January 2021 and it feels like anxiety is airborne. Say what we want about the transmissibility of the new variant of COVID, it is the disquiet and the worry that have found their way into every corner of our lives. We might be able to sanitize our hands and our groceries, but unless we find a way to protect ourselves from the stress that is swirling around us and seeking an entry point into our psyche, we are guaranteed an even more difficult year.
We need to find a way to socially distance ourselves, not only from the danger of the disease, but from the negative and destructive nature of living in a world with an unseen villain.
Some years ago, I went through a “fear of flying” phase. Although I knew rationally that I had more chance of being killed by my bed linen than I had dying in an air disaster, it did little to calm me when encountering any form of turbulence. At those times I would white knuckle grip the arm rest, reacquaint myself with the nearest exit, which could be behind me, and look for the flight attendants to read their faces for any signs of fear. Much like we do when we watch the President addressing the nation.
It took me a while to realize that my anxiety was about my need to control a situation that I had little control over. As a passenger my responsibility was to adhere to the regulations, and to trust that the rest would be handled by God and the pilots. In order to conquer it, I made a deal with myself that I would curtail my negative thoughts until the plane actually crashed, at which time I would be free to become as hysterical as I wanted to. As a consequence, I learned to breathe through it and to accept what I could and could not control.
We have good reason to be anxious. The last few weeks have seen the COVID cases rise exponentially. Every day we hear of numerous cases of friends becoming ill and suffering from the virus. We hear of life-threatening cases and of those who tragically did not make it. If we weren’t concerned by this, then there could well be something wrong with us.
But living in a state of terror doesn’t serve us or our families. There is little value in debating if Cyril Ramaphosa looks stressed, relaxed or tired when he addressed the nation. There is nothing to be gained in being so hypervigilant that we hunt down the clues. There little be gained from breathing in air filled with fear and anxiety, even if it is free of COVID. What it does instead is impact on how we react or overreact when “someone” leaves the fridge door open. And this is not an admission that “someone” in this case alone, might be me.
Much like Covid, anxiety is an invisible threat. And whereas it might not result in a stay in the ICU, it undoubtedly has the power to cause immense damage. The next few months will not be easy. But it is our choice to not make them worse. We need to protect ourselves against the fear of living, as much as we do against the fear of death.