COVID-19 Opinion

“Panic attack in aisle 3”

Coping with anxiety in a COVID-19 world.

By Mariam Al Hosani

It was day six of my social distancing. I was feeling good about doing my part in helping flatten the curve of the COVID-19 outbreak. I felt responsible and empowered. But at 10 am I realized that my two-year-old had ran out of diapers, and that was when all those good feelings began to shift.

I spent the rest of the morning searching for a supermarket that would do same day delivery for the kind she wears. The first few days of social distancing were a mixture of so many things that diapers had completely slipped my mind. By 4 pm I had given up and given in to the fact that I had to go to the supermarket. In and out, I told myself. Strap your sanitizer to your bag and don’t touch your face.

The moment I walked into the supermarket my eyes started to itch, and I subconsciously touched them. Then my nose felt itchy. This time I was aware of the itch, and I sanitized my hands first and then gave in to the itch. I walked straight to the diapers isle and grabbed a 24-piece pack. I was about to turn to leave when then this little voice in my head said, what if you need more and won’t find them again? That is when I went for the mega box with three times the number of diapers.

I made my way to the checkout counter and then remembered that we needed toast and maybe some snacks and yes, I think we have run out of milk. While I walked down the aisles picking up the things we needed, my brain was scanning my surroundings. My subconscious took in the people around me who were not wearing gloves and were picking up groceries and putting them back, and the people who were sneezing into the air.

It started with a slight tightness in my chest.

I ignored the feeling and just squirted more sanitizer into my hand for no reason. As I went towards aisle three to get some milk, I suddenly felt overwhelmed by the thought that any of these people could have COVID-19 and that if they infected me I would be taken away from my home, my family, and most importantly my young daughter. I froze still staring at the stacks of milk, feeling like the air around me was suffocating me. My hands started to shake and I felt tears in my eyes.

I have had panic attacks two other times in my life, so at that point I started to realize that I was losing control. The next ten seconds felt like hours as I reached for my phone, called my husband and said, “Help, I’m having a panic attack!”

I have had anxiety most of my life. Over the years I have taught myself some coping mechanisms for how to deal with anxiety. For the most part, I had suppressed it, and brushed it away as overthinking and worrying too much. But the older I got and the more I grew aware of my mental state, the more work I put into developing better ways of dealing with my anxiety. Actually, the past year was probably the first time in a long time when I was comfortable with talking about what makes me anxious and working with a professional therapist on how to handle the times when my anxiety interferes with my life.

Then COVID-19 happened and all those coping mechanisms didn’t work anymore and as the situation got more serious so did my internal battle with staying calm and cool. All it took was an overwhelming selection of milk and a few sneezing supermarket clerks to send me over the edge.

I eventually left the supermarket with my groceries–and my dignity– thanks to my husband’s ability to calm me down and a simple three-step method that worked for me:

  1. Acknowledgment – I acknowledged that I was having a panic attack and that I was feeling anxious and losing control.
  2. Acceptance – I accepted that it was okay to feel this way. A global pandemic is sweeping the world, and life as we know it has stopped, so feeling this way is normal.
  3. Awareness – being aware that I am allowed to be scared but in that moment there was no immediate threat to my life, and that I need to take the necessary precautions to finish my grocery run safely and leave as soon as possible. 

This pandemic has thrown us curveballs at every turn. We think we know what’s happening but we still do not have the full picture. Anxiety is a lot of things, but it is basically the immense fear of the unknown. Having to process the fact that things are changing every day, that there is a threat that I have no control over is not a pleasant conversation to have with myself. However, after my panic attack I feel slightly lighter because I am allowing myself the space to be honest. I am steering away from my old habits of suppressing my anxious thoughts and being more vocal and open about them.

There isn’t one go-to emotion that mankind has collectively agreed to adopt in a pandemic. We are unique and complex in our emotions and thoughts, and are reacting and feeling differently and also the same. It is also an evolving situation, which means that our emotions, even the scariest and darkest of them that we have spent years taming, could also evolve and spiral out of control.

But it’s okay, you are not alone.

I hope that if you feel how I feel, or worse, you have the support you need. Reach out to your loved ones, find help and humanity in those around you. Empower yourself with accurate information from reliable sources as being informed will help you avoid rumors that incite panic and feed your anxiety. We will get through this, what matters now is finding a way to preserve our sanity and peace of mind until we get to the other side.

This article’s content is for general information purposes only, and should not be used as medical/health advice or instruction. Content is not intended to be relied upon to treat or offer solutions to specific problems. This is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of healthcare professionals tailored towards your particular health, lifestyle or circumstance. If you suffer from anxiety, you are not alone. Speak to your doctor for advice.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

Mariam Al Hosani is an Emirati writer living between the UAE and Germany.