This Pandemic Is A Litmus Test On My Mental Health

When everything seems bleak, I turn to believing that our inexhaustible collective hope will carry us through. Illustration by Eras Espina

“In hiding” is my reply in jest when family and friends text me how I am these days. I know they are concerned about  my mental health, but I use this spoof of quarantines and lockdowns as my comic relief. They totally get me because they text me back with a big grin emoticon or a “HA! HA! HA!” like a hyper keypad cracking up.

They know I once suffered from a mental health condition, that time when my state of mind was like the Kamikaze in a theme park, only in slow motion swinging from depressive to anxious moods but arriving sharply at their peaks. The days of either dark, dark thoughts of wanting to disappear (but not in the least die because I did not have thoughts of it) or an inexplicable fear that everything would turn out for the worst brought me to sheer exhaustion from the effects of both: sleeping too much or too little, or eating too much or too little, and non-stop chatter or not anything in my head.

They, who now check in on me once in a while, are the same people who were there for me for almost half a year when I wrongly believed I could never get out of that gloom and dread. But I did, thanks to their presence, listening ear, and care, as well as the professional help I sought, self-care, understanding mental health, and drawing inspiration from the experience of others. I did get better.

Or have I? Would I, a former mental health sufferer, be vulnerable when faced with a crisis as minor as losing a phone or as major as learning about a highly infectious virus that is upon us?

I first heard of this new virus from my children (I have stayed away from reading or watching the news as I have taken the advice of my support group) in late January, a reported outbreak in Wuhan, China, which had not been given a proper name at that time. I did not give it much attention in the following months—until a shared video of Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, popped up in my Instagram account announcing the outbreak has worsened—the pandemic is here. And then I read this item (not news but an opinion piece on healthcare) on March 11, 2020: “It’s official. The COVID-19 causing coronavirus (SARS-nCoV2) outbreak is no longer just an outbreak. It is officially a pandemic.”

My anxiety’s sneaking in a comeback

When everything seems bleak, I turn to believing that our inexhaustible collective hope will carry us through. Illustration by Eras Espina

Five days later, Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte had placed Metro Manila, including my city, under an ECQ (enhanced community quarantine, the government’s other term for a lockdown), which was  announced late evening on March 12—what timing to feel unsure of what tomorrow would look like. I lost sleep over it, fact-checking and browsing the net for more information in the wee hours, and then miserably tossing in bed when I had exhausted my carefully curated web sources. That familiar nervousness started to go some degrees higher the next morning when I felt I did not really wake up because I did not get a restful sleep in the first place. I knew from experience that no sleep would make my anxiety grow.

Still without regard to its possible return, the stubborn I continued to dig up more information about the pandemic, not only here but outside my country. As I had discovered more data from online dashboards of positive cases and deaths around the world, that panicky feeling started to creep in. What did I expect? My already racing mind shifting to overdrive and a lack of sleep the night before were a sure formula for an attack. But I was here before, and I felt a certain confidence that I would be able to beat it.

Catching myself in a looming spell

I developed a self-checking technique—I deliberately observe my mind while acknowledging the feeling in my gut. I called it IDDAM, short for Internal DIY Depression/Anxiety Meters, which is a self-rating and very personal way of checking in on myself. I calibrated the ratings to indicate my mood levels by using the numbers 1 through 10, with 1 being the lowest and 10 the highest. I used this technique long after my bout with the mood disorder had been over.

With IDDAM, I was able to catch myself through a brain–gut connectedness test and assign myself a rating. On the one hand, a rating of below 5 meant my mind was ably letting negative thoughts in but letting them out as well in a fleeting moment. Depending on my activity in a day, negative thoughts might be one of failure (of a project I would be engaged in at that time) or pique (of a person because I did not choose my words carefully in an email) or committing a mistake (in a piece I was writing). Because these thoughts would be momentary, no awful feeling in my gut would arise. In this case, I would be fine and I would go about my routine for that day.

On the other hand, a rating of above 5 meant my mind was letting negative thoughts in and allowing them to stay to a point I would regurgitate them into worse-to-worst scenarios. The nagging question in my head would usually be: “What if?”. Imaginings of a future gone bad (that failure, or offending someone, or a mistake) would follow suit. Because my mind was busy chattering about doomsday, the awful feeling in my gut would arise. That feeling is heavy, permeating and crawling up to the chest and causing short, shallow breathing. A rating of 10 (which I would not be able to self-rate at this level) would send me to the emergency room—for panic attack.

I did not pull IDDAM out of thin air; it was a result of years of studying and learning about the condition. I pored over pages and pages of scientific papers, insightful testimonies of sufferers and survivors, and tons of self-help books. I listened to podcasts of mental health experts. I viewed countless videos on mental health awareness. All in search of clarity and understanding.  Coming from the perspective of a manager, I believed one cannot manage something he or she knows nothing about. I needed to know what was happening to me.

