Anxiety, COVID and the comfort of animals

Like many people, I presume, I find myself startled out of sleep several times a night, every night. I snap my eyes open and gasp, realize I’m drenched in sweat and that my heart is racing. I take short breaths and exhale erratically. My jaw hurts from grinding my teeth. I reach over to feel my husband’s chest, the rise and fall of his night breathing. I sigh and try to calm myself.

I don’t have COVID, and, as far as I know, haven’t. It’s not menopause either, I don’t think. Is it nightmares, dreams that come and go in the normal sleep cycles? No, not exactly. It’s anxiety, infiltrating what it is supposed to be a time of rest and restoration. Anxiety is an emotion. An emotion is the correlation of feelings such as worry, nervousness and fear of the unknown and physical reactions such as sweating, shallow breaths, shaking, racing heart beats.

I’ve experienced anxiety all of my life, mostly manifesting in times where someone was shouting or shaming or where I’m in a large group of people. I’ve definitely had anxiety-induced asthma attacks and tingly fingers right before classes I’m supposed to teach or public presentations I’m supposed to deliver.

Generally, I can identify exactly what is causing the reaction and get a hold of myself by pacing, going outside, rinsing my hands and face with cold water, exhaling mindfully, and doing self-talk along the lines of “everything is fine” and naming what is happening to my body. “You are having an anxiety attack. You can manage this. You know what to do.”

In these cases, I don’t think these manifestations of fear or nervousness are unhealthy. Usually, they feel like pretty normal reactions to triggers that are supposed to induce me to act. So, call out a mansplainer, a bigot, or Karen for abusive language or make sure I am prepared to deliver my craft class or public reading, for instance.

These nights, though, I don’t know why I’m experiencing nighttime anxiety attacks or what I am supposed to do. I don’t know what physical actions I’m supposed to take that can address the anxiety because it’s coming from sources I can’t immediately address. Especially in the middle of the night, several times a night.

So, often, what I do is grab my phone off the bed stand, tap it awake, and scroll Twitter for funny animal videos until I’m drowsy again. I really recommend “The Dodo” where you can enjoy heartwarming stories of rescued feral dogs or stories of how a cranky old man experienced a personal transformation when he let a stray kitten into his life.

I also really love “Animals are Jerks” where you can watch smarty-pants cats play tricks on unassuming dogs by teasing them outside and then closing the door on them or a wizened old dog snap at a yapping whippersnapper puppy to shut up. When that doesn’t work, I head downstairs to the kitchen to get a drink of water and see what my own dogs are doing.

One of the great things about labs is that they are always happy to see you. As soon as I cross into the kitchen, Polar Bear is alert, up, and wagging his tail with his whole butt, slapping against the wall, the stool, the cupboards, and then my legs. “Shh, shh, shh,” I tell him. “You’ll wake up the whole house, you big oaf.” Pony is comfortable on her rug and doesn’t get up, but she does raise her eyes to mine and seems unsurprised to see me again.

I get a glass of water and sit down at the table. Once again, I tap my phone awake and rather than searching for animal videos, I search for my top information sources: Yashar Ali, who always seems to have some first hand insight into everything, Daniel Dale, a fact checker who examines the candidate’s statements for veracity, Sarah Kendzior, an expert on authoritarianism, Yamiche Alcindor, White House correspondent; and public health experts, international journalists, and thought leaders.

Even though I know I caught all of the breaking news before I went to bed, I still have this overwhelming urge not to be caught off guard, not to miss something. This year, something is always happening. Won’t my knowing about it as soon as possible somehow better position me to … What? Do something about it? Control it? Have power over it? Take a big breath before it affects my community, my family, me?

Polar Bear sits next to me and slops his gigantic paw on my thigh. I dig my fingers into the ring of fluff and fat around his neck. He leans into it and groans. Pony, suffering from pain in her aging hips, slowly stands and comes over and presses her face into my other leg. I rub her velvety ears. In this moment, I wonder if there is anything better than being squeezed on either side by big dogs.

The nausea that comes with waning anxiety is here now, but it’s a sign that the tangible physical effects of fear, sorrow, and worry are subsiding. After it too settles, I rise and step to the window that looks out over the yard and fields. I am grateful to live in such a peaceful and protected place, and like all the armchair therapists recommend, catalogue my list of privileges.

I remind myself that this time is so much worse for so many people. I also consider what I’ve been telling my kids and writing cohorts: prepare yourself for the fact that the fall will likely be worse, with more sickness, division, upheaval, callousness, and uncertainty. My heart starts racing again. I can’t get a big breath. Pony and Polar Bear can smell the nervous sweat on me. Once again, they take a post at either side and squeeze. We stare out the window for a long time.

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