Anxiety is an exhausting mental illness to have. It chases you: Everywhere I go, it seems as if there’s something just waiting to stress me out. The heart-pounding apprehension of asking a question in a lecture. The lip-gnawing experience of rereading an email 10 times before sending it. The worry that I’ll flub my coffee order and embarrass myself in front of the barista. The paralyzing fear that as I walk through CVS, there’s someone lingering behind me, watching and laughing at some unknown social faux pas.
Of course, I do know that these types of worries aren’t rational. That’s exactly what distinguishes anxiety as a mental disorder from typical stress: Anxiety, including Social Anxiety Disorder, is maladaptive instead of helpful. It doesn’t do anything productive for you — it just causes pain.
I acknowledge I am lucky that I have a relatively mild case of anxiety, most of which manifests as social anxiety (including the examples I’ve listed above). While I do find myself anxious in almost all social situations, it usually isn’t entirely inhibitory for me. Pre-COVID, I had mostly wrangled it under control.
Still, social situations can exhaust me. Like many other anxious people, part of the way I’ve dealt with it is with the creation of safe spaces: havens where I know I won’t be exposed to the things that trigger my anxiety. These safe corners allow people with anxiety to relax — to really “turn off” in a way we often aren’t able to in social situations. And over time, as you begin to associate a place with safety, you become more accustomed to seeking comfort there. For me, my safe space has always been my bedroom. Like Pavlov’s dog, I respond to the sweet sound of my door clicking shut behind me.
Unfortunately, the pandemic has thrown a wrench into that strategy, figuratively destroying my safe space. Now, my bedroom is not only the area where I unplug and relax — it’s the hectic place where I attend lectures, go to club meetings, have calls with my professors and colleagues and boss, do interviews for potential internships and have “relaxing” chats with friends. For some people, these might seem like stimulating, fun social situations, and many of them seem fun to me, too. Still, my optimistic outlook doesn’t change the fact that these events are anxiety-inducing and, therefore, tiring.
The same brain chemistry that makes me worry about asking questions in a physical classroom makes it stressful to click the little blue “raise hand” button in my Zoom lectures. My brain doesn’t care if I’m meeting a new person online rather than in person — it’s still a new person. And with the now-normal virtual platform, there are new fears of, Oh God, is there something weird in my background I forgot to put away? Do I look OK in my video? I double-check that I’m muted at least 20 times a lecture.
The first few weeks of quarantine, this was a problem I could reasonably deal with. Having a few classes in my bedroom wasn’t enough to erode the sense of automatic safety I had developed there; in fact, the comfort I felt sometimes made my classes easier. But as quarantine has dragged on and my situation hasn’t changed, my sense of safety has dissipated. Just as Pavlov’s dogs were deconditioned, the bell doesn’t make me salivate like it once did. My room is no longer automatically safe.
Some element of what I’ve said probably holds true for many Michigan students right now, even if they don’t have anxiety. Having some alone time and quiet places are important for everyone, and people often need a physical space dedicated to relaxation. The blurring of home and work and school — which has been happening for decades, since the advent of the cell phones, but has accelerated during the COVID pandemic — can be dangerous for all our mental health.
Still, I think this phenomenon is especially evident among people with anxiety, and particularly worrying for college students who often don’t have many options to address their situation. Of course, there’s plenty of advice online about creating clear work-home distinctions when working from home, but those articles are often targeted toward middle-aged workers who have the luxury of a quiet, non-bedroom work space. With this in mind, the common advice of just designating time at your desk as “time at work” and time away from your desk as “time at home” seems tenuous at best. What if my desk is two feet away from my bed? How is my brain supposed to automatically get comfortable in a safe space so close to the danger zone?
There’s also the added element of college students rarely doing their work on a traditional nine to five schedule, further complicating the work-home divide. My brain doesn’t turn off at 5 p.m. — it turns off when my work is done, and with club meetings, sometimes that can be as late as 8 or 9 p.m.
I can’t even turn to any other coping strategies I have. When my anxiety has gotten bad before, I’ve turned to exposure therapy: Little things, like going to a new grocery store or coffee shop, or wearing an ugly shirt to a place populated with people I’ll never see again. Usually, this gives me the little reminder I need that people really aren’t thinking about me all the time, and allows me to pull my fears back under control. But with COVID-19, these things, at least for me, aren’t options. I’m not going to new places — I’m not going anywhere — I’m just sitting here, ruminating in my own nerves.
So what should I do now? What do other people with anxiety do?
I feel stuck — physically, mentally, emotionally — and I almost feel like the only solution is to wait for the pandemic to be over. Everyone in my life seems to think lockdowns will be over in a year; maybe that’s not too bad. Of course, by then, I’ll likely be graduated, looking for a job in a market newly-obsessed with remote work. And what then? Am I looking at a slightly different version of the same problem down the line?
There’s no simple solution to this problem. But there are small things you can do to help.
Professors: be understanding of students who might be uncomfortable speaking in a digital classroom setting. Even for students who have done the work, it’s not always as easy as just “speaking up.”
Students: Try to be flexible if an anxious friend drops out of a scheduled FaceTime last minute, especially if it’s scheduled at the end of a long day.
And to the University of Michigan: maybe try using some of your sizable endowment to increase funding for student mental health services. I understand that the University isn’t made of money, but what is the endowment for if not to be used for causes like this? After all, the health and safety of students should be the primary concern of the University — shouldn’t it?
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