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The Upside of Having a Mental Illness in a Pandemic

“What do you think about all the craziness going on?”

“I can’t believe how relaxed you seem.”

“You’re not nervous at all? Wow, I’m shocked you aren’t totally freaking out.”

These are just a smattering of the questions and remarks that constantly came my way back in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic started to truly take form here in the U.S. And not surprisingly—as more and more people began to feel increasingly nervous and scared about this unpredictable situation, I felt the opposite: calm, cool, collected.

My demeanor was unexpected to many of my close family and friends because it’s in stark contrast to how I’d typically react to a stressful situation: uptight and panicking. However, I felt like my young adult life had prepared me for a moment like this (OK, well not something on such a global scale, but sadly you get the idea). Now, who (or what, I should say) do I have to thank for this newfound chillness? None other than my mental illness.

Once upon a time, there was a girl… No, no I kid but here is my long-story-short history: Growing up and most specifically in my late teens, I became increasingly aware of the differences between me and my friends. I preferred the confines of my bedroom to a loud and crowded event. I had a plan (and a backup plan) for every situation in my life instead of living in the moment. My thoughts never rested, and my exhaustion reached a whole new level. It was clear I couldn’t keep this behavior up for much longer.

I officially started treatment for anxiety when I left for college even though, admittedly, I should have started years earlier. I knew I needed to get professional help when the triggers of a typical freshman party became completely debilitating. At my lowest, I ended up in a grocery store parking lot having a severe panic attack in my car while waiting for my parents to come to pick me up.

Once I began therapy, the culprit responsible for my struggles was fairly easy to pinpoint. On paper, I’m clinically diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) but it’s a bit more complicated than that. In most cases, those who have GAD also experience symptoms of depression and vice versa as these two mental illnesses often go hand-in-hand. As a cherry on top, I also have social anxiety and a small case of obsessive-compulsive disorder, both of which fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders. Despite these diagnoses, I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone as over 40 million adults in the United States have an anxiety disorder, making it the most common mental health concern in the country.

Kaitlyn Collins

So, here I am more than a decade later, feeling the best I ever have amid the COVID-19 pandemic and using all my tools to keep myself in a positive and healthy headspace. But the question remains, why didn’t this deadly virus flip a negative switch in my brain as it did for so many others?

I reached out to Dana Myers, LCSW and founder of A Fit Mind- Life Coaching to get some clarity. “For someone who has GAD, the extreme adjustments that took place over the past year may have not felt so extreme, or their mind and body may have felt ‘more equipped’ to deal with the sudden changes,” she said. “This may be because their brains are already acting in ‘fight-flight-freeze’ mode, the body’s natural reaction to perceived threat or danger.”

In other words, my activated stress response (a collection of physiological changes that occur) played a key role here. Reacting to these new mandates didn’t feel as extreme to me because my body typically lives in that heightened, anxious state. Kate Rosenblatt, LPC, LMHC from Talkspace agrees, “Anxiety can often be seen as a sign that we should be on alert because there is something wrong or threatening. So, feeling stressed or anxious can sometimes be our bodies and minds communicating to us and telling us to pay attention, helping to protect us.”

Kaitlyn Collins

And I really did feel protected. As someone who has been living with worry for all their adult life, it’s hard for me to even put into words how good it felt to completely abandon my usual character. In a weird way, it was freeing to know that I didn’t have 100 percent control over this situation because—let me tell you—it is a tiring job trying to direct every aspect of your life. Thanks to my years of therapy sessions, I’ve spent a lot of time building up specific coping mechanisms to help get myself out of a negative headspace. “Individuals who have dedicated time and energy to help manage their symptoms often fare better in times of crisis than those who haven’t previously needed to develop those skills,” Rosenblatt said.

Although this pandemic has caused so much pain and loss to millions of people around the world, I keep reminding myself of knowledge I gained: It’s OK to have feelings that differ from those around you, even in times of crisis. I certainly never imagined it would take a situation like this, but I’m proud of myself for looking on the bright side of things, for once.