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Anxiety in 2020

Last week I suddenly felt horrendous: I felt deeper fatigue than I had in years, I was experiencing severe headaches, and I was finding it hard to think straight. My daily work has become a series of Zoom meetings, and I careened from scheduled event to scheduled event, hoping I could just get through it.

Of course, this being 2020, I began to worry about Covid-19. I spend most of my time right now around my immunosuppressed mother, who is not doing well completely independently of the pandemic, and I'm deeply worried that I'll somehow transmit something to her. I'm a little bit worried about the virus for myself, too, but to be honest, I have no idea what my life looks like beyond all this - not just beyond the pandemic, but also beyond my family's health journey.

I don't have Covid; I just came dangerously close to burning out.

Lately, I've learned that too many stimuli lead to my feeling physically wrecked. It's not just that the notifications, messages, and tiny dopamine hits make me feel mentally overwhelmed, but they start to push me to the right of the bell curve of physical anxiety symptoms. I need to rate-limit and sanitize my inputs, otherwise my outputs suffer.

At this point, my social media hiatus from Thanksgiving through to New Year's Day has become a tradition. I always feel better. It's got very little to do with the actual content of social media - although endless outrage is inevitably wearing, it's not like any of the outrage is actually misplaced - and more to do with the physical mechanisms of the software itself. The interaction mechanics that keep us coming back for more, designed to juice the engagement statistics, undeniably increase my anxiety - if only just a little.

Which I think would be fine if it wasn't 2020. We're in the middle of a global, deadly pandemic. My mother is dying. My father is getting older. My sister has become long-term disabled with chronic pain. I have a demanding job (which, to be clear, I love). The President of the United States continues to show his true colors as a racist and a fascist. And the blowback from the world's largest civil rights movement - a point of hope in itself - is staggering, even within my own extended family. Finally, there was an event in my extended family this week that I don't even begin to want to talk about here.

Given all this, the baseline of stress is much further to the right of the anxiety bell curve, which means that stimuli which would ordinarily be tolerable are less so. Again, it's not so much about the content of the stimuli: I've even discovered that playing Stardew Valley, a lovely little computer game about running a farm, has been sometimes too much.

I'd like to remain functional, be able to show up well at work, and support my family and friends in the way I would like. So that means cutting out stimuli.

Rather than cutting things out wholesale, I'm going to aim for moderation, at least to start. I like that Screen Time has made its way to MacOS from the iOS / iPadOS devices. Because my screen time goals sync between them, I can allocate myself 30 minutes a day for game playing, for example, and 45 minutes for social media. (Because RSS feeds and blogging are not rapid-fire, I don't feel the need to ration them.) I've also made a concerted effort to bring down my Zoom meeting load by around a third, giving me more contemplative time at work.

I recognize that talking about burnout and cognitive stamina isn't really the done thing - I think I'm supposed to be hustling? Shouldn't I be building a personal brand based on excellence and productivity? But that's exactly why I'm talking about it here. We all need to look after ourselves and each other, now more than ever. I spend a lot of my time caring for others, and it can be easy to forget self-care. But the old adage of needing to put your own oxygen mask on first is true. I need to do better at remembering that, and maybe you do too.

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