During the last 100 days, all of our lives, across the globe, have been turned upside down. Whilst scientifically overdue and rationally unsurprising, the pandemic has shaken the foundations of our outer, and thus, inner worlds. What we came to see as normal has been curtailed or removed; what we relied on for our own sense of normality has been fractured.
Is everybody feeling more anxious?
No, but that does not make those who are wrong or ill. Some people are feeling less anxious as their ‘ordinary’ level of anxiety (which may be quite high) now have an outlet – something tangible to attach to. Think of the example of a soldier who is able to thinking function efficiently in a war zone but who, upon returning home to an ‘ordinary’ environment, struggles to function as they locate threat behind every corner.
There are also some who have a healthy relationship with their ‘anxious’ selves and are able to recognise the source of their anxiety and to use it whilst holding onto a thinking mind – such folks may feel a broader and deeper range of all their emotions at present but would not describe themselves as ‘more anxious’. This is possible for us all.
We are all going to die!
It is a fact – no way round it – we are all going to die. Though probably not from Covid-19. In fact the likelihood of death from Covid-19 is statistically very low.
I am not interested in getting into the actual mortality rates etc. for Covid as they have little to do with the anxiety I am addressing – suffice to say that Covid is real and each death is a personal tragedy – like deaths always are.
However, there is more than meets the eye in the sub-heading of this section of my blog which may shed some light on heightened anxiety levels which I shall attempt to explain.
Let’s start with the premise that human beings, generally, have a strong biological drive to live – like all other mammals.
Back to Freud
Freud posited that the majority of our decision making and therefore emotional work remained largely unconscious to us. He was right about this as has been evidenced in neuroscience experiments.
Freud also suggested that we have a profoundly unconscious fear of death linked to our consciousness of self – we know that we are alive and therefore we also know we must die and this presents a dilemma.
All anxiety is death anxiety
Anxiety is not like the other emotions. It is free floating and pervasive. We all must live with anxiety whether it dominates our experience or is just a flicker on the horizon.
All other emotions are ‘attached’ to something in that we generally know or can work out why we feel a certain way. We generally know what we feel happy or sad for example – and if we don’t the psychotherapy can uncover the reasons.
Anxiety is different in the sense that it ‘seeks to attach’ to something. So, rather than being anxious about a presentation, a flight, an exam or a date, our anxiety ‘finds’ something in our environment and then attaches to that convincing us that that thing is what is causing our anxiety.
Of course real things cause anxiety, however, on a profound (ontological) level, all anxiety stems from an unconscious but ubiquitous knowledge that we are going to die. It is therefore death anxiety.
Covid represents the perfect vehicle to which our anxiety can attach – it kills. Just not very many of us. It is not a Hollywood movie like Independence Day where the enemy will destroy us all unless we mount a global war (and towards an enemy that we can see – and is monster-like). Covid is invisible to us but nonetheless has triggered a profound death anxiety in all of us – we are primed to feel anxious in the face of death as though we are hard-wired.
What can I do?
Earlier I mentioned the term ‘a thinking mind’ and this is one I have written about before. Even though are all primed to feel more anxious when reminded of death (check our Terror Management Theory for empirical evidence of this), it does not mean we need to lose our rational minds and succumb to the anxiety and the accompanying acting out.
Your mind is capable of thinking and scanning for evidence. For example, if you are reading this piece right now, stop breathe and look around you. Look out of a window and notice that in this precise moment, you are not dying. You can use your sense to ground you:
- What can I see;
- What can I hear;
- What can I smell;
- What can a taste;
- What can I seen – my breath, my heartbeat, tension in my body etc.
I must buy toilet paper!
Much has been made of the compulsive need to purchase toilet paper as the pandemic emerged and took hold. And this seem to be a global rather than local phenomenon (though Americans seem to have a compulsive need to purchase firearms – but that adds confirmation to the theory below).
So why toilet paper? Well, when anxious humans would rather do something rather than just sit there – and what we often need to do is stop and just sit there. Particularly when we are not about to immediately die.
Toilet paper is intricately linked to a biological need that we would prefer didn’t exist. The need to defecate. The need to defecate links us to nature and to being, at least in a significant part, animal. Being linked to nature and thus being an animal means that we are mortal – something that is unconsciously unbearable for the part of us that is ‘God-like’ and able to project ourselves back into the past or forward into the future. In short, toilet paper became a manic defense against death but ensuring that we had the ability in the face of death to ‘wipe away’ any evidence of our animal nature.
Briefly returning to the questions of guns and our American friends – I posit that guns are the way Americans take responsibility for avoiding death anxiety – by protecting themselves against the enemy. Perhaps thank Hollywood for this (even though Covid-19 cannot be shot). Oh, and I am fairly sure they also stocked up on toilet paper.
Mark Vahrmeyer, UKCP Registered, BHP Co-founder is an integrative psychotherapist with a wide range of clinical experience from both the public and private sectors. He currently sees both individuals and couples, primarily for ongoing psychotherapy. Mark is available at the Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Mark Vahrmeyer –