So, I have been crying in the bathroom these past few days.
For a few weeks now, it has been a struggle to do pretty much anything - starting with getting out of bed in the morning to getting back to bed at night.
But I am also a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a daughter-in-law, a sister-in-law, a boss, an employee, and many other things. So not getting out of bed (or not going to bed) is not as much of an option today as it was a decade ago.
So crying in the bathroom is my next best alternative.
And the weird thing is, for the first time in my life, I know that almost the entire world is with me, crying in the bathroom. Well, respective bathrooms.
Covid anxiety is real.
The New York Times calls this feeling ‘languishing’. Many women I know call it numbness. Someone I spoke to last week called it mindf**kery. I thought that third description was particularly eloquent.
My last thought before I sleep and my first thought every morning is about the safety and health of everyone I love. It takes a toll to constantly worry about losing people you love, and constantly bury that thought to stay functional. There is a helplessness that comes with not being able to ease the pain of others who are suffering. And there is guilt that comes in a package deal with it.
Congratulations to everyone who has lost 30kgs or baked 30,000 sourdough breads during the pandemic, but for most of us, just living, day after day, through this unending cycle of doom is taking superhuman levels of motivation. Last night I slept at 3.30am. The night before that, I woke up at 3am. Any semblance of a routine or body clock has left the building.
It is unnatural to not be able to meet people, or talk to them face-to-face, or touch them, or smile at them, or even see them smiling at you through a mask. Doomscrolling is a legitimate word now - a term for that time when you spend hours scrolling through depressing news and statistics about covid.
It all takes a toll.
I was beginning to lose it, and I knew I had to do something before I completely unraveled. I started by leaving a bunch of WhatsApp groups.
Every time I touched my phone, there were conversations about hospital beds, ventilators, oxygen cylinders, plasma requirements, and Remdesivir jumping out at me. Reading about people's suffering was making me feel useless and helpless and anxious, so I shamefully and selfishly left some groups like that. (I am sorry, but I am also human.)
And then there is the misinformation that educated people seem to be more than happy to spread. There are groups where all sorts of poppycock - from drinking karela juice to snorting lines of camphor - are being peddled as valid treatments. I left those too. (Not really sorry for these.)
So, other than my wallowing, what is this newsletter about?
I'll be honest - I almost didn't send out a newsletter this week. I badly needed some mental health time-off. Plus, I figured, the world is burning anyway - who is going to notice one less piddly newsletter?
But as I was contemplating taking this break, it occurred to me that most of the groups I left this week (at least the ones I feel sorry about leaving) were groups of women.
Women who are either sick themselves, or caring for a sick loved one. Women who are sharing their worst fears with one another, or trying their damnedest to find that oxygen cylinder to help save someone they will never meet. Women who are brave and scared and hopeful and hopeless and, most of all, very very tired.
I wondered if this thing that is making me want to go into hibernation also had a Womaning dimension to it. Could it be?
Are women feeling covid anxiety more than men?
The Science is in
Well, there is no denying that this past year has been physically much worse on women. As the primary caregivers of children and seniors, more women than men have lost or had to quit their jobs. And as household work mounted in the absence of support staff, most of the mental and physical load of running the house fell on women. The year has been a hellish nightmare for women trapped under lockdown with abusive men who are only more violent in closed spaces. And millions of schoolgirls who have had to drop out of school this year might never get to go back to their education again.
It turns out that this extra fun-sized dose of suffering is not just physical. For all the above reasons and more, a number of studies have found that women also tend to be more vulnerable to various forms of mental disorders during the pandemic, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and stress. (Source; Source; Source).
Some women opened up to me this week about what they are going through, their greatest fears, and the coping mechanisms that help them.
When your worst fears come true
The last three weeks have been a living nightmare for Ritambhara.
"My grandmother was hospitalised. I had to go from Bangalore to Azamgarh and bring her in an ambulance and get her admitted to a hospital here in a critical condition. By God's grace, she is feeling better. But now, my husband and I are both covid-positive with symptoms. His symptoms are severe. We are both alone at home and trying to ride through this crisis by ourselves."
She clearly sees herself experiencing a heightened level of anxiety.
"Some nights, I just can't sleep. I wake up every five minutes to check if my husband is okay. I keep calling my grandmother to ask if she is doing fine."
She says her biggest coping mechanism is her faith in God.
"You have to have faith and stay strong. Be prepared for any emergency. Save important numbers and contact your near relatives and friends and tell them if you are not doing well. If you are covid-positive, you might need help at anytime. So keep some numbers on speed dial."
