Mental Health

Things Are Getting Better. Why Is My Anxiety Getting Worse?

The last two years have worn down my protective layers, and now I’m a turtle without its shell.

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I am no stranger to anxiety; in fact, I am a pro. I was ripped off my mother’s leg by a teacher every morning until middle school. I worried my way through organized activities, panicked before school presentations, and left sleepovers early. I cried breathlessly on a sidewalk curb on my first morning waking up in my college dorm — heart beating out of my chest, begging my parents to bring me back home.

My entire life has felt like a minefield, in other words. With years of therapy, practice, and work, I have created safe spaces and healthy boundaries, allowing myself to exist happily. But lately, my anxiety feels amplified — even as Covid restrictions finally lift, some good news trickling back in. Why do I feel more anxious than ever?

The last two years wore down the layers of protection I have spent years creating. I am now a turtle without her shell, and my entire nervous system is exposed to the elements. My heart races in the grocery store parking lot as thoughts of my baby choking on a blueberry flood my mind. I leave plans early to get home, worried that someone is upset with me or convinced my toddler has fallen down the stairs.

Once, I went to a workout class — my first in a long time — and opted for forty-five minutes of high intensity strength training. I didn’t stretch, didn’t warm up — just dove right in. I knew immediately after class that I was going to be very sore. The next morning was bad, but the following morning was impossible. A weird, lift-junkie ex-boyfriend of mine once called this “the forty-eight hour effect.” I think I’m experiencing a version of that now.

I’ve spent the last two years continuously scared for myself and my family. Normal life is resuming — at least on the pandemic front — but I wonder if my brain is lagging a bit behind. Maybe it powered me through the experience, paused, and is now reacting with that same holy-shit level of fatigue and pain that my legs showed after a super-set of jump-squats. I think I’m learning that two years of intense change, unprecedented worry, and unpredictability can make you all kinds of fucked up. Not to mention the world is still in chaos, from climate change to Ukraine, and Covid tore the lid off my ability to compartmentalize.

As a (kind of secret) introvert, allowing myself to turtle back into my shell for two years undoubtedly left its mark. I have worked hard for a long time — mostly for the betterment of my husband and kids — to strengthen my social muscles. I forced myself to attend the things, host the stuff, and talk to the people — and I actually got enough reps in that it started to feel a little natural. Well, my Covid sabbatical dumped me right back out at freshman year drop off day. Events of any kind elicit a desire to flee, while most social interactions leave me feeling like I have food in my teeth and my pants are on inside out.

And as someone whose mind has always operated primarily in “worst case scenarios,” being pummeled with fear-fueling information for two years — a period that encompassed the pregnancy and birth of my fourth child — has wreaked havoc on my brain. I now feel as if I am in a permanently heightened state of worry about things both big and small. I feel as though my baseline “calm” has shifted and my neutral is a state of high cortisol, fight or flight. Both are problematic. I feel off-balance, more irritable and prickly.

Could it all be a normal reaction to mothering through a global pandemic? Is it a normal reaction to all the chaos? Maybe? I suppose it makes sense that now, even with things lifting, I feel burnt out and overwhelmed. I’m keeping my head down and moving on — until it passes a bit. It seems Dr. Fauci has deserted me, and my four year old bravely bursts into her germy classroom mask-free. Forward I go.

I will allow myself a little more time to regulate. I will throw out expectations and stop wondering what is wrong with me, because the answer is nothing. I lived through and parented through and given birth through a fucking global pandemic. And it is going to take a lot more than forty-eight hours to feel and work through the full effects of that. I will continue talking to my oh-so-patient therapist, up my medication dosage, move my body multiple times a week, and hug my kids. I will push through feelings of worry and panic and lean into logic when my mind gets loud. I will talk to friends, many of whom are feeling the same way. And eventually, things will start to feel a little less heavy. Hopefully.

Samm Burnham Davidson is an ex-lawyer mom of four who swears a lot. She lives in Beverly, Massachusetts and can be found on Instagram @sammbdavidson.