Like most of us, when the pandemic started in 2020, I managed a certain amount of anxiety that fluctuated between news reports and escalating local and national mandates. Our family went through the ebb and flow as everyone else did. Also, like everyone else (in the Bay Area), in the fall of 2021, my family and I were back in our quarantine bubble and once again wearing masks indoors. For two years, we did the best we could with the information we had and the inconveniences we could handle. The three eligible people in our family were vaccinated and boosted, so when all four of us got COVID in January 2022, we were frustrated yet not surprised. After all, why not us?
This column, Thriving While Anxious, has been an excellent way to process the nuances of living with a generalized anxiety disorder. Today, I want to describe how someone like me goes through a prolonged flight or fight experience. Below is a list of things that worried me and what I learned while my family and I had COVID. If your general disposition veers towards anxiety, I hope this list can help.
My youngest, and the only member of my family not vaccinated, had a fever that spiked on a Sunday night in January. I worried, but didn’t think twice when he woke up with no symptoms. I gave him a rapid test merely because his preschool required a negative test before dropoff. After a fifteen-minute wait, his test returned positive, and I went into task mode. I got three more tests and waited another fifteen minutes. Two tests came back positive, and two came back negative.
I did not fall apart, overreact, or panic when the first test came back positive.I simply did what I was supposed to do and what I had mentally prepared to do for two years. In this way, my anxiety about getting infected was helpful.
For the next three days, we split the house in two. All four of us wore masks, and the two infected family members hung out only with each other. We ate separately, and slept in different corners of the house.
This turned out to be an example of over-complicating a situation as an anxious person. Splitting our house (and our space) did not work. Within three days, we all tested positive. In hindsight, perhaps I should have just assumed that we were all going to get it. Trying to quarantine within a quarantine was simply too ambitious.
No one wants to be the one to give another person the virus. The inconveniences of quarantine are extreme enough that it’s tempting to try and find someone to blame. The anxiety I experienced having to tell our friends who we had just been with (unmasked) the day before that we got infected was high enough to get my heart racing. It was probably the closest I came to having a panic attack during this entire episode.
The perceived shame, guilt, or anger that I thought our friends would experience towards us simply didn’t exist. They were gracious and grateful that we told them. They quarantined accordingly, and no one in their family got sick.
While I laid in bed, I went down every possible rabbit hole of doom. What if we all have long-covid? What if my babies die? What if there’s an earthquake and we have to run outside, but forget our masks? You get it; most of these were irrational.
These rabbit holes were random but not any less scary or overwhelming. Around day five of quarantine, when I went to bed, I thought to myself, have the thoughts but go to sleep. Trying to prevent myself from worrying was causing more worry but remembering that my thoughts were just thoughts helped.
The start of week number two was when things got tricky for our family. None of us showed outward virus symptoms, but we were each exhausted. We laid around, tried to cook, garden and ride our bikes in the backyard. Surprisingly, this is when my anxiety started to peak.
In week two, after hardly sleeping for days and not being able to do the usual things I do to manage my anxiety, I began to feel overwhelmed with quarantine. Part of my anxiety management is physical exercise every single day. I was advised not to exert myself while infected with COVID. The idea was to let my body rest. I learned that sometimes people’s advice is not meant for you, even if it is well-intended. In hindsight, I would have done light cardio or light-weight training to get some endorphins in my system. I agree that you should rest if you get infected, but keep moving if you do it to manage mental health.
Once we all tested negative, I called the schools and told them we’d be returning. They asked many questions and required picture texts with rapid negative tests. I approached the school dropoff with caution, assuming everyone knew we’d been out with COVID. There was a strange sense that everyone was judging us.
No one shamed us. No one cared. The anxiety I feel about the social complications of COVID is primarily in my head and an aspect of my anxiety disorder.
The last aspect of my COVID anxiety was ruminating on if I could have done things differently. And sure, we could have quarantined longer in the winter and been more diligent about wearing masks indoors in January. However, since this virus is in the air, we could have done many things differently and still gotten it from walking outside our front door. In that respect, we should all give ourselves grace if we get infected. No one wants this virus and no one wants to infect anyone else, but this is the state of things right now.
So, how did I get through my entire family getting COVID without having a panic attack? Basically, I practiced radical acceptance of my anxiety disorder and respected and adhered to (as best I could, anyway) the daily mental-health practices that keep me balanced.
Olga Rosales Salinas is a content writer and freelancer who produces poetry, short stories, and essays. Her debut collection of poetry and prose, La Llorona, benefits The Rosales Sisters’ Scholarship, a scholarship that she co-founded for first-generation or immigrant students on the central coast of California, where Olga and her five sisters grew up. Olga is passionate about all of her creative endeavors, including motherhood, mental health, fitness, writing, and wife life. Learn more about Olga at www.OlgaRS.com.
Olga Rosales Salinas
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