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.