictor of the future, but it feels as if it is a warning sign nonetheless. Anticipatory anxiety occurs when we treat our imaginations as actualities that must be confronted or planned for. 

We get hijacked by our worries and feel compelled to deal with them--even when we don’t know enough to answer the question, or are faced with a situation where nothing can be done except to surrender the struggle. We feel as if we need to “get ready,” have a script prepared, formulate an escape plan to put in our pockets, or be ready with an excuse that is already rehearsed. 

We yearn to know for sure that things will be safe, successful, and manageable—even when there is no way to do so. 

People with sticky minds are haunted by their own creative stories about all the bad things that could possibly happen. So, of course, real dangers—as well as ambiguities and unknowns—make the mind even stickier. Permission to avoid is beginning to end. Anticipatory anxiety is rising. The most helpful attitude is to both expect it and allow it—trying to forgo both surprise and judgment.

The goal is to become better at observing this happening without being beaten up by our own imaginations. In this moment, staying in the day we are in and acknowledging all that we cannot know for sure—that is the better strategy.