By VIANCA GAMBOA
TW: death, mental illness, self-harm
The first time I ever felt emptiness was during term break, junior year in college, 2015. I lost myself to The Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, thesemovies by Sofia Coppola, and a new band I had just discovered called The Hotelier that talked about shifting to stay in the frame, (and dedicated a whole EP to a friend who took his own life). I had familiarized myself with loneliness when I was in high school, which found expression in sorry-looking homeroom notebooks-turned-makeshift journals, but it wasn’t until that November I felt paralyzed. There were no triggers, I was just alone with my thoughts, depressing pop culture consumptions, five-minute reliefs, a nod to my demons from the back of the room, *something sad*, watching “myself” pass by as the time ticked—resounding, ear-splitting silence.
I enjoy solitude, but confinement is another story. It can come off pretty destructive to me, being left alone to fend for my mental health and having limited means to cope (being out and smoking). There are a lot of feelings I’ve known like the back of my hand, from sepanx to “mini heart attacks,” and then there are things I can’t quite put into words, even when preoccupied with them in isolation.
And so, I was so certain that the quarantine would trigger a recurrence. I’m writing this from the POV of someone who’s mentally disorganized and really scared, so I’ve been trying to pick myself up, be proactive, and find ways to not go full-on stir-crazy (because Covid-19 isn’t the only faceless enemy in our lives). I search the internet, read Rookiearchives while trying to work, call someone, watch a lot of movies, of course, and stumble upon a live mental talk on Facebook called “Anxiety and Mindfulness in the Time of Covid-19,” hosted by Mindful Manila. It kind of reiterates the message that the underlying panic we’re feeling is the same as everyone else’s, too, as we all try to trudge through our day-to-day with uncertainty.
According to mental health advocate and grief coach Cathy Babao, the hard truths we have to face come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s good to consider that some are bigger than the others, depending on people’s coping capacity and preexisting mental health conditions. Together with Dr. Robert Buenaventura, a psychiatrist at UERM hospital, they narrowed down the main causes behind this heightened anxiety and why we’re grappling in discomfort while on quarantine.
Uncertainty and Confusion
There’s a sudden shift in people’s lives. We find ourselves having to change lifelong routines in the blink of an eye, the structure we have built for ourselves crashing all around us. We don’t know what to do, how are we going to concentrate and work in peace when at home, etc.
It can also be blamed on the onslaught of news, information, and anger toward everything that’s happening. According to Dr. Buenaventura, we are also getting swept away in the intensity of the situation, especially now that there are a lot of questions and anger at the government and uncertainty of things: How long do we have to wait? Will the lockdown continue after April 15? Can it be resolved in a year? How many more lives will it claim? What will happen to the homeless people?
How to deal:
According to Dr. Robert, the best way to fight uncertainty is to feed ourselves with facts, facts, facts, and lower our social media intake, too. There’s a lot of conflicting information that creates confusion, like faux homemade remedies or fearmongering sites everywhere, so you have to be extra careful about what you click. Read the news and health advisories and only follow reliable sources.
On the general side, we must understand that everything we’re feeling is normal and that our routines don’t have to be compromised, provided that we find good alternatives and that we’re still practicing preventive measures. Love hitting the gym? Download a work-out app instead. Noticing changes in sleeping and eating patterns? Set an alarm like you would in your usual routines and follow suit. It is also a good time to decide if your system of organization needs a switch-up, or just fine-tuning.
Make it a habit to create a list of the things you need before scheduling your grocery runs for the week, and sleep earlier and longer since your regular WFH routine cuts out commute hours. And remember, if the Covid-19 scare has taken a toll on your work or school, maybe it’s best to take a day or even a week off so your body and mind can find time to adjust.
Cabin Fever and Separation Anxiety
Feeling “walang magawaaaa (bored)” is just a prelude to what cabin fever is all about, defined as “the claustrophobic irritability or restlessness experienced when a person, or group, is stuck at an isolated location.” This can be a big problem to those suffering from mental illness who keep themselves occupied by being literally out there (e.g. biking, having regular consultations, meeting with friends).
Dysfunctional family dynamic is also a case in point as there are people who prefer not to be in contact with family members due to toxic environment, trauma, or abuse, while others are greatly reliant on healthy relationships to go on with their lives.
Most important, restricted movement and the feeling of being locked-up may somehow trigger self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and self-hate. As for me, I thought I had all the time in the world to check myself in the mirror and lose what’s left of my self-esteem, and *something sad.*
How to deal
It helps to structure your days and think about crafting your life. Chart things you love doing for each day of the week so you can have something to look forward to. After that WFH shift, maybe you can take online courses to hone your skills as Cathy suggests, curate your quarantine playlist, make a Photoshop collage, watch documentaries, or schedule Facetime calls with people you rely on.
Also, please use this time to rest. Sleep deprivation weakens the immune system and increases your susceptibility to Covid-19 and mental health illnesses such as depression.
What a lot of people are beginning to realize is that practicing proper breathing can do wonders, too, and help in self-meditation. For starters, try this trick specifically for fighting anxiety: Inhale slowly through your nose. Your abdomen should expand, and your chest should rise very little. Then exhale slowly through your mouth. As you blow air out as if you’re making a “wooshing” sound, purse your lips slightly while keeping your jaw relaxed.
Productivity and breathing exercises notwithstanding, it’s not that easy to deal with anxiety and mental illness in disaster mode. It’s best to have your psychiatrist within reach and continue with your treatment. When all the lines are busy, Hopeline, a national 24/7 hotline opened by Natasha Goulbourn Foundation for those in need of emotional assistance in this time of crisis, is your best friend. You may call them on 0918-873-4673 (Smart), 0917-558-4673 (Globe), and (02) 8804-4673 (PLDT).
In Harvard Business Review’s interview with author, public speaker, and grief expert David Kessler, he emphasized the idea of anticipatory grief during the pandemic. He says that hearing news about people getting diagnosed drives the thought that we could lose loved ones to it, too. “Anticipatory grief is more broadly imagined futures. There is a storm coming. There’s something bad out there. With a virus, this kind of grief is so confusing for people. Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety,” he said.
How to deal
Kessler’s main advice is to understand the outbreak—it is happening, it’s killing people at an alarming rate, it’s among us—which is always the initial step in dealing with mental illness and unfortunate events, no matter how non-linear your road map is. According to CDC, understanding the actual risk of Covid-19 to yourself and the people you care about lessens anxiety. Doing this creates a balance with “acceptance” serving as your control to tackle what should be done next, like washing hands and practicing social distancing. If you’re imagining the worst, coming into the present always helps. Kessler explained one mundane yet helpful tip to do this: “Name five things in a room. Breathe. Realize that in the present moment, nothing you’ve anticipated has happened. In this moment, you’re okay. You have food. You are not sick. Use your senses and think about what they feel.”
Then, I’ll leave you with a lyric from my favorite band called The Maine, “Control what you can, confront what you can’t.”
HOPELINE—0918-873-4673 (Smart), 0917-558-4673 (Globe), and (02) 8804-4673 (PLDT).