Managing Anxiety & Sleeplessness during a Pandemic

Photo of African American woman dressed in gray tank and tan pants, seated on a kingsized white bed with a dark brown wall-mounted wooden headboard.

Image courtesy of CreateHerStock. Copyright 2019 Neosha Gardner

I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, not in the classic sense. But I have a pretty strong pretty disposition to anxiety. We could argue about whether it’s biological or a result of conditioning, but it’s definitely a pattern in my family.

Even as a clinical psychologist, it took me a long time to identify my anxiety for what it was. Because I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious. I don’t have the telltale symptoms of uncontrollable worry, nervousness, difficulty concentrating, persistent feelings of fear or dread. Those are the classic cognitive and emotional symptoms of anxiety. I rarely, if ever, have those.

It’s part of the legacy of being a StrongBlackWoman, that cultural myth that so many Black women – in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and in the Caribbean – strive to live up to. In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I describe the StrongBlackWoman as a “scripted role into which Black women are socialized, usually beginning in childhood. Rather than being a genuine expression of personality, it is a mask that stifles authenticity.” The StrongBlackWoman takes who we really are and hides it behind a mask of emotional stoicism, self-sacrificial caregiving, and extreme independence. In other words, the StrongBlackWoman is the woman who constantly extends herself on behalf of others, always striving to identify and take care of the needs of her family, her friends, her church, and her workplace. It is not that she doesn’t feel the burden of constant multitasking and overcommitment. It’s that she has learned to repress it, to not feel it. She has learned to push through, to keep going.

I have learned to repress it, to not feel it, to push through, to keep going. Like my mother and my grandmothers and all the women before me, I have learned to use strength as a mask that covers anxious thoughts and feelings. Being two generations removed from sharecropping and just a few more from slavery in the deep South makes it even easier for me to ignore, deny, and repress feelings of worry and fear. “I’m not afraid. I’m a StrongBlackWoman! I come from strong stock and I can handle anything.” Anything but fear it seems.

I have been StrongBlackWoman-in-recovery for over 15 years. In that time, I have actively worked toward releasing the myth’s hold on me, learning to be more open, more vulnerable, more…human. And still, I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, at least not mentally. But my body, it tells a different story. That story often comes in the form of insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep.

I have struggled with insomnia since childhood. Back then, going to sleep wasn’t the problem; it was staying asleep. I often woke up with nightmares, running into my mother’s room and begging to sleep with her. When I was six years old, my mother said to me, “You can’t sleep with me every night.” From that point on, I pointedly decided to only go into her room every other night. On alternate nights, I stayed in my room, staring into the darkness, often in terror. My mind played horrible tricks on me in the night, turning innocuous household objects into demons and witches who would be ready to pounce the moment that I closed my eyes.

Over the years, my battle with sleeplessness waxed and waned depending upon the stresses in my life. When it became clear that my lack of restful sleep and my chronic pain issues were feeding each other, my rheumatologist prescribed a low-dose sleep aid. Finally, after four decades, I was sleeping well on a regular basis. Eventually – and with the help of lots of complementary therapies, the care of good naturopaths and psychotherapists, and several years of strengthening healthy nutrition, exercise, meditation, and work patterns – I was able to ween off the medication. My anxiety was under control and so was my sleep.

And then came #TheRona.

Anxiety is a highly triggering emotion. Anxiety about one particular issue easily triggers any other latent anxieties, gathering small concerns into a giant rolling ball that rapidly overtakes us. In early March, as COVID-19 became the focus of nearly every conversation, every newscast, and every social media post, the sense of anxiety was palpable. I felt it then. There was no repressing the sense of disruption, the obsessive amounts of time reading news articles, watching television, and checking email to figure out what was known, what was happening, how my institution was responding, and how we needed to adapt. Still, though, I thought I was turning off those worries at night. My body told a different story.

A few nights into the shelter-in-place order, I had multiple nights of restlessness. I tossed and turned, trying to find a better sleeping position. I tried some sleeping meditations, only to find myself wide awake the moment that they ended. I tried reading until I got tired, but felt alert the minute that I put the book down and closed my eyes. My chronic pain and GI issues flared up, too.

With the help of my naturopath and psychotherapist, I realized that the anxious little girl inside me had awoken, and I needed to take care of her. That meant that I needed to structure my pandemic life in ways that would keep my stress response system under control, instead of allowing it to run rampant under the threat of constant change.

The biggest change has been the way that I spend my evenings. Since our biological stress response is designed to keep us awake and alert, I have to minimize activities that will trigger it in the hours before sleep. That means no news and very little social media after dinnertime. In fact, lately when I receive invitations for podcast interviews and webinars, I ask that they be scheduled by 4pm to ensure some distance between talking about heavy topics and going to sleep. I limit my evening entertainment to reading fiction, doing puzzles, crafting, or watching lighthearted tv shows or movies. And while quarantine offers the opportunity to stay up late at night and sleep in each morning, I’ve tried to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. I know firsthand the struggle of having an irregular circadian rhythm and I don’t plan on going back there.

Sleep is also impacted by overall health. It’s hard to sleep when you’re in pain or having stomach pain or an allergy flare-up. Good rest is part of an overall approach to wellness that includes eating right for my body, staying active, stretching and doing yoga, meditating, staying hydrated, taking all my medications and supplements, and following up with healthcare – all of which contribute to a healthy immune system.

Feeling anxious is an inevitable – and appropriate – part of a global health crisis. The key to managing it is not to repress it, but to take care of it.

