Surviving my first COVID-19 induced mental breakdown.

Surviving my first COVID-19 induced mental breakdown.

It's a challenging time for all of us.

All the fear, uncertainty, and changes brought by COVID-19 are unprecedented. For most of us, this is the first time we ever encountered such unsettling disruption in our lives.

My experience is obviously personal. But I still want to share it thinking some might find it relevant.

If you are not feeling so well, I hope my story helps you realize that you are not alone and we are all in this together.


Building Up Of The Breakdown

I wasn't feeling so well. But I didn't know that. I thought I was doing just fine.

After all, I was an introvert and sometimes a hermit. My day-to-day essentials were taken care of – I had enough food and toilet papers. Working from home and self-quarantine actually sounded appealing to the introverted side of me.

But something was off. During the day, I wanted to focus and get work done, but I simply couldn't. There were too many distractions, both online and in real life. So many COVID-19 related news flooded in from everywhere: friends' news feeds, work slack channels, DMs from family and friends, etc. At the same time, working from a dining table right next to the kitchen didn't help. I found myself constantly wandering around the kitchen, refrigerator, and the snack cabinet. A day went by and I hardly got any work done. I switched teams recently, so I pretended I was still ramping up on things to hide my low productivity. But as the week progressed, my guilt for not doing work built up.

Work was not the only struggle. Life outside of work wasn't so great either. At first, I was excited to make the most out of this social-distancing period. So many books I wanted to read, skills I wanted to learn, and side projects I wanted to work on. But I hardly made progress on any of them. Working from home erased the boundaries between work and life. I wandered around the kitchen when I was supposed to work. I felt guilty about not getting work done when I should relax and not think about work.

Most strangely, I felt wrong doing things I originally planned to do. I tried to pick up a book, but I didn't have peace while reading it. It felt like the wrong thing to do.

And of course, news related to COVID-19 did not respect my none-existing work-life boundary. They continued to flood in 24/7 constantly pulling my attention.

I started to stress-eat. I mindlessly chowed through bags of snacks, finishing pounds of pistachios in one setting.

I shopped impulsively as well. I felt like I was in lack of everything. Each day, I made multiple Amazon orders buying random things, from can openers to slippers.

The Breakdown

One day, I finished the rest of the pistachios in the apartment and had a strong impulse to get more. I stormed out of my apartment and speed-walked toward the nearest grocery store as if my life depended on pistachios.

On my way to the grocery store, as I was anxiously waiting at the cross-walk, I realized I was getting out of control. I felt awful. My stomach was uncomfortably full. My heart was pounding. Thoughts were racing in my head. I somehow felt anxious, threatened, and insecure. I thought and pretended I was fine to my coworkers, friends and family, and myself. I was not fine, but I didn't know that.

I checked my phone. An email popped up titling: "Sihui - are you OK?". It was from Derek Sivers, a blogger I admired and followed.

 

That's when I finally realized I was not OK.

I was overwhelmed.

Analysis

Once I acknowledged the mental breakdown, its causes were obvious.

a) I underwent a large number of sudden changes.

Lots of changes happened all at once for me: change of teams at work, the change from working at the office to working from home, and the change of no longer being able to go out freely. All these were big changes requiring time to adjust. No wonder my productivity dropped. But I failed to recognize the challenges brought by these changes. Instead, I felt guilty for not being productive.

b) Nonstop worrisome COVID-19 news flooded into my life.

The situation was changing rapidly. The whole world fixated at it. The news came from everywhere. Everyone was talking about it. I was constantly surrounded by COVID-19 related topics. There was no break.

c) Uncertainties brought by COVID-19 were hard to cope with.

This period of time was turbulent. Besides our own health and our loved ones', ripping effects caused by COVID-19 were also concerning. The U.S. economy headed into a recession. Businesses were shutting down. People were losing their jobs. Hate-fueled attacks were rising. We didn't know how much worse things would get nor how long it would take before things got better.

Facing all these uncertainties, it was hard to have peace. Originally, I wanted to minimize the disruption brought by the virus. But given the scale of its impact, simply staying self-quarantined and ignoring what's going on in the world was no longer an option. I couldn't live in my bubble and work on my reading list. It's hard to plan for life when things change rapidly with many unknowns ahead of us.

d) The guilt of not contributing to the fight against COVID-19 overwhelmed me.

Above all, the guilt of not contributing to the fight against COVID-19 ate me up inside the most. When the virus was at its peak in China, someone I followed online said: "when this is over, a new way to get to know someone is by asking them what they did during this period of time." This sentence stuck with me. I felt powerless in the face of such a pandemic. What could I do as an individual? This seemed to be a big problem for the "grown-ups". But at the same time, I knew there were things I could do.

