How Coronavirus Has Eased My Anxiety

A teacher preparedness professor with ADHD and anxiety shares why sheltering in place has been surprisingly soothing for her mental health.

marsha heck and coronavirus social anxietyCourtesy Marsha Heck

Marsha Heck, 63, is a teacher preparedness professor, EdD, and artist in northern Indiana. At the end of March, Indiana’s Governor Eric Holcomb issued a statewide “stay at home order” to slow the spread of Covid-19. Heck’s experience during quarantine differs from the 45 percent of people who say coronavirus has negatively impacted their mental health: Despite her diagnoses of anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she has experienced greater productivity and creativity in isolation. We spoke to Heck on April 21, more than a month after she began sheltering in place.

(Do you have a story to share about coronavirus? Click this link to share your Covid-19 story with us.)

Preparing my students

In our last class before spring break, I said to my students, “I don’t know that we’re going to see each other again.”

They had a bunch of questions about student teaching and exams, so I told them, “We are going to take care of you. Everyone in the state, everyone in the country is in the same dilemma. Somebody’s going to figure something out.” I had to put my anxieties aside and reassure them while being general—no specific promises. It seems likely at that point that there would be a hodgepodge, mishmash of directions and information. I might say one thing, but then it could change.

[Here’s how to cope with coronavirus-related stress and anxiety.]

They had already set goals for themselves at the beginning of the semester, so, knowing they were coming down on the home stretch, we mapped out the rest of the semester. It was important to build on what we had created, to discuss how we’d move forward online. That class was super positive, like we’re going to be in this together.

Leaving, I was sad for my class of student teachers, the ones about to graduate. But there were other aspects of work that were so stressful. Getting away from work stresses would give me more space to focus on the things that matter most, as opposed to spending my energy on things that are more for appearances. Walking away, I totally saw the positive. I felt eager to have time to set up a structure for remote learning and do important things.

Shelter-in-place preparedness

Maybe it’s my ADHD, but at first, I was excited. My first thought was, “Oh, in between work, I can paint the walls!” Setting myself up for the long haul was also a project for me. I wanted to take good advantage of the time I thought I was going to have (before I realized all the extra prep and work for online teaching).

First, I went out to stock up on groceries, art supplies for sculptures I’d been working on, and paint for the walls.

[Here’s how to safely shop for groceries during Covid-19.]

Then I started making art. I created a sculpture about social distances, one about distractions from the drama, and continued working on a series I’d already started.

In the beginning, I also set up a new structure for my to-do list, a spreadsheet with how each day was supposed to go. Without a daily schedule, I get lost and forget what I have to do. I also put a note on my email that says, “To work most efficiently, I’m going to check my email at X time.”

Basically, I set myself up to be in la-la-land, all alone, left to my own devices for the long haul. With ADHD, I knew I needed to have a structure in place.

[Don’t miss these tips on how to prepare for a coronavirus winter.]

What it’s like in isolation

My days are pretty similar to what they were before, except that, I’m in this beautiful sunny room where I can look outside. Here, I don’t have any reminders of how stressful my job is. I’m able to do my regular work from home, but I have more control over my environment. Everything is simpler now—food is here, the day is mine to structure, and I don’t need to pack meals or plan during the evenings. This has all been helpful for my ADHD.

Each day, I check my email at the times I appointed in my email auto-reply. On class days, I teach through Zoom. I spend time on my research. I work two evenings a week and chill on the others. I also prep my food on the weekends.

The key for me is to look at my spreadsheet to remind myself at any given moment of what I’m supposed to be doing!

[This is the difference between self-isolation and quarantine.]

Focusing on mindfulness

We should be more open in this country about our mental health because that’s why we don’t get help. None of my friends were surprised when recently I accepted a clinical diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety. When it comes to anxiety, I really don’t worry about being in control of everything—I’m more of a constructivist, an artist with how I deal with life.

I like the unknown. My anxiety is more about stressors like managing expectations. When there’s work pressure to perform, that’s when my anxiety kicks in.

In lockdown, I have learned the same lessons I think everybody’s learning. Take some deep breaths. Focus on mindfulness. But I also think it’s a healthy thing to escape. I will work hard or watch a movie and completely escape, forget what’s going on. The other day, I made a list of everything happening and realized all this is going on now. And my therapist said it was time to go take a nap or watch a good comedy!

This is what is so

My mom is in an Alzheimer’s care facility with Covid-19. At first, there was the stress of not knowing, because they ran out of tests. Today her test came back positive. She has the virus. But the last time I saw her in person, I had a conversation knowing it might be the last. These are the facts. This is what is so, whether I like it or not. Given that, I have to ask myself, “What am I going to do and who am I going to be in the face of these facts?”

I have different ways of dealing with this anxiety. I’m practicing mindfulness. I’m using essential oils like lavender. And I’ve used the Calm app a lot.

Now when I go shopping? That is the uglier part of myself, the part I’m less happy about. The store is where I get righteous. I get more upset that people are not respecting the medical workers who are at risk when we don’t protect each other. Yes, we’re all in it together, but medical workers are dying. Why not do everything you can to protect yourself and save their lives?

[Learn how to make your own DIY face mask.]

So, I don’t get anxious about others’ behavior. I get righteous. But then I have to go, “This is what is so.” Remembering that does help me in those moments.

Lessons for a new reality

I do hope this changes the world for the better. For me, it’s reminding me that I want to do creative things. I want to make art. Limiting my social time reminds me that I don’t have to show up to all these things for other people. Of course, I still want to be available for students, so I think I will do more Zoom office hours in the future.

[Here are the best face masks for teachers.]

I also hope this teaches us to connect emotionally with people. For instance, I was talking to a friend, asking how she was doing, and she said she was moody. That made me feel better because I was moody—because of my mom at that moment—and it made me feel I’m not alone. It’s good to know you’re not alone. Right now, everyone is struggling through this.

Someone said that when I start to feel sorry for myself, I should ask others how they’re doing. That helps. And if you have a faith tradition, tap into that. Whatever that looks like for you, leverage it. Connect. We are all in this together.

—As told to Leandra Beabout

(Do you have a story to share about anxiety? Click this link to share your anxiety story with us.)

  • “UPDATED: Indiana Stay-At-Home Order FAQ”
  • Kaiser Family Foundation: “KFF Health Tracking Poll - Early April 2020: The Impact Of Coronavirus On Life In America”
  • Marsha Heck, teacher preparedness professor, EdD

Leandra Beabout
Leandra is an Indiana-based freelance journalist and content writer with a background in education. She has written for a variety of publications, including CNN, Lonely Planet, Greatist, and Fodor's Travel.