On most days, I can be found trying to escape from my own intrusive thoughts. Having grown up with chronic anxiety, overburdening myself with tasks comes naturally to me. At any point in time, I’m juggling paid and voluntary gigs, hobbies and interests, professional and social commitments, while trying to shift things around to make even more space on my overflowing plate.
Overworking is a common coping mechanism people use to deal with anxiety. For me, and most others, it only does more harm than good. Every few months, I find myself on the verge of being burned out, with no mental bandwidth to accomplish the next task on my never ending to-do list. Cue even more intrusive thoughts and anxiety, and so the vicious spiral continues.
When I tested positive for COVID-19 in March, I thought my two weeks of isolation would go by smoothly. I had several deadlines coming up that I thought would keep me occupied. Not for a second did I think that being infected merited a break, until I was forced to take one.
Soon after testing positive, I began to feel exhaustion like I’d never felt before. On the third day, a 30-minute long Zoom call with my study group was enough to knock me out for the rest of the day. No matter how much I tried to write, the brain fog made it impossible to string coherent sentences together, leaving me with no option but to request editors for extensions, which they were happy to give me. Everyone was kind and considerate to me, except for myself. I’d spend my days being upset at myself, unable to accomplish anything useful, even as my thoughts continued to spiral.
I slowly learned to accept my limitations and only expect out of myself tasks that I was sure I would be able to perform.
“I don’t do anything these days,” I complained to my therapist in an online session. “You’re not being kind to yourself,” she replied. “Despite the tiredness, you’re still making it out of bed every morning. You do so many little tasks, but because you don’t consider them work, you’re hard on yourself.”
She was right. In the capitalist world that we inhabit, the ideas of productivity and usefulness are attached only to those tasks that we can link with materialistic benefits. Those were also the kind of tasks I was used to filling up my day with. But when I began to keep a log of all the things I was doing since I’d wake up, I realized that I wasn’t really doing nothing. I’d wake up, get out of bed (despite the fatigue making it a two hour process), make my bed, brush my teeth, eat food to nourish my body, and give it the rest it needed.
It says a lot about the world we’ve created for ourselves when it takes a deadly pandemic to allow us to be kind to ourselves
Seeing all these tasks as meaningful activities that I was expending valuable energy on instantly made me feel better about my days in isolation. I also slowly learned to accept my limitations and only expect out of myself tasks that I was sure I would be able to perform. After all, I was sick, and needed all the R&R I could possibly get.
Even as I slowly recover, I realize that I’m not quite able to do as many things as I could earlier. I cannot get out of bed without having slept for eight hours, and I get out of breath rather easily. Even my capacity to remember everything I’m supposed to do has reduced. Instead of being frustrated about these shortcomings and taking it out on myself, I try to take them in my stride. I go to bed at 11 p.m. every day and let myself sleep in an extra hour if I need it. I also let myself ask for breaks, and reschedule meetings I’m not in the space to attend. Although these things might not seem like a big deal, they’re luxuries I never let myself have before.
Because I’m no longer burdening myself with work up to the tipping point, I can take my time on the things I do take up. If any intrusive thoughts make their way into the recesses of my mind, I observe them, and try to cope with them by rationalizing them.
In the past year, many people who can afford it have embraced a slower pace of life. It says a lot about the world we’ve created for ourselves when it takes a deadly pandemic to allow us to be kind to ourselves. But when(ever) this is over, I hope that we manage to keep it this way.