COVID Paranoia: The Awfulness Of Thinking You Might Have It

“Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems.” –Epictetus 

“Your mind is working at its best when you’re being paranoid.  You explore every avenue and possibility of your situation at high speed with total clarity.” –Banksy, Banging Your Head Against A Brick Wall 

Hello friend,

“So, have you guys been feeling okay since you left here?”  That was the question my sister posed to me when I answered my phone last weekend.  My kids and I had visited her family for a few days earlier in the week and had left two days before.  “Uhhh…” I muttered as the alarm bells started blaring in my brain.  “Nobody’s gotten sick?  No fevers?” she continued.  By then, my heart was racing and I was up and bounding toward my children, urgently questioning them about how they felt as I reached for their foreheads to feel temperatures.  “Because your one-year-old niece has a fever…” 

While my mouth was saying, “No, everyone seems fine, though I did cough a couple of times yesterday randomly,” my mind was screaming, “WHAT HAVE I DONE???”  Instead of wondering if one of them passed the dreaded coronavirus to one of us, I immediately began to fret that I had given it to them.  No one else could have been the source, I was sure.  Only me.  I was instantly filled with guilt and regret.  How could I have been so reckless with the ones I loved?  Surely I would never forgive myself.

I sound crazy, right?  I know, I know.  And it is crazy.  It’s irrational, illogical, and way too dramatic.  But it wasn’t sudden.  I had already been building this story in my mind for a week before she called, and I have spent the days since in varying degrees of unfounded obsession on the topic.

Let me rewind the story.

Two weeks ago, I noticed the faintest little tickle in my windpipe.  It was below my throat but above my lungs.  And when I say faint, I mean that I had to do a mental “feel” through each part of my body just to notice it a few times a day.  I would say that, even in non-COVID times, I am hypersensitive to physical stuff and constantly monitoring my body for injuries, ailments, and things that either agree with it (like stretching and water) or disagree with it (like running and deep-fried anything), probably leftover habits from my days in sports.  And since the arrival of the coronavirus several months ago, that vigilance has only increased.  That is especially the case with respiratory symptoms.  I have scrutinized every single cough or sneeze for months.  Thankfully, they have been very few in number and explained away by such things as swallowing down the wrong pipe or inhaling some pepper while cooking.  But, needless to say, my radar and my guard are always up.  So it was that I noticed—if only barely– this tiny tension in my trachea and committed myself to tracking it like a hound.

Nothing changed that day, and I didn’t feel anything else suspicious.  I didn’t think about it when I got up the next day and went about my ordinary exercise and activities, but when I remembered it, my self-exam revealed that it was still there, still barely noticeable.  Even though it felt like next to nothing, the fact that it was still there was disquieting.  My kids and I were planning our visit to my sister’s family the next day, and I wanted to feel totally confident that we were all healthy.  They have been super-diligent about social distancing for months, and I was not about to bring something into their anti-viral home.  I continued to monitor my system all day and still felt good.  That evening as we packed our bags, we all took our temperatures and were just right.  I addressed my nagging concern about the faint strain in my windpipe by reminding myself to be logical.  I didn’t want to be a hypochondriac, which it seemed I was becoming.  I let it go and went to bed.

The next morning, I exercised, packed the car, and we hit the road feeling fine.  About three hours into our four-hour journey, I coughed.  Just once and very briefly, but still a cough.  As with every one of the very few coughs I have done in the last several months, it set off alarm bells.  First a trachea tickle, now a cough.  Oi!  Thankfully, it was one and done.  Again, I calmed myself down and moved on, feeling good mentally and physically.

The next day was the same: the tiny tickle and a few random, single coughs.  Given that I hadn’t had either symptom prior to the last few days, I was bothered.  The COVID era—with its varied symptoms and many asymptomatic cases–had spooked me to anything in the ballpark.  My symptoms were almost nothing—I would never have said I had a cold or mentioned any symptom if someone asked how I was doing–but that is still something.  Barely something, but still.

So it went all week long.  On our return from my sister’s house, I coughed three (single breath) times in the four hours.  I noted the increase with concern.  I noticed that my neck was a little stiff, too, and wasn’t sure if that could just be written off to my fitness routine, a poor sleeping position, or if an illness could do the same.  The next day was similar, but I was a little bit tired.  Was that the trip, with its disrupted sleep schedule and abundance of treats?  Or was that another symptom?  I still didn’t have a fever or any other noticeable symptom.  While I didn’t necessarily feel sick, I noted in my journal that I seemed “not right.”  And was that “not right” an actual, physical thing, or was it just the natural mental toll from a week of this self-analysis?  Because I’m telling you, the constant dance between “I think I have something!” and “I have lost my fool mind!” was exhausting.  It gave me a greater appreciation for the tax of mental illness.