I tried to move on with my life and make the most out of this self-quarantine period. But solely focusing on my personal affairs and not contributing to the fight built-up guilt. That guilt took me down from the inside.

Recovery / Solution

Acknowledge the challenge.

First and foremost, I acknowledge that this is a challenging time. The reality is that my life is being disrupted by it and will continue to be. Failure to recognize this sets the wrong expectation. The wrong expectation will only cause frustration and more disruptions.

Take care of myself, both physically and mentally.

Taking care of myself is the most responsible thing I can do at this moment.

Physically: stay hygienic, keep social distancing, drink lots of water, eat healthily, get enough sleep, exercise moderately.

Mentally: stop being harsh on myself, stay informed but take breaks from COVID-19, remind myself to look at the positive side of things, do things that make me happy, be happy, be kind and gentle with myself, hang out with friends and coworkers online.

To cope with WFH-related challenges, I set a working schedule and try to not mix my working time with leisure time. I also moved my home office from the living room to my bedroom.

Join the fight and focus on things I can do.

This part energizes me the most. With or without COVID-19, life is full of uncertainties. Focusing on things out of my control will only overwhelm and paralyze me. Focusing on the things I can do and accepting whatever result life presents is the only way out. If I already do my best, no matter how things end up, there will be no regret.

With that mindset, I can already think of things I can do.

a) Reach out to subscribers of my blog and check in with them.

The simple email from Derek Sivers helped me tremendously. It not only made me realize I was not okay but also made me feel heard. The email was the turning point for me to start facing the challenge and raise up for it. I want to do the same for friends who follow my blog.

b) Do my work.

Helping small-to-medium-sized businesses is at the top of the mind of my company at this moment. The team I joined recently, Growth, is especially focused on this endeavor. Small-to-medium sized businesses are instrumental to the U.S. economy. That's literally the reason I chose Gusto over other companies. I feel blessed to be at Gusto at this moment and to able to contribute to COVID-19 related projects.

c) Find other ways to help.

Writing this blog post is an attempt to contribute, so is trying to participate and help the COVID19_support subreddit.

Besides these, there are a few areas I care and have been thinking about:

  • unemployment

Seeing people getting laid off makes me sad, so I have been working on a silly idea that's not going anywhere yet. I'm still brainstorming other ways to help. (update: I'm now working on https://covid19hiring.com/)

  • self-care

It's a difficult time for all of us. We all need to take care of ourselves first before being able to help. I don't have any grand plans, but I want to start by sharing light resources I find useful. I believe there are many others like me who need to be reminded to take care of themselves. (update: I'm now working on https://covid19selfcare.com/)

  • small-to-medium-sized businesses cash flow

I don't have much direction in this area, yet. But small-to-medium-sized businesses are such a pillar to the U.S. economy. I plan to continue to think of ways to help.

All of these are hard problems. But it's not all or nothing. The starfish story is a good reminder. If I can help one person find a job, put a smile on someone's face, or help a single business a bit, my efforts will be worth it.

If you are interested in coming together to help fight against COVID-19 in the above or any other areas, join this slack group.

The positive side of things.

COVID-19 is awful. But it has also been a growing journey for me. I used to be tunnel-visioned and only focused on the small bubble I lived in. I didn't care too much about what's going on in the world. I didn't feel connected to the larger human race.

COVID-19 makes me feel intimately that I'm part of humanity. It's inspiring and touching to see everyone come together to fight this cause. Some use their skill sets to educate and spread awareness to others with articles and videos. Grocery stores and people take care of the elderly by setting and honoring special shopping hours for seniors. All the people staying home are also heroes doing their part to stop the spread.

COVID-19 shows me how interconnected each part of the society is, from the health system, economy, to national and international politics. As a result, COVID-19 sparks my interests in lots of subjects: data analytics, economy, history, politics, etc. All parts connect with and affect each other. And we are all part of society.

This might be a tough fight, but we are in this together.


(PS: in case it’s not clear from the article, I’m doing good now! =] )

5 Comments Surviving my first COVID-19 induced mental breakdown.

  1. Gavin Fong

    Thanks for your sharing. You are certainly not alone, we are all together fighting against the pandemic. Take care!

  2. Tom Wickerath

    Hi Sihiu,

    With all the bad news about COVID-19, our family had something joyful to celebrate a week ago Monday (3/16/2020). My wife and step-daughter became US Citizens. My wife had studied very hard for the past two months, so that she could answer all the civics questions–she felt a great relief when it was all done!

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