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Photography Ashley Armitage, via @ladyist

Is this COVID-19 or just my anxiety?

TextClementine Prendergast

For many suffering from mental health issues coronavirus, quarantine, and social distancing will be triggering – one woman ponders how we might feel more connected and supported than ever before, despite being physically separated

Although I’m usually susceptible to all winter illnesses, this season I’ve not been unwell once. Bootcamp classes, half-marathon training, antioxidant-packed shakes, daily meditations, despite scepticism, it seemed my strict wellness regime was actually, finally, working?

Overnight, I developed a fever and woke up on Thursday morning with a heavy chest, aching body, cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath.  According to the internet I was showing symptoms of COVID-19. I still can’t be entirely certain I have the virus, NHS online advises that if anyone shows symptoms and is able to self-isolate for 14 days, a test is not necessary. While I’ve faith my youthful immunity will enable a timely recovery, fearing little for my current condition, the uncertainty of diagnosis doesn’t sit well for me. Nor does the prospect of 14 days of indoor confinement. 

“Overnight, I developed a fever and woke up on Thursday morning with a heavy chest, aching body, cough, fatigue, and shortness of breath.  According to the internet I was showing symptoms of COVID-19. I still can’t be entirely certain I have the virus... While I’ve faith my youthful immunity will enable a timely recovery, fearing little for my current condition, the uncertainty of diagnosis doesn’t sit well for me”

I’ve always hated being unwell. I disliked missing out on school. It was never the absence of friends or studies that uneased me, but rather the absence of routine, rules and order that I craved. I’ve always found the greatest comfort in daily rituals. It’s the minutiae of routines – alarm clock wake-ups, queues of people on tube platforms, afternoon tea rounds – the banality of small, ordinary moments, all added up together that give the calming illusion of order.

Anyone predisposed to anxiety or overthinking will know how protective these small rituals feel. They ease the existential fear of chaos and meaninglesness, soothing the more worrisome of us back to the state of calm. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown us all into a state of chaos. As keeping our social distance becomes of utmost importance to fight the spread of this virus, we are all forced into isolation, quarantine, and confinement, watching from our tiny screens as the world runs amok. The social order which once gave us work to do, rules to adhere and a role to play is rapidly dismantling. 

As someone with a particularly high emotional frequency, I’ve struggled to settle in to the changes of the past week. At times I’ve wondered if my breathing difficulties are in fact panic-induced anxiety about the escalation of this global pandemic – fearing for friends, family and strangers whose circumstances are more critical than my own. Or, if the constant headache is in fact a result of the incessant phone usage. As we are told to stay away from others, technology becomes a vital lifeline with the outside world. 

Be it loneliness or anxiety, what is certain is the chaos of the foreseeable is going to take its toll on our collective mental health. I know I have been triggered. Having struggled with an eating disorder in the past, I am finding the physical restriction of my self-isolation psychologically tormenting. I feel trapped in chaos and disorder, struggling to get out of my own negative thought patterns. 

According to my Health tracker I’ve taken a measly 93 steps today. Exercise is usually one of the daily routines soothing me back to a state of order and calmness. Without it I am not only feeling a physical laziness but an emotional chaos – I feel useless, boundless, somewhat lifeless. As eating disorder charities report a 30 per cent spike in the number of calls to helplines, I fear greatly for those susceptible to sinking further into these kinds of vulnerabilities. 

Having shared the presence of my symptoms with my broader social networks, I've had a flurry of WhatsApps, DMs, and emails from caring and concerned family, friends, and colleagues insisting I rest, ‘take it easy’ and break from work until I’m recovered. While I deeply appreciate the concern for my physical health, my greatest fear is for my mental health. 

Of course, our priority must be to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, but it is critical we don’t lose sight of how weeks of isolation, social distancing and uncertainty about what happens next, affect our mental wellbeing. As Bella Mackie writes about her experience of anxiety, much of the advice for tackling the global pandemic goes against everything you need to do to combat mental health problems. 

“Suffering with a mental health issue can feel painfully lonely (but) the severity of this pandemic is encouraging us all to exercise our capacity for empathy. While I cannot physically see or touch loved ones, I feel a deeper sense of connection to them, an antidote to the pain” 

Suffering with a mental health issue can feel painfully lonely. While it is true that today I feel panicked about my current circumstances, I know there are very many people experiencing similar feelings. Knowledge that others feel the same way is perversely reassuring. 

As Olivia Laing writes “Love is not just conveyed by touch. It moves between strangers; it travels through objects and words in books”. In the 21st century, I may add that it also travels in group chats via Zoom, emojis in DMs, voice notes on WhatsApp. If there is a silver living to this pandemic may it be it has taught us the value of connection. While we may be alone, perhaps we are in fact more together, than ever before?

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