• jess

My most subtle signs of anxiety in Pandemic Land... and how I'm dealing before defeat

Updated: Jun 9, 2020

Anxiety probably isn’t new for anyone here. If it is… sorry, but glad you’re joining us?

When I went on furlough a few weeks ago, I immediately (and I mean immediately) realized something. My job has been absolutely filling me with slow burning, raging anxiety. And somehow, in the moment I barely noticed it writhing inside me.

Secret Signs

For a month I thought I was (pretty happily) chugging along with this quarantined-but-working life. There were challenges trying to work full-time remotely with a bunch of on-site buttholes, but overall, I was keeping myself relatively sane throughout the quarantine.

I mean, I’d been making art, I’d been writing new posts, I’d been working on my book and improving my physical health. Hadn't felt suicidal or hopeless. Hadn't locked myself in the house. Seemed alright.

As soon as my job was off the table the other morning, though, I realized exactly how much tension I had secretly been carrying with me.

As soon as my job was off the table the other morning, though, I realized exactly how much tension I had secretly been carrying with me.

It was like the world lifted itself off my chest. I felt light, free, and joyful. My mind instantly opened, and my thoughts turned towards my deepest passions and biggest plans again. Life instantaneously felt… Good? Promising? Exciting? Doable?

I wish I could say this was a unique experience, but my mental illness tends to creep up in that way. I’ll be going with the flow for weeks or months, maybe feeling a bit agitated but generally alright. Telling people I’m doing well. Patting myself on the back for being so normal, so functional.

It isn’t until something breaks – my head or my schedule – when I suddenly realize how off-kilter my brain has been. How much I’ve been struggling to function. How it feels to be normal, in comparison.

It isn’t until something breaks – my head or my schedule – when I suddenly realize how off-kilter my brain has been. How much I’ve been struggling to function. How it feels to be normal, in comparison.

Which forced me to sit down and think – what low point was I starting from? What was going on under the surface this whole goddamn time? How was my mental health so dampened without catching my attention?


As an expert anxious mess who endlessly walks other people through their experiences, how is it possible that my stressed-out state escaped me, as it has so many times before?

I know what to look out for. I check in with my body throughout the day looking for signs of trouble. Usually, I don’t have to search for the physical and mental discomfort – they’re making my stomach turn and smacking me right in the fucking face.

I know what to look out for. I check in with my body throughout the day looking for signs of trouble. Usually, I don’t have to search for the physical and mental discomfort – they’re making my stomach turn and smacking me right in the fucking face.

If it’s not blaring migraines from muscle tension, acid reflux tearing up my esophagus, or insomnia turning every day into an inescapable nightmare, my body finds a new way to present its displeasure. When things are this blatant, I couldn’t ignore my anxiety if I tried.

I suppose, the trouble with living through extreme anxiety is having a skewed detection system for low- to mid-grade anxiety.

After years of "my anxiety" meaning I was absolutely crippled and incapable of acting like a human, everything feels relatively better. If you ask me whether or not I'm anxious, my brain teleports back to being agoraphobic and having panic attacks all the time. "Nah, I'm good. I'm not anxious."

The torrential floods are undeniable. It's harder when the anxiety creeps up little by little, a drop in the bucket each day, and the waterline doesn't get past the halfway mark.

How can we learn to be more aware of the slow, less dramatic accumulation of tension? By taking more detailed notes on the cues we're receiving from our bodies, brains, and even our surroundings.

So, what are the subtle signs of anxiety that were missed? How can this old anxiety detector be tuned even more precisely?

So, what are the subtle signs of anxiety that were missed? How can this old anxiety detector be tuned even more precisely?

The subtle signs of anxiety


Thanks to this little experiment in living half a regular life, working from home but continuing normal operations, I realized that even for an experienced stress-curator, the symptoms of anxiety can be fluid and subtle.

These telltale signs seem innocuous out of context, but when you add them up, you might be looking at some early signs of underlying anxiety.

