Panic Is a Luxury

Photo: Andreas Solaro/Getty Images

II am sitting by the window in my living room, watching the sparse traffic pass by on the usually busy Brooklyn street. My kids are home from school, closed due to COVID-19, also called the novel coronavirus. I have a mild cold.

As I write this, my pantry is crammed full of beans and brownie mix. (Priorities!) I now spend a fair chunk of my mornings wiping down doorknobs and handles and have discovered, to my chagrin, that I touch my face roughly one million times per hour.

Housebound, stir-crazy, and uncertain what the next weeks and months hold, it’s easy — even comforting — to dive in to panic. For many Americans (myself included) this has manifested in anxiety-shopping and toilet-paper-hoarding. It’s easy to imagine the worst-case scenario.

Friends are decamping to country homes. But I’m staying here in the city, panicking about the viral apocalypse. Of course having the means to leave town is a luxury few of us have. But really, neither of these are choices available to everyone. For some people, the concerns of day-to-day life are too pressing for the kind of news-induced spiraling I’ve allowed myself: The people who don’t have the option to take time off of work or work remotely, or who now find themselves out of work. The ones who don’t have the resources to stockpile food. The ones who must keep it together around their children.

Vigilance is necessary. But to despair is a sin. And panic is a privilege.

Check your anxiety privilege

Spinning out right now feels justified, if not exactly wise, but it starts to feel a little bit indulgent when you consider the people — from doctors and nurses to cleaners and grocery-store clerks — who are too busy doing vitally needed jobs to spend time stewing in their own anxiety. And the people who have long faced danger every day just by living in their own bodies.

“I think being in that anxious space is a little bit of a privilege,” she says Laurie M. Scherer, a clinical psychologist who has worked with patients with anxiety. “I don’t mean to belittle that experience or that feeling, but I think this anxiety that we’re all feeling — maybe for the first time, for some of us who haven’t had to feel this in other aspects of our lives, financially or socially, or because of the color of our skin or our gender identity — I think we’re getting a taste of what it feels like to be marginalized in a different way, to be at threat in a different way.”

When we hear advice to stock up on food staples, we should consider those for whom financial considerations make such advance preparation difficult or impossible. We should note that our health care system often does not allow essential medications to be stockpiled or makes the cost of doing so prohibitive. Perhaps it is worth considering, as well, that many of the limitations imposed by the coronavirus — limited mobility, difficulty of seeing friends and family, restricted access to cultural and social activities — may be limitations experienced regularly by elderly and mobility-restricted people. What constitutes a crisis for some of us may be everyday life for others.

Keep calm and think big picture

None of this is to say that you should kick back and relax if you realize you’re at lower risk. But what can we do to unwind unhelpful panic? Both Scherer and Rob Hindman, a clinical psychologist at the Beck Institute in Pennsylvania, recommend reality testing as a way of managing stress.

Hindman recently sat with a patient and went through the available statistics to determine the odds that they would get sick and die from the coronavirus: “So while you were predicting it’s probably a 50% chance you’re going to get it and then if you get it, probably a 50% chance you’re going to die, how does that stack up to what the actual statistics are telling us?” he asked. Another part of reality testing is taking mitigating factors into account: The more you wash your hands and the less you leave the house, the more control you have.

The point is just that it’s helpful to have a realistic idea of your own risk, act accordingly — at the very least by social distancing and washing your hands — and realize that we’re all in this together. For those of us less likely to suffer the most severe consequences of the coronavirus, it is vitally important that we consider the impact of our actions on those around us, and do what we can to flatten the curve. Fighting a stranger for the last roll of toilet paper isn’t it.

Think like a parent

Those of us who live with children in our midst have learned the habit of tempering our responses, of deferring or delaying complex conversations until they are out of earshot. Those skills are crucial as many millions of parents across the country suddenly find themselves homeschooling their kids. None of those kids will benefit from panicked parents obsessing over tweeted rumors or giving in to despair.

Being a parent requires us to ask essential questions of ourselves about what our children may need from us, whether it’s our undivided attention, an opportunity to read together, or a well-stocked pantry. It demands that we be alert and intent on planning for the future, be it rosy or fraught. Being a parent — or any kind of caregiver — demands that we bury our fears in a private place and proceed with our daily lives as best we can, intent on preserving the veneer of calm.

Our responsibilities to others require that we manage our own panic, rationing it out in manageable doses so that we can carry on with caring for those who cannot look after themselves. And something that this pandemic has laid bare is that all of us, with kids or not, have deep responsibilities to others.

Author of Generation Friends: An Inside Look at the Show That Defined a Television Era +4 more. Work published in the NY Times and many others. Teacher at NYU.

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