I am not a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or any sort of psychology expert. But having dealt with severe anxiety my entire life, I like to think that I can sometimes offer a unique perspective when it comes to mental health. It’s no secret that this year has challenged us all in ways that we didn’t think were possible. Though we may not want to admit it, this year has changed us, and in many cases, not necessarily for the better. This week’s post is definitely an unconventional one; I will not be discussing anything nutrition- or sustainability-related. What I will be discussing is a something a bit more personal: kindness, understanding, and sheer human decency, all things I believe have somehow gotten lost in the chaos of this pandemic.
I was inspired to write this post after an experience I had while traveling for the holidays. My husband and I were flying from New York City to St. Louis last weekend to see our families for Christmas. If you know me at all, you know that I absolutely hate flying. I have anticipatory anxiety for weeks leading up to traveling, and then, depending on the day, will experience severe panic attacks on the day of a flight. Besides the absolute (often irrational) dread and terror that accompany a panic attack, physical symptoms include shaking, racing heart, sweating, nausea, and rapid, heavy breathing. Our flight last weekend was a particularly bad one for me. Not for any specific reason other than my anxiety decided to act up that day.
We had just finished boarding the plane and were preparing for take-off. I had been in a state of panic for the last hour and a half and couldn’t seem to calm myself down. After going to my seat on the plane, I had pulled my mask down over my chin, exposing my nose and mouth. This made it easier for me to take slow, deep breaths in an attempt to calm myself down and to feel air on my face, which helps with nausea. The woman sitting directly behind me must have seen that I had pulled my mask down because I heard her say rather loudly, “Excuse me, the person sitting in front of me. You need to put your mask on.” In a desperate attempt to explain to her what I was going through and to basically get her to leave me alone, I pulled my mask back over my face, stood up, turned around and said, “I’m so sorry but I have really bad panic attacks while flying.” Her response is what baffled me. “I don’t care,” she said harshly in my face.
As you can probably guess, what this woman said to me was anything but helpful and only exacerbated my panic, making the entire situation so so much worse for me. If she had taken the time to notice the distress I was in, perhaps she wouldn’t have said anything, in which case I may have been able to calm down more quickly and put my mask on sooner.
I would like to point out something important here. I am not a rebellious or careless person when it comes to this pandemic. Every day, I work with one of the highest risk populations and every day I wear a mask and a face shield at work to protect my patients. I get tested every single week and will be getting the vaccine in the next few weeks once it is dispersed at my facility. I understand and respect the gravity of the situation.
But I am asking that we also acknowledge that there is so much more to public health than just the coronavirus. Yes, coronavirus is a part of public health, obviously. But public health also takes into account various other forms of health including mental health, which is something that so many of us seem to have forgotten this past year. So if you see someone momentarily not wearing their mask, hugging another person, or doing anything else that you don’t necessarily approve of, don’t automatically assume that they don’t care about the coronavirus or that they’re being stubborn. And definitely don’t take it upon yourself to start enforcing things. You never know what someone else is dealing with. Instead, assume that everyone you interact with is going through something challenging (because most of us are) and treat that person with kindness and understanding.
For some of us, this pandemic has truly brought out our worst. But I ask you to look inside yourself and make sure that you’re not one of those people. Don’t make this time any harder on others than it already is. I invite you to show each person kindness and give others the benefit of the doubt, even when you don’t necessarily want to. Because that is truly what will help improve the health of those around you.