"Also, keep praying."
A little bit in denial
Aditi says that she is "a little bit in denial". I think we can all relate to that a little bit.
"I want to believe that it won't happen to my family, or even if it does, it'll be mild. I want to believe in numbers and data which say that over 80% of cases are mild or asymptomatic."
But it is, of course, easier said than done to stay positive in these times.
"My greatest fear is the crumbling health care system. I am completely disillusioned with how the government is handling everything. I've started believing that our country is in too big a mess for us - or at least for me - to do anything about it. So I am just being selfish and taking care of myself right now."
However, not being able to help is clearly weighing heavily on her mind.
"I felt very sad and helpless about the migrant crisis last year. I know there were people like me who went out and helped them physically. I didn't, I couldn't. So I gave money to such organizations instead. Right now, I know the situation is terrible, people are suffering, but I don’t know where to get more oxygen cylinders for hospitals, so I am trying to not think about it."
To cope with all this and more, Aditi tries to ensure she takes care of her mental and physical health.
"I try to stay away from Covid related news and numbers. Exercise can be therapeutic. I try to break a sweat for 30-40 min every morning, and the adrenaline lasts almost the entire day. I take it easy at work when things get too much to bear."
Does she believe that women are suffering more anxiety right now?
"Yes. It has a lot to do with mental load. Women connect the dots a little further than men do. Since women are traditionally caregivers, they're conditioned to think - with genuine concern - about everyone around them. Parents, in-laws, offspring, spouse. The worrying is endless."
Aditi reminds herself as much as she tells me, "Just be kind to yourself. It's important to know what's going on, but we need to stop when it starts giving us anxiety."
“Helping people makes me feel less helpless myself”
Suruchi can imagine why women might be more anxious about covid than men.
"If men are worried about insurance and job security, women are probably thinking about all that, plus thinking about what to do if someone in the house gets covid, how to plan meals, etc. I would not be surprised if the general expectation in most households is still that the women will somehow manage meals and medicines/ instruct the staff, even if they may be infected themselves."
But then again, she wonders if women are truly feeling this anxiety more, or are we just better at expressing it.
"I think at a certain level, all of us are equally concerned about our family, friends and ourselves. However, in most cultures, it is considered 'unmanly' to lose control. So it is quite possible that men might feel the same amount of anxiety, but are just not comfortable expressing it."
This beast called 'anxiety' might just be visiting some of us for the first time, but Suruchi is intimately familiar with it.
"I have had an anxiety-related disorder and was on medication and therapy for it. I know now what usually works for me and what does not. For example, I know my anxiety is worsened by lack of rest. So I am very particular about regular sleeping hours."
Suruchi lives with her elderly parents and is constantly on the mark to swing into action if they begin to show any symptoms.
"I usually live on another floor, but these days I sleep in a room across my parents' room so that I am not even a floor away in case of an emergency. I have made a list of people to contact and our respective doctors should either of my parents or I feel unwell. My greatest fear is that all my planning will come to a naught. I may react quickly enough, but there might be little that is in my control. Usually, you can always count on reaching a hospital but now that itself seems to be an issue."
While some, like me, have tried to minimize our exposure to social media and the news, Suruchi has gone the other way.
"I'm using social media extensively to see if I can help people connect with resources. Helping people makes me feel less helpless myself. It also helps with my covid anxiety. But yes, I understand it can get overwhelming. The authorities are overwhelmed too."
"I use social media to stay connected with my friends a lot too. They uplift me. Every silly joke, photograph, song, message, or tweet from them - it keeps me going."
Suruchi leaves me with this beautiful message about kindness.
"My pandemic philosophy is to go easy on everyone and not expect them to be super efficient. A lovely doctor I know refused to take fees for a consult reference I sent her. She said ‘It has been a tough year for everyone’. It stayed with me. I try to be mindful of this fact all the time."
Pregnant in a pandemic
Swara seconds Aditi's thought that the additional mental and emotional labour that women are expected to perform at home are responsible for the added anxiety we feel.
“Over the last year, women have been struggling to balance work and household duties. In most households these duties are not shared equally by husbands. Add to this, a baby or two, and the burden of looking after convalescent family members. Work from home has further contributed to the gender gap because entitled male bosses assume that the rest of us also just wake up, have food placed in front of us, and can begin work at the word 'go' like them. Calls/meetings are fixed at less than an hour’s notice, including on weekends and late evenings. Add all of this and you will know why women are more anxious."
