Why Anxiety Makes Me Shine in a Crisis Like COVID-19

photo of woman sitting in field with white flowers
photo of woman sitting in field with white flowers

I shine in a crisis in spite of my anxiety disorders, or because of them.

You may think, as someone with anxiety disorders, I’m likely to panic and overreact in the event of any potential threat. But, actually, in a real emergency, I become incredibly businesslike and handle the situation quite calmly. This happens when there is a true, external threat because, by its nature of being real and being present, I can take action.

Times of true, external crisis are when I shine.

You may be surprised to learn that many people with anxiety disorders handle emergencies with a calm, level head. This phenomenon is not uncommon. I’ve come across the writings of more than a few others who report similar reductions in anxiety when dealing with a clear and present threat:

  • “I’m just a highly anxious person who thrives in a crisis … For a long time, I didn’t think dealing with chronic anxiety and being good in emergencies were linked. It actually seems like the opposite would be true.” — Alex Ronan, “Good in a Crisis

  • “When we’re thrust into it, we anxious folk can often deal with the present really rather well … As real, present-moment disasters occur, we invariably cope, and often better than others.” — Sarah Wilson, First, We Make the Beast Beautiful

  • “For someone with anxiety, dramatic situations are, in a way, more comfortable than the mundane.” — Melissa Broder, So Sad Today

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All of this rings true for me. In a crisis, I am in my element — it’s the ordinary, everyday that sets me on edge, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

My anxiety disorders force me to constantly play out worst-case scenarios in my mind, imagining all the ways things can go wrong. My brain is ceaselessly searching for what the next terrible thing will be.

So, it is almost a relief when there is an actual emergency to focus on. My mind clears of the worries about what may be — of trying to predict the next terrible thing — and I calmly get to work navigating the situation at hand.

I was completely businesslike, in 2004, as I was told of my cancer diagnosis. I was so calm, in fact, the doctor stopped and asked if I understood what he was saying. I did and repeated back all the facts he had just stated.

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When I woke up in the ICU after the birth of my first child in 2008, I was eerily calm as I turned to my mother, first thing after having the breathing tube removed, to ask (in a hoarse whisper) if I’d needed an emergency hysterectomy. I’d thought I might need one because as I was bleeding out and the doctor was rushing me to the OR, he told me the situation was life-threatening and he may need to remove my uterus. I kept my eyes closed, focused on my breathing, and simply said, “Do what you need to do.”

Between my three children, I’ve sat four times in surgical waiting rooms as they’ve undergone procedures of various complexities and kept my composure. With a clear and focused mind, I’ve navigated a multitude of appointments with doctors and specialists.

Deaths, medical crises, lost employment and receiving any variety of news that unnerves most people instead steels my nerves, replacing the worry of waiting for what’s next with the action of dealing with what is.

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At the root of my anxiety disorders is a desire to be prepared, to not be caught unawares. So, when an actual emergency arises, well, this is literally, as they say, “what I’ve been training for.”

While this may, oddly, be a benefit of having anxiety disorders, let me be clear: It is not worth suffering through the many negative effects of mental illness for the apparent ability to shine in a crisis. I’d gladly trade in my anxiety disorders to panic only in moments of actual danger.

But, as the world is currently in the crisis of navigating a global pandemic due to the coronavirus (COVID-19), I suppose I am grateful for this odd quirk of my anxiety disorders. While, naturally, I have moments of concern and worry, overall, I haven’t felt this calm and clearheaded in years.

A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.

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Elizabeth Joyce is an essayist, poet, and author. Her new book, tumbling: poetic thoughts from an anxious mind, is available now in paperback and e-book formats. Find out more at about.me/WriterElizabethJoyce.

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