And then it came, after a full week of hypervigilance: the call from my sister.  My niece, whom we had just left two days prior, had a fever.  Ugh!  With the call came the guilt.  The second-guesses.  Had I been wrong to talk myself off the ledge about a negligible symptom?  Should we have stayed home even though we all felt fine?  How would I have even gotten the virus?  If I gave it to her, who else?  Was the “not right” I felt this morning enough that I should be in quarantine, even if it was basically nothing?  I tortured myself with questions and doubt.  It was awful.  Thankfully, the worst of it only lasted a couple of hours, until my sister texted back that an Urgent Care visit revealed it to be “only” a double ear infection for my niece.  Sweet mercy!  What a relief!  I was off the hook.

And yet….

I was still paranoid for myself and, by extension, my household.  Was I tired because I took a long bike ride and then mowed the yard, or was it something more sinister?  Was that a sneeze my daughter just did in the other room?  How is everyone’s temperature?  Sense of taste and smell?

Perhaps by a strange twist of Fate, my wife had come across a notice from our local health department offering free drive-up COVID tests earlier in the week and suggested we do it just for the knowledge.  I thought it was a great idea, partially due to my paranoia and partially because it seems like something we should all be doing as often as possible.  I am the first one to share my disappointment and disgust with America’s abject failure with the coronavirus.  And while the complete lack of federal leadership certainly deserves much of the blame for that failure, the rest falls on us ordinary citizens.  Of course, most of that is our rush to return to “normal life” and the self-centered, foolish behavior that stemmed from that, as I have lamented in a previous letter to you.  But some of it, too, is the lack of a push to get tested (often) and then do our best version of personal contact tracing if positive.  I realize it would be much easier if there was a robust system for testing and tracing organized and funded by the government—that has proven successful all over the world, but for some reason has not occurred to our leadership—but in the absence of that, we need to take more personal responsibility.  So, I am all for random, frequent testing.  So, we made our appointment for last weekend, drove up, got swabbed, and then went home to wait.  And wait.  And wait.

As we waited, though, life went on.  I kept monitoring all of us for anything suspicious.  By Tuesday, my hint of “not right” feeling had left my body.  Even though I had a couple of small coughs per day, I felt free again somehow.  The paranoia and dread feeling eased significantly.  I was aware that a test result was still lingering out there in the future, which could throw a major wrench into my peace, but I was disengaging from the drama a bit.  I was finally able to look at my reaction—the anxiety, the guilt, the uncertainty—from a clearer perspective and note how crazy I had gotten over symptoms that were next to nothing.

That realization really got me thinking about this virus’s hold on us, though, and imagining how much worse the paranoia would be for me if I actually had full-scale symptoms, not some trace of tightness in my trachea.  Because seriously, what do people with allergies do?  When they are stuffed up, sneezing, snotting, and feeling horrible—you know, as they do at regular intervals every year—do they assume the worst and start a strict quarantine?  Is their life completely on hold until the pollen passes?  Are they begging their doctor for COVID tests to prove to themselves and everyone else that they don’t have it?   How about the rest of us when cold and flu season comes around?  It will be a nightmare!  My job said that we can’t go in to work if we are experiencing any symptom all year long.  Anything?  All of these daily checklists to get in the door anywhere—school, work, the doctor and dentist’s office, etc.—already have me on high alert.  I will be a wreck when I actually have a legitimate symptom!

I realize most people probably aren’t as nerdy about the subtleties of their body’s fluctuations as I am, and I can tell from America’s coronavirus failure that most people aren’t as concerned as I am about spreading the virus to others or as diligent about social distancing as I (and definitely my sister) am.  But I have to think that every one of us with a conscience has had and/or will have multiple bouts of the kind of COVID paranoia that I am just now coming out of.  Some may get it for obvious reasons—the onset of major fever and tightness in the chest, or learning that they were in close contact with someone who tested positive for the virus—or the paranoia may be self-generated, the way mine mostly was.  Because how can we not think that, in a nation that is already approaching six million diagnosed cases and around 175,000 deaths, that we will be in danger?  Even if you accept the risk and go on your merry way without a mask or a conscience, you still have to wonder when you might have it.