As if this was not enough, Swara is five months pregnant, in the middle of a pandemic.
"Pregnancy is touted as this wonderful time where you focus on yourself and think positive thoughts. Well, my reality is that I have no idea if I took my medicines yesterday. I’m barely able to eat at meal times. Sleep is a lost cause. Constant anxiety and worry for my family’s well-being ensure that I have no idea where time flies and yet, these have been the longest days to endure. I cry often, and it helps a little when I do."
Both of Swara's parents are covid positive right now, and based in another city. Her husband just recovered from his second bout of covid. Most of her close friends are either suffering themselves or taking care of a family member who is.
"I have been the primary care giver for my parents and their myriad ailments for years now. Sitting on the sidelines is taking its toll on me. My greatest fear of course is losing a family member or friend. If one more well-meaning but tone-deaf person asks me to be positive and think happy thoughts right now, I will lose it completely (and mentally slap them)."
Swara's mantra for anxiety has always been to talk it out.
"I always feel better once I’ve talked about how I’m feeling, generally with my partner or close friends. I don’t think sitting and mulling over my anxieties all by my lonesome helps me. So I reach out to people I trust and let it out."
“Stop fighting the anxiety, and make room for it.”
Divya Baveja is a clinical psychologist. She is currently covid-positive herself and battling the symptoms in isolation. Yet, she was kind enough to send me her advice for those of us suffering from covid anxiety.
"The most important thing is that - instead of being afraid of this anxiety, or trying to fight it - we have to make room for it. This is a situation in which humans are supposed to respond with anxiety. Your anxiety is throwing light at the fact that you are dealing with uncertainty right now. Acknowledge it's presence, without pushing yourself to do something about it. It's those frantic efforts to get rid of anxiety that add to our suffering. They reinforce our fear response and before we know it, anxiety becomes panic."
"Instead of thinking 'How do I eliminate anxiety? How do I control it?', think 'How do I live well with my current anxiety?' Your anxiety is the protective part of your mind. Express gratitude that your mind is trying to protect you right now, and then focus on what you want to be doing with your time. Music? Work? Writing your thoughts? Taking up art? Reading? Cooking? Sorting the room? Catching up on Netflix? Sleeping?"
This is a unique time in the sense that psychologists are going through the same emotions and upheavals that their patients are. So Divya too practices her own advice.
"I acknowledge my emotions and actively make a conscious choice to do something with my time that benefits me. I keep away from social media. Whatsapp groups remain silent 24x7. And this is why, even when I have been isolated for a week now, I have been able to consciously choose things that help me instead of being sucked into something that makes me feel worse."
Divya also shares what behaviours do not help anyone right now.
"Most people limit their own access to social support by shutting other people out. Another thing that helps no one is seeking news and information that reinforces their fears. People want to keep talking about the same things over and over. It doesn't make them feel any more prepared than they were to begin with. But it definitely makes them more and more anxious."
"Ultimately, we can choose what brings us comfort and meaning or adds value to our lives. Or we can choose to spend our internal resources fighting something that's essentially a part of us and can, therefore, never be truly gone."
Divya suggests exercises like breath observation, body scan meditations, mindfulness activities, and gratitude journaling as powerful ways to calm our tumultuous minds right now. She also recommends scheduling a "Worry Time" for 20mins at a particular time of the day. She says, "If a worrying thought comes to you, and it is not Worry Time yet, don't engage in it. Postpone all worrying to the scheduled 20mins."
A special metaphor for the ladies: "Treat this anxiety like your period. You don't give it so much importance to it and live with it. You still choose what to do in the day. You don't fight it. You know that it is here to stay for a while. Even if it brings with it pain and suffering, you just have to not give it too much power and time of your day. You do what needs to be done, and you carry on with your life. And then it is gone soon."
I must mention at the end that if your anxiety symptoms are too debilitating for you to carry on with your days with a semblance of functionality, please do seek professional help. Medical websites like Practo.com have great listings of highly-rated mental health professionals in any city. Many crowd-sourced lists of therapists are also available on the internet along with accounts of patient experiences.
For the rest of us who are hanging in there and holding ourselves together with sellotape and a prayer, I hope this post helps. I hope we see the end of this pandemic soon. And more than anything, I hope every one we love is with us at the other end of it.
For now, there is always the bathroom. And writing wallowing posts on the internet.
If you like the work I am doing here, you can show me your love by buying me a one-time coffee, or monthly, or yearly coffees. Click ‘Membership’ or ‘Support’ on: