THE mood of the moment is anxious. As the world continues to stay in a state of lockdown, routines are disrupted, businesses shuttered and people thrown together for extended periods of time, often in small spaces.
The news is all terrible, even from places which are not usually the locations for tragedy. In London, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been placed in intensive care while in New York City officials are considering digging mass graves for burying the city’s dead (numbering in the thousands) 10 at a time. New evidence from China reveals that even if one does survive, there can be a terrible impact not only on the lungs but also the heart. All of it suggests that the stock-taking of survivors when all this is over will be grim and miserable.
How does one survive in such a world while retaining some semblance of sanity? In conditions of such extreme uncertainty where we remain unsure as to who will fall prey to the virus, and when, anxiety reigns.
Students worry about their futures, about semesters cancelled, about exams postponed, about what the world they are poised to enter will be like. Parents worry about their children’s schooling, their own inability to work from home owing to childcare responsibilities, about keeping their family safe and everyone happy. It is a tall order all this, and sadly, worrying about it only exacerbates the anxiety that already dominates the flavour of every moment of this lockdown.
How does one survive in such a world while retaining some semblance of sanity?
There are outward symbols. Extreme anxiety often results in sharp mood swings taking place over the course of the day or even an hour. The anxious can be happy and ebullient one moment, making cheerful conversation, and erupt into sudden and unprovoked anger the next. Anything — a child’s annoying questions, a messy house or an overlooked task — can trigger a wild and ravaging bout of anger at anyone or anything that happens to be around. Those who are there, expectedly and understandably suffer their own resulting anxiety, the chain reaction that ensures that everyone is on edge, waiting, dreading, worrying endlessly and constantly.
If one recognises the symptoms of anxiety, they can be led to manage it. The challenge is that the unprecedented nature of our current crisis has suddenly ushered those who do not consider themselves prone to anxiety into its ranks. The newly anxious are the most destructively anxious. Those who do not pause to consider the source of their feelings, trace the reasons behind their anger or their excitability are the ones who can cause the most harm. Their children, their family members are all suddenly captives, at the mercy of their moods. Because they do not recognise their own anxiety or admit it, they cannot seek help or an antidote for their condition.
Anxiety can happen to anyone. Even if one is not sick oneself, the financial pandemic awaiting in the sidelines of the coronavirus pandemic means that all men and women who are in charge of family finances are particularly prone to being anxious. If you recognise the signs of anxiety — elevated heart rates, sudden mood swings, inability to sleep or focus — in your own behaviour there are things that can be done to abate it.
Since anxiety centres on feelings of helplessness and lack of control, seizing control of the day is one way to fight against it. Since one’s usual schedule is no longer possible, a quarantine routine, which involves waking up at the same time each day and adhering to a set regimen for doing tasks and exercising gives us that elusive sense of control that we are in search of at this moment.
Then there is the task of managing expectations: it is important (as a popular meme on the internet says) to remember that we are in the midst of a crisis and trying to work rather than working despite a crisis. Small, reachable goals means it is easier to feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. This sense of accomplishment and achievement can be one of the best antidotes for the anxiety and dread of the world beyond one’s home.
The extended period of time we have with family members can also provide the opportunity to improve relationships that languish as we run to do this and that during our usual hurried lives. Connecting with old friends and family via various virtual applications can lift spirits and provide an escape from the otherwise endless day. It can also permit people to realise what they are missing in their day-to-day lives.
In a strange and unexpected way, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the singular nature of life and the ultimate aloneness of all human existence. A confrontation with this truth can be freeing and can lead one to have a closer relationship with oneself as well as realise and analyse the quirks and contortions that can cause conflict or irritation during interactions.
As Ramazan approaches and Pakistanis begin an inward and spiritual journey, it is crucial to remember that banishing dread and anxiety from one’s life is just as valuable as giving charity or any of the many kindnesses and virtues we associate with this moment.
No one who is alive today will likely (hopefully) ever see a time like this again. The unprecedented and rapid numbers of those infected and then dead is almost too large for the human imagination. The constant threat of the contagion and the fact that everyone or anyone can be an enemy carrying the deadly virus is similarly too surreal a concept for the human brain.
Realising the extraordinary nature of the moment also means being a little kinder to oneself, and to one’s limited, faulty human capabilities. What our human faculties can do is to recognise the dread in our own hearts, a first and crucial step in alleviating the dread in the hearts of those around us.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 8th, 2020