Eating Well During Quarantine

I’m going to do something that I’ve never (at least not to my memory) done in my blogging life: recommend a product. About a month ago, I finally caved in and subscribed to a meal service. I’ll tell you a little about my process in selecting one and how it’s helped us to eat well during quarantine.

I’ve looked at multiple meal services over the past few years. Some have been appealing but I didn’t think they could accommodate my food restrictions (I’m gluten-sensitive and have lots of other foods that I can tolerate only in moderation) as well as the fact that I live with a picky middle schooler and a partner who will try almost anything but really likes meat. And all the plans seemed too expensive to order for just one person. So I always gave up on them.

I reconsidered this year because I was scheduled to go on a writing retreat. I’d be spending four weeks in an apartment on a college campus in a small town with no transportation. I needed to eat healthy but also minimize my time cooking (because the whole point of a writing retreat is to get away from normal distractions and responsibilities so that you can just write). So I decided to use the four weeks to experiment with a meal service. I looked at several. There are so many more options now for those of us on gluten-free diets. Some of the meals looked positively luxurious.

But I wanted simple. I wanted meals that I could cook – not microwave – with very little effort. And I wanted to be able to mix and match ingredients if I wanted, rather than feeling like I had to use something for a specific recipe.

I decided that HungryRoot was the best plan for me. HungryRoot operates a little more like a grocery service than a meal preparation service. When you sign up, you’re asked about your dietary preferences. Do you have any food allergies or restrictions? How many people are you feeding with each meal? Are you aiming for weight loss? How long do you want to spend cooking? How many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks do you want the service to provide each week? (Their website is kind of crap in terms of showing people what options are available before you join. I had to do some digging and ultimately decide to sign up for an account before I really figured it out).

After you do that, HungryRoot configures your first week of groceries. With HungryRoot, you don’t get meal kits. You get groceries: a bag of shaved Brussels sprouts, some precut veggies for stir-fries or salads, preseasoned and cooked tofu, boxes of pasta, and so on. You can prepare them the way that they want or you can mix them up. You can even integrate them into food you already have at home. I opted for 10 meals per week initially (4 lunches and 6 dinners) because I was going to be in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t sure what I’d be able to access other than the campus cafeteria and maybe pizza delivery. Each meal has 2 servings, so HungryRoot gave me 5 suggestions. Their meals mainly fall into these categories: pasta (yes,plenty of gluten-free options!), bowls, stir-fries, salads, and flatbreads. Each recipe generally has a base (veggies or gluten-free grains for me), protein (my choices lean toward tofu, beans, Beyond Burgers, chicken breasts, and chicken sausage), and a sauce. They provide suggestions on additions (pantry items like Parmesan cheese, dried cranberries, etc.).

Photo of brown wooden table covered with food items, including tomato sauce, cauliflower linguine, stir-fry veggies, salad mixes, packaged tofu nuggets, chicken sausage, grilled chicken breast, Thai peanut sauce, and sesame ginger dressing.
This week’s HungryRoot order includes ingredients for two stir-fries, a pasta dish, and salad.

About a week before I – and my first HungryRoot order – were supposed to arrive at the writing center, universities started closing and it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. Since I’d already paid for the first order, I decided to have it delivered to my home and that I’d use it to try to eat healthy during quarantine. I switched up some of the recipes so that they’d be more appealing to my family. I swapped out some of the tofu for extra chicken breast or chicken sausage so that my middle schooler would eat them. I figured we would try the first week and if it didn’t work, I’d cancel the service. But it did work, pretty well in fact. We can easily cook healthy meals in about 10-20 minutes. The portions serve 2 people well, but it turned out that they could easily be stretched to serve 2 adults and a tweenager who hates veggies.If we were doing a veggie stir-fry with quinoa, we’d just add in some chicken breast and cook some rice for the kiddo.

After the first week, we downgraded our service to 3 meals per week, which prices at $69. HungryRoot works on a points-system. After the service configures our meals based on our dietary preferences and our ratings of the meals we’ve tried, I make changes. Sometimes I have points left over, which is cool because you can buy individual items, like a pack of broccolini or an extra serving of grilled chicken breast. Those items help us to stretch the meals to feed three people. Or sometimes they end up helping us make quick and healthy lunches. So generally, we end up with 3-4 meals worth of food for 3 people. We just got our fifth order. On the menu this week: pasta with chicken sausage and tomato sauce; a peanut chicken & vegetable stir-fry; a sesame ginger stir-fry with tofu; and a salad with tofu bites. That leaves us a few days each week to cook other easy meals, with items we can get from our grocery pickup and delivery services. Fajita bowls, tacos, burgers, and homemade pizza are on the regular rotation now. About once a week, we throw something on the grill.

A lot of people on social media are talking about all the junk food that they’re eating at home. But because of my health issues, I can’t afford that. Food is medicine for me.

Only recently have I gotten my GI issues under control and deviating too much will result in a flare up that could further compromise my already immunocompromised body. As a breast cancer survivor, I’m already working with fewer lymph nodes than the average body. So I’ve had to practice pretty strict social distancing: remaining home except for medical appointments and wearing a mask even when I go for a walk in my neighborhood. Quarantine means that I can’t make my weekly visits to the Dekalb Farmers Market to stock up on organic produce and meat. My body needs more nutrition than frozen and processed food can give it, but I can’t always rely on local grocery delivery (or even pickup) to have what I need in stock. I never would have guessed that the meal service that I’d planned to use for a 4-week writing retreat would be such a big help to my family as we try to manage this period of isolation, but it is.

If you’re interested in trying HungryRoot, you can use this link for $15 off your first order, which will give me an extra $15 too! My kid will be so happy about all that extra tofu!