Let’s talk about claustrophobia as a symptom of pandemic anxiety. I do NOT mean claustrophobia in the official sense of the legitimate disorder, although that may in fact be something you’re dealing with too. I’m talking more about that feeling that these four walls you’ve been staring at without a break for almost a year are slowly closing in on you. That feeling that your house is getting smaller, that your life is getting smaller, and that you don’t even have enough room left to take a deep breath.
If you’ve been reading my posts, you know I have been processing numerous pandemic questions, and I’ve narrowed them down to THE BIG THREE.
These are huge topics unto themselves, and we only have so much energy for blog-reading. So today we’re focusing on our third and final installment of The Big Three.
The Box of Death
Let me try to better explain that claustrophobic feeling. Remember that scene in the old Gene Hackman version of the Willy Wonka story, where he enters a hallway and an optical illusion starts happening? Either he’s getting bigger and bigger, or the hallway itself is getting smaller and smaller, until Wonka and all his guests are crouched over, crowded, and anxious to get out the door? That scene is the perfect visual for the phenomenon I’ve witnessed during this pandemic, in which we all feel cramped. We’re all dying to get out of the house, travel without fear, be able to sit freely in a restaurant or even go to a concert! But we can’t. So, whether for comfort or escape, we turn to our trusty “friend,” who I’ve named The Box of Death.
Otherwise known as your cell phone.
Or really whatever screen you’re staring at right now. The phone counts, the tablet counts, the desktop counts, the television counts. If it’s roughly box-shaped and emits colorful lights in order to communicate with your brain in very mesmerizing ways… it’s a Box of Death.
At first, The Box of Death can seem like a magical portal to another world. We’re stuck inside, but we can look at dancing pictures of the outside to our heart’s content. But is it actually to our heart’s content? In my last post, I talked about the difference between longing and living. Today let’s look at the difference between being present and, quite frankly, pretending to be elsewhere.
Let’s say you fall asleep most nights scrolling through Insta. So when you wake up in the morning, your phone is still in your hand, and without a second thought, you open your eyes and immediately check your text messages, your emails, every single one of your social media accounts, circling back to some of those multiple times. Suddenly your stomach growls with ferocious hunger, reminding you that you’ve now been awake for over an hour, and you still need to get up, use the bathroom, change into your daytime sweatpants and eat breakfast. You do all these things while holding your phone, watching funny TikToks or texting back and forth with a friend. With breakfast in hand, you wander over to the couch, where you settle in for a nice session of binge-watching a show on your TV, which gives your neck a nice break from looking down at your phone, because it requires you to look up and over at a different screen, but you’re still holding your phone, because it controls the volume, play/pause, and subtitles on your tv, plus you might get a call. Only the growl of your tummy or the call of your bladder stirs you from your spot on the couch, until it gets dark out and you actually fall asleep, holding your phone and watching the news. Sometime in the middle of the night, you get up and settle back into your bed, lulling yourself to sleep with that sweet reliability of scrolling through picture after picture after picture…
I just described a typical day for many of you. I’ve definitely lived this day. And maybe you’re thinking, “Absolutely not. I work!” or “I’m in school!” But if you’re working or going to school from home, all you’re doing is swapping out that TV time for computer time… How is that any better? You’ve literally trapped yourself in an even tinier box than the house you’ve been feeling so closed up in. Your entire day, perhaps your entire life, fits inside that tiny box. Is that really living?
“But I can’t help it!” We say. Maybe you have to be on social media because it’s your job. Maybe your conscience won’t let you look away from the news for more than five minutes, because these are still “unprecedented times,” and you don’t want to be disconnected from the important things that are happening. Maybe all you want to do is play that silly game nobody knows you love… you know, the one with the matching color blocks that earn you enough points to plant a new flower? No shame. Or maybe you honestly feel that you don’t want to be chained to your screen, but you’re clinging to it for dear life because it’s the only way you can talk to your family, see your friends, or manage your healthcare and education and career… it starts to feel like we can’t escape the screens. Like it’s out of our control. It’s that claustrophobic feeling all over again.
Let’s be honest, some of us reached this point of tech dependency long before a pandemic came along to give us a great excuse. Regardless of why or how we got here, if these things truly consume our every waking moment, again, I ask: are we really living?
The Mule Trying To Live An Actual Life
I’ve been a long time fan of Brene Brown. In many of her now renowned books and lectures, she talks about the concept of “numbing.” This is, simply put, when we use an activity to avoid, escape, or “take the edge off” of difficult emotions. Here’s my thought: all this time we’re spending on screens… it’s numbing.
We’re feeling cooped up or trapped in our homes. In order to avoid that feeling, we turn to the escape of Instagram, email, anything… and we feel better for a second, until we don’t. We feel like this chapter of our lives is really boring, really sad, really difficult, or really ____, so we turn to the escape of TikTok or our solitaire app. And we don’t feel better… but we don’t feel worse! We feel directionless, worthless, hopeless, anxious, and unsure what else to do, so we start streaming our favorite show and let 6 hours go by without a thought. We don’t feel better or worse… do we feel anything at all anymore?
Don’t misunderstand: we do have to use the screens in our lives for certain necessities. And technology is miraculous for giving us access to things that aren’t otherwise possible. The Box of Death doesn’t become the Box of Death until that “numbing” factor comes into play. Do a gut check right now. Are you spending time glued to your technology because it enables you to live your life, or are you staring into a colorful void in order to muffle the chaos squirming around in your heart and mind?
I love a good TikTok video. I have shows that I can watch for hours. Those aren’t bad things, until they’ve become your whole life, which only you can really measure. And a great way to measure is to ask yourself, “Am I feeling joy at any point in my day to day life? Am I feeling anything?” If not, that’s an indicator that it’s time to start being more mindful of those screens, or anything else you might be using to numb yourself. It’s time for you to let yourself feel, even if the feelings are uncomfortable, because that’s the only way you can access joy. I believe that God meant us to live lives of abundant joy, not of mind-numbing death. So are you accessing your joy? Or are you numbing (very legitimate) feelings of fear and overwhelm by packing yourself into the Box of Death every day? It’s a valid response to life, but it’s not the only way and certainly not the healthiest or even most fun.
Thanks for letting me be vulnerable with you! I hope connecting with my experiences is helpful in processing your own. If you resonated with the feelings I described, like anxiety and depression, please know there is hope in a God who wants the best for you. Here is a resource that will help you gain greater understanding about God’s love for you and His ability to care for you… and as always HopeCoaches are available 7 days a week if you need to chat.
Stay safe, and thanks for reading this “fun” little series on THE BIG THREE.
Read more about the challenges of 2020 (now 2021) as Cara Beth talks about her experience with “The Neverending Wait” during the pandemic and the “The Insane Paradox” she struggles with.
About the Author…
Cara Beth Heath is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago, Illinois. She loves words and all the different ways they can come together to illuminate the world for us. All she wants to do is use her God-given word skills to bring light into dark places, and when she’s not doing that, she’s probably wrapped up in a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate watching a movie or playing Dungeons & Dragons… God loves nerds too!
Photo by Ivan Samkov