In the end, I guess I am looking at these last couple of weeks as my trial run for the upcoming school year and cold/flu season, minus the real symptoms.  It is sad that I have to cross my fingers in hopes that there will be enough tests available at that time and with a quick enough turnaround time on the results that our lives don’t feel perpetually quarantined and waiting for test results (our results came back negative, to my great relief, after five long days).  That may be our reality as the cold months descend upon us and our sniffles become perpetual.  I don’t like the thought of widespread anxiety, guilt, and dread in our society, but I suppose I ought to get used to it.  If only there were something we could do about it….

Oh wait, there is!  Now seems like a good time to get our act together.  I am all for a healthy world and am willing to do my part to stem the tide of Death and the coming tsunami of COVID paranoia.  I will mask up, wash my hands, keep my distance, and get tested.  For my sake, for your sake, and for all of our sanity.

How about you?  How worried have you yet been that you have contracted COVID-19?  Open your journal and explore your levels of both concern and conscience.  How often over the last several months have you wondered if you might have contracted the coronavirus?  What has usually stirred your concern?  Have you been in close contact with someone who had the virus?  Did you know it at the time, or did you learn later that they had it when they were with you?  Have you felt anxious after going into a grocery store or other indoor space where you were –either intentionally or accidentally—within six feet of other people?  Have you been around people from outside of your household without masks on?  Were they social occasions, or things like shopping?  Does hanging around friends without masks on make you feel more comfortable than being with unmasked strangers?  How about unmasked friends vs. masked strangers?  How about your work situation?  At your job, are you forced to interact in close proximity with people whose activities and contacts you cannot verify?  Are your nearest co-workers in masks?  What level of COVID stress or paranoia do you feel about this on a day-to-day basis?  Has it made you think about quitting or taking a leave of absence?  Have you questioned if your paycheck was worth the risk?  Which of these areas of your life—work, social, or regular life stuff (e.g. grocery store)—tend to stir up the most COVID paranoia in you?  What about your own personal triggers?  During this era of the coronavirus, have you had days when you just haven’t felt well or have had specific COVID symptoms that made you believe you might really have the virus?  Even if you hadn’t knowingly been in contact with someone, have your symptoms alone caused you any panic or distress?  How strong were the symptoms?  Were they barely noticeable, like mine, or were they clear and measurable (e.g. a fever)?  Did you get tested for the virus?  Did you go into quarantine?  Were you worried enough that you warned the people in your life about possible exposure?  If you genuinely believed you had the virus, how guilty did you feel about the people you may have infected before you realized it and went into quarantine?  Did you have much regret about people you had socialized with or otherwise interacted with?  If you have tested positive and were surprised by the result, could you look back at a symptom or recent day’s gut feeling and thought, “That must have been it!”?  Have you been tested for the virus?  Why not?  If tests were free and easy to get any time you wanted one, how often would you take one?  Wouldn’t it give you more peace of mind if you knew with certainty if you had the virus?  How about if you knew that everyone around you was uninfected?  How do you think your anxiety level will change as you go through cold and flu season and the inevitable symptoms you will feel that match COVID-19?  Will you be willing to test?  Will you be quick to quarantine when the symptoms come on?  Will you be diligent about communicating with the people you have been in contact with?  Are you anticipating that your regular life will get entirely shut down by the onset of symptoms—whether COVID or not—at least once in the coming months?  Does that worry you, or will you just roll with it when it comes?  Are your worries more along the lines of the disruptions it will cause to your family’s routine, or do you worry more about the actual sickness, death, and the long-term health consequences from the disease?  Or do you worry more about spreading it?  Do you think you fret about this virus more or less than the average person?  On the whole, are you being a conscientious citizen and doing your part to minimize the spread of the virus so that fewer people will die and the country can get back to school and work, or are you mostly doing what you want and not being inconvenienced by the threat of being infected or infecting others in your community?  If we were all a little more paranoid about being infected and infecting others, might our country be doing better in terms of cases and deaths?  Could a little COVID paranoia actually be healthy?  Leave me a reply and let me know: How anxious are you about getting and spreading the virus? 

Be well and be considerate,

William

P.S. If today’s letter resonated with you, please share it with your communities.  We will only truly thrive again if we do it together!

P.P.S. If this way of self-interrogation appeals to you, consider buying my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers.

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