Dear Dr. Andrea,
Like so many other people, I was waiting for Jan. 20 for months (years!). Everything has been so stressful, and the last few weeks before the inauguration were the absolute worst. I found myself fearing for democracy and my country. I was so distracted that I wasn’t doing much work, wasn’t sleeping well and was making my roommate frustrated because I was nervous and negative.
I was looking forward to the sigh of relief that I would feel once Trump was gone. I pictured having champagne, sleeping well, taking a lot of comfort in the fact that this chapter was over. Of course, I knew the problems wouldn’t immediately go away. The pandemic still sucks, there are a lot of racists in this country, and it’s not like Biden is some miracle worker. But I seriously thought that my anxiety would go down significantly.
Well, that just hasn’t happened. On Inauguration Day, I felt really on edge. It never really stopped, even once I knew things were safe. It’s more than a week out, and I still feel strangely anxious. Some of my friends say they feel numb, but I wouldn’t describe it like that. I still feel on edge. Like I am waiting for the shoe to drop. What are you hearing from patients? Is this pretty typical, or does this mean I’ve got bigger issues going on?
— Still Struggling
You are far from alone.
There seems to be the perfect storm of disruption lately, and there’s a lot that feels different from anything that has been experienced in the United States in a very long time: startling images of violence in iconic places; democratic norms eroded to the point of creating uncertainty about the basic functioning of government; a massive public health threat that has created daily upheaval for nearly a year and has most likely created worries about everything from your job to your health to how you get food. Of course, many communities have lived with their own forms of daily threats for much longer. But the universality of the stressors this past year means that overall, anxiety seems far higher than any other time in recent memory.
And here’s the thing: Your body doesn’t have an “off” switch for anxiety, at least not one that works as we’d like it to. The hippocampus is the closest we’ve got, and its job is to turn off the threat response once it feels that things are safe. Ironically, though, the hippocampus itself gets pretty stressed and falls down on the job a lot — and it makes sure your memory suffers as a bonus. So the longer or more intense the stress, the less likely you’re coming out of “threat mode” particularly smoothly. In short: Even once a threat is removed, your body and brain will live like they’re still under siege, at least for a time.
And even when the body works in an ideal way, coming off the stress response doesn’t always feel great. It’s the same reason that adrenaline may get you through the end of a marathon, but then you’ll spend a day feeling like you’ve been hit by a truck. Or why migraines commonly happen not while traveling to a vacation, but once you’ve arrived. Or why panic attacks often strike after the trauma, not during the trauma — it’s all very normal, but often makes people question whether they’re moving in the wrong direction. Think about a hangover from alcohol, and then, instead, envision that a cocktail of stress hormones coursing through your bloodstream for months on end. (No wonder your body is tempted to seek out the “hair of the dog.”)
So, how do you ride this out? You let yourself feel. Not only does your mind know all too well that rationally, you are not yet out of danger (as the news will tell you, neither this horrible virus nor systemic racism nor anti-democratic conspiracy theories are going anywhere anytime soon), but nothing would be instant even if you were. So be kind to yourself.
Lean in and let yourself move through this at your own pace. Talk about it — with friends who are numb, with friends who seem over it, with friends who may very well be in your same boat but feel like that’s not a social media-friendly thing to express. Prioritize the same foundational stress management tools that are so important during crisis itself: protecting sleep, moving your body, getting sunlight, taking pauses from media, seeking laughter and beauty, making room for creativity, and using your senses to ground yourself in the moment. And trust that you’ll get to where you want to be, in time.
The unhelpful thing to do? Adding to your stress — with a yardstick telling you how you’re “supposed” to be experiencing things.