My IDDAM is part of the confidence I have built within myself.

Self-awareness was the point in inventing IDDAM, as my first response of sorts to a looming anxiety spell each time a challenge would show up, like this pandemic.

What I do to not rate high

One day in this lockdown, my IDDAM told me I was at 7, a clear indication I was taking in more information than I should, not because they were inherently bad (or good) but because of what I perceived them to be. My anxious mind would take even a seemingly harmless piece of information to worst scenarios.

I was strangely challenged: I knew I wanted to know more, but I also reckoned I had to stop at some point lest this rating would shoot up to a 10. Like a jolt in my head, I would hear a voice that said: “Stop browsing. Limit your news intake. Read again. Do not lose your routine. Watch feel-good movies. Talk to your friends and laugh. Write.” I listened to the voice in my head. My self-awareness kicked in. Self-care is key.

After two weeks of ECQ, I stopped visiting the worldwide dashboards. It was enough that I learned the curve was not flattening yet, but knowing that front-liners the world over were doing all they could was comforting. From where I was, the curve was not flattening yet, but having the confidence in our Filipino doctors, nurses, and health workers would be good for my peace of mind.

I did a 21-day meditation program (online of course) that focused on hope, and it helped me calm my mind and bring myself back to here and now. Like I had learned before, to be conscious on my breathing puts me in the present moment. Like a student who had forgotten her lessons, I read again parts of The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle that had resonated with me the first time I read it in 2015. Eckhart had lived with anxiety for most of his growing up years, and he shared his journey to enlightenment in this book. His insights as a survivor have remained a powerful encouragement when dark thoughts make their way to my mind.

I am fortunate to have been on WFH (work-from-home) in the last 20 years as a freelance worker because the lockdown has not really alienated me. As a WFH mom, being outside is when I facilitate seminars, attend important meetings, which are few and far between, and occasional social gatherings. Having some of my children around sustains me; they know about my IDDAM because I tell them my rating if it is more than 5. They know the drill.

My granddaughter’s reflection of what she has learned about anxiety expressed in this journal entry. A guidebook of sorts to remind me that I can do self-care among many things to help me cope. Creative journal entry by Seven E. Giron, 10 years old. Data from various sources

Maintaining a daily routine helps keep me from doing blank stares on the wall and idling, a sure way of inviting dark thoughts. A huge part of my habit that I cannot do without is sitting down, breathing, and letting thoughts come and go—even for a minute or two, many times throughout the day. A YouTube-based mile-a-day home-walk is the best I can do for now before I can go back to a proper cardio walk in the park.

I continue to watch what I eat. I have learned that nutrition is a big part of maintaining good mental health. My diet consists largely of plant-based food. I do not eat what I cannot pronounce. Best of all, I cook my meals, so I am absolutely sure of what goes into my gut. What I eat can affect my gastrointestinal functions as well as my brain—the mind-gut connection— and can have influence over my mood as I have found out in one of my readings, The Brain–Gut Connection by Johns Hopkins. “Hidden in the walls of the digestive system, this “brain in your gut” is revolutionizing medicine’s understanding of the links between digestion, mood, health and even the way you think,” according to the article. I have come across many other resources that point to the gut as the “second brain,” and now I am reading Dr. Emeran Mayer’s book, The Mind–Gut Connection, where he extensively discusses nutrition as part of the science behind the connection.

Getting information from a trusted source. It is comforting to know that the health department underscores mental health as an important aspect of managing this pandemic. Source: DOH-COVID-19 Viber group

From my home, everything feels normal—until I read about or watch happenings elsewhere. Limiting news intake does help me. I have shied away from most social media platforms, so it helps that I have the power to choose what I news-feed myself. For one, I am in the Viber group that the national health agency (DOH PH COVID-19) has put together; I want to get my information straight from the official source.

Laughter puts me in the present moment. This Viber group is an addition to my arsenal of anti-anxiety tools during this pandemic. Thanks to my life coach, Edlynn Ng, for creating this and inviting me. Illustration by Pablo Espina

In the middle of the continuing threat to our own health and those of our loved ones and of the entire human population, I remain hopeful in spite of my mental health condition. I will continue to take care of myself, guided by a strong desire to keep well and years of experience, as well as insights from mental health experts. I am fortunate to be in an encouraging environment to be able to do self-care. My doctor is within reach, just in case.

For most, it can be reassuring to know that we have a local a mental health helpline, and that the Department of Health through the National Center for Mental Health is ready to listen 24/7 at 0917-899-USAP (8727) or (02) 7989-USAP (8727). 

I am only one of the many with mental health conditions. Let us not forget the health workers who come face to face with this deadly pathogen and those who have fallen ill. Our mental health needs attention, too. And when everything seems bleak, I turn to believing that our inexhaustible collective hope will carry us through.