If you can’t spot them, you can’t address them. Pay attention to your inconspicuous signs.

Here are the 10 subtle anxiety symptoms that I later realized I had missed. AGAIN. The ten trojan horses of the imminent anxiety apocalypse (that you better burn down before it’s too damn late).

Here are the 10 subtle anxiety symptoms that I later realized I had missed. AGAIN. The ten trojan horses of the imminent anxiety apocalypse (that you better burn down before it’s too damn late).

1. Bad handwriting

I love writing. LOVE writing. I try to journal every day, even if it’s 3 sentences, and I genuinely treasure my time with my notebook. But there are times when my journaling starts slipping. I don’t do it as often, I can’t figure out what to write, and my hand actually protests the activity.

There are days and weeks when my journal entries are a fucking mess. My normally small and neat handwriting becomes random, disorganized, and incomprehensible. It slants in all directions. I misspell words. I can’t stay on the line ruling. Shit is crossed out all over the place. It feels like my hand forgot how to work. I can’t physically keep up with the thoughts in my head and I’m agitated, frantically trying to get everything out.

Uhhh… these are days when your brain isn’t firing on all cylinders, pal. If you can’t concentrate, control your fine motor skills, or keep up with the manic thoughts bouncing around in your skull… probably consider that something is off kilter.

If it’s been a week or two of writing like a 3rd grader (if that) you’re either manually exhausted or getting a little fucked in the head. Address it, and I obviously don’t recommend writing as your primary outlet.

First, try to get outside and exercise for a few hours every morning. Your thoughts will organize themselves during that time, you can ruminate more deeply (if you must), and you’ll probably settle on bitching to yourself about a particular issue that’s been working its way up your butt. When you feel relieved or just exhausted by all the thinking, call it a day on the exercise field. Then, go back to writing. You can start working through your worries in a more directed manner once you’ve burned off some of the excess, AND you’ve probably revealed the most serious issues to yourself so you can concentrate your efforts where they really matter.

See if your handwriting is instantly improved. Try it.

2. Teeth hurt

This is an almost obvious one, there are a lot of jaw clenchers and teeth grinders out there… but it’s not my jaw that I tense. It’s my tongue.

For the past year or so, when I’m in a “waiting” state or feeling semi-frustrated, I have a newfound tendency to push my tongue against the backs of my bottom teeth. For hours or days straight. Until my teeth hurt and start shifting around loosely in my gums.

Yes, it is gross. I’m not exaggerating – I’m going to have to get adult braces to undo the damage I’ve done, which is an extra harsh burn because I didn’t even have braces growing up. My bottom teeth are looking like a broken picket fence lately and it’s not due to genetics.

This is a sign that you’ll definitely notice eventually. It can go unnoticed for most of a day, but goddamn, it hurts after hours of pressurized attack on your chompers.

The bigger issue is, even after you notice it, it’s really difficult to release the tension from your tongue and jaw. Every few minutes, you suddenly have the annoying realization that you’ve been back at it again. At that point, it just drives you insane, day in and day out.

I’ve found that talking to someone will release some tension in your mouth (or just wear out your tongue, maybe). Singing is a good release, also, because it necessitates some tongue relaxation.

Otherwise, I might go back to chewing gum and see if that helps? Any other suggestions?

3. Spacey/time distortions

We all know, time is relative, but this one gets me often. Pretty sure the time-keeping part of my brain shuts down when other circuits are drawing a lot of power.

Makes sense. For instance, have you ever been in a fight with your SO, blinked, and realized 5 hours of bickering have passed? How did those hours feel so effortless and never-ending, at once?

My anxiety makes time move both faster and slower in the trippiest and most tortuous ways. The danger is, sometimes you can accidentally justify it by saying you were “deeply concentrated” instead of acknowledging the stress that drove the separation from time-space.

Anxiously working on something, like a complicated and time-sensitive work task or snarky message? Hours will fly. Anxiously waiting for something, like my planning-impaired boyfriend or an anticipated email? Time will stop.

If you look back on a day and have no idea where it went, you were probably secretly letting anxiety steer the ship. If the day crawls by minute by minute and you’re checking your phone for every one of them, you also need to check in on that pesky mental state and figure out what falling shoe you’re waiting for.

New tip for reducing the number of times you pick up your distraction device AND grounding yourself in time – set alarms at several points throughout your day and get your phone out of reach (I mean it, throw that fucker across the room on airplane mode, if you have to. Get it away from your hands). Then, only get up and check it when the alarm goes off.

Consider these your “breaks” – the concise periods when you’ll let your mind wander through the news and your finger scroll through the pretty pictures – so it’s something to look forward to. A reward. Set the alarms at key points when you might be expecting work or an important message from your honey to roll through, so you’ll comfortably have time to respond without missing anything critical/dropping the ball.

It feels like torture at first to live without the continual button pressing, but it’s so freeing. Stop waiting for things to happen - check in when you’re confident they already have. Save yourself a lot of trouble. Boom. Quarantine lessons.

4. Neglecting self

This one can be subtle until it’s not. I might not demonstrate overt signs of self-neglect for a while after the anxiety sets in. Generally, it only gets super obvious for me when I interact with other humans and finally realize I smell like head grease, look fried and disheveled, and my face is a pizza. Before I become the unwashed smelly kid, there are smaller signs I know to watch out for… but often disregard.

Not showering on your “regular schedule,” for example, is a big one. Between my butt-length pink hair and low-grease factor, I’m good with a one-on-one-off schedule; when I’m bummed or anxious, I’ll try to justify that extra dirty day. Showering is just SO EXHAUSTING and who’s looking at me, anyways?

When there’s anxious work (read: busy work that feels like you’re being productive, but ultimately just distracts you from life) to do at home, you might also forget to brush your teeth, to eat, and even to use the restroom for long stretches of time. Suddenly it’s 4pm and you realized you haven’t peed, changed your clothes, or drank any water. Or is that just me?

When my job is too chaotic and demanding, I often don’t have focus or energy to care for my surroundings, either. My plants look sad, my floor is gritty, and my bed isn’t made for weeks. Dirty laundry piles up, there are dirty dishes in my room, and my toilet really needs to be scrubbed.

Ironically, taking care of these tasks is a major mental health boost. When you get back in the swing, you’ll immediately feel better. Try to enjoy the brief moment while you take care of things you know you should. Sweep your damn floor and try to make the bed every day, see if it improves your outlook.

If you have the wherewithal to keep an eye on personal care and the state your environment, you can more readily gauge and remedy mental health shakeups before they permanently impact your health and residence.

5. Leaving messages “on read”

This is a shameful one for me, considering how much I preach about connection and social support.

When I’m anxious or overwhelmed, my phone and social inbox are going to be forgotten. I’ll open your message, I’ll appreciate receiving it, I might even chuckle and have some deep thoughts… and then I’m going to forget it ever happened for a day or three. I will intend to answer it… but my brain will push that fucker right out of my memory in order to concentrate on being anxious.

After that, the pressure starts to build. When I recall the unanswered message, I start to shame myself. Then it grows into a bigger issue, full of self-hate, uncertainty, and dread, until I’m avoiding all my correspondences. Thanks inner critic!

Is isolating the worst thing you can do during a bout of mental illness? Yep. Is it really easy to do? Yep. If you haven’t heard back from people in a while, make sure the ball isn’t still sitting in your court. If it is, be honest with them about the reason for the radio silence. Make sure people know they’re important to you.

Bonus: Use your new phone alarm system (see point above) to condense all your message answering to convenient times that you’ve carved out for exactly this purpose. You’ll be more likely to read, absorb, and respond in a timely manner when this is your phone time instead of reading messages while you’re supposed to be working on other tasks.

6. No appetite

Too concentrated on mental matters to put fuel in the tank?

Heyyo. I’m a dissociator, and my body quickly goes by the wayside. Hunger comes and goes, and I can be completely unaware. Only my thoughts exist, this growling feeling doesn’t even register. Do I have more coffee to drink? Then I’m good.

It’s normal for me to eat once each night (weird, not healthy, don’t recommend), but it’s not normal for me to skip my only meal of the day and go straight to sleep. It’s also unacceptable to eat a “dinner” that consists of a snack and call it a night.

I’m just going to binge those calories down the road (see point 10), might as well keep it steady and stop having heart palpitations.

If you’re dropping pounds in a week, feeling weak, experiencing low blood sugar, getting dizzy, or refusing to go to the grocery store… something is going wrong. Can it be satisfying in a fucked-up way to see your body changing nearly overnight? Yes. Should you? Nah.

Only if you’re losing water weight from kicking sugar or salt - then good for you!

7. Immobility/indecision

I’ve certainly talked about this recently. The pressures of deciding how to spend your time when work and social lives aren’t distracting you/filling your life with obligations.

I get stuck – a freeze response – when I have too much anxiety. But it isn’t an obvious problem. At first, it presents a bit like boredom. I can’t decide what to do because nothing sounds good. Nothing feels good. Nothing is good.

The difference between my indecision and boredom is realizing there are many options on the table, but you’re just not wanting to partake in any of them.

You pace in circles. You pick up an item to start a task and put it right back down, your brain in another universe. You walk into a room and forget what you’re doing there. You hate everything. You eventually just find yourself staring blankly at a wall after all your internal debates.

When you’re getting nowhere fast, recognize that this is anxiety distracting you from accomplishing anything because your attention is not in the present. You’re waiting again. Just start doing something – anything.

This sounds silly, but you might need to refer to a list of the activities you enjoy. Sometimes it’s easy to forget what you like doing and benefit from, so writing it down now will save you some trouble by reducing the mental obstacle of remembering what it's like to be happy. For example; reading, doodling, going for walks, singing, taking a bath, working out, cleaning, playing with the dog... whatever easy, fun, helpful tasks you got.

8. Edge of urgency

I think I only realized recently that this isn’t part of being human, it is a form of anxiety.

When you think of work or another large obligation, do you feel a sharp “edge” in your gut?

It’s not exactly an excited feeling, but it’s close. It’s more of an urgency. Like there’s a jagged piece of glass in my stomach that expands to poke at my chest if I feel I’m not moving fast enough, or I just remembered a work-related task.

It’s this sense of never having enough time mixed with an instantaneous panic that I’m somehow neglecting something or fucking up. I feel surrounded by rapidly approaching deadlines (usually imagined) and critical work that’s sitting unfinished. I feel “edgy.”

Rushing through every task, even when you have nothing else to do, is a pretty good sign. If you’re frustrated with every moment of your day – even doing the things you normally enjoy – you’re hanging onto something that you need to deal with.

The difficult part is, a lot of us learned to leverage this feeling to become perfectionistic high achievers. It’s what gets “highly functional” people to leap out of bed every morning and get down to work. It’s the motivation for our hypervigilance that makes us excellent students, workers, and minions.

Like many drones who worked their way through the college system with honors like it mattered, I thought this inner discomfort was a “good” part of me for a long time. Now, if I start feeling this “edge,” and can’t force myself to come up with an indisputably viable reason, I know that I’m operating on the wrong brain pathways. Trauma city.

If you realize you’re not in the present and you’re letting logical thoughts get away from you, take a moment to journal out your worries, and (on paper) question whether or not their reasonable. For real. Look at your reasoning – is it logical, unlikely, or catastrophizing? Is the worst case scenario a farce? Let it go, you're smarter than that.

If that doesn’t work, flip through your personal planner (again, get a physical one), prove to yourself that there’s nothing waiting in the shadows, and try to switch your focus to a real task. Look at your list of approved activities, complied in point 8 and move on.

9. Forward thinking

In line with the sharp sense of urgency is an overabundance of forward thinking.

("But I'm a planner!" No, you're a worrier. This