Editor’s Note: Navigating anxiety through coronavirus crisis

Mental health takes a battering through times of difficulty, but things always get better.

Mental health: Speak out and get help.
Mental health: Speak out and get help.

My first panic attack was in autumn 2008. 

The financial collapse was well underway. Once in a lifetime catastrophe, everyone said. 

I’d been covering the story since mid-August when the first danger signals started flashing at American mortgage lenders and a couple of the smaller banks. For months I’d been waking up early to write a stock market update for the Globe and Mail and then talking to hundreds of analysts and experts about what might happen next.

It wasn’t that different from the coronavirus world we’re living in now – the loudest voices of doom were the most frequently quoted. They said economies would surely collapse around the world, civil unrest would lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths, we’d lose our jobs and our houses. We may not even get other jobs. Neither would our children.

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There were nights I’d stare at the ceiling and wonder what it would be like to move into my inlaw’s basement with a new baby when things finally turned really bad. It wasn’t an optimistic thought process.

I’d fall asleep and then do the day all over again. Day after day. After day. After day. Week after week.

I wasn’t unique – anyone paying attention faced the same pressures. Autoworkers were losing jobs by the thousands, retailers were closing, the world economy was shedding millions of jobs. 

We’d break records every day  – declining retail sales, manufacturing indexes, etc. We’d then treat the moment with awe as we grasped for any signal that told us things had finally hit bottom and we could start looking forward to a slow turnaround.

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There weren’t any signs that I was pushing myself too far, if you don’t count chest pains, lack of sleep and dizziness. Then one day I was walking down Bloor Street West  with some friends and I felt like I was going to die. I just wanted to run. Or sit. Or walk more slowly. Or spin around in circles. Or something. Anything.

I made it home and settled down. It took a while. I went to a doctor shortly afterwards.  I’ve been (mostly successfully) medicated ever since. 

It’s been years since I felt that tightness in my chest. But yesterday standing in line at the pharmacy – outside in the rain for an hour – to get a refill on my prescription I felt a little contraction. 

It got a bit tighter when they told me they could only fill half my order until they received more stock. And then another little squeeze when I opened the box and the order was made up of pills from two different manufacturers, rapidly shoved together into a box to get me on my way.  I could see the scissor marks on the packaging.

I’d never seen that before. Or empty shelves in grocery stores, for that matter.

The next 24-hours weren’t great. I started refreshing browser tabs too often and paying attention to accounts that were pushing Mad Max narratives. I was googling home Covid-19 tests, reading through migration laws to find out if I could be sent home if I became seriously sick and what would happen if I died hooked up to a ventilator thousands of miles from Canada with my  immigrant family stranded in Glasgow.

That’s called catastrophizing – letting your brain trick you into thinking the worst outcome is the most logical. It’s awful. And it’s common.

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I kept it up most of the day, pretending it wasn’t stress and I was doing great. 

But when I visited ASDA and wanted to cry because there weren’t any chicken fajita kits in the meat aisle, I finally took a breath and reminded myself that I knew better. I’d been here before. We all have.

This is a mess. The economy is a mess. Government bailout programs aren’t a mess yet, but they probably will be when it’s time to start unwinding all the stimulus and rev up all of the businesses we throttled to stop the spread of the disease. We’ll all feel the echoes of this crisis for decades to come.

But I can’t control any of those things. I can take care of my family. I can check in on my friends. I can do my job well and try to help everyone I work with do theirs well. I can remind people that things always get better. 

Always. Prove me wrong.

I didn’t get all the way to a panic attack yesterday – I made it home and the dog sat on my lap. I jumped onto a video call with some colleagues and within minutes the tightness was easing. I’m lucky to have such great colleagues.

I had almost forgotten the lessons I learned through the 2008 recession: the worst-case scenario isn’t the most-likely scenario,everyone pulls together in the end, things get better, help is there if you ask. 

I don’t know how this all ends. Nobody does.  But I’m comforted by the lessons of the past. Bad times pass, but the good discovered through crises lingers. We’ll get through this – we always do.

Steve Ladurantaye is the head of news and current affairs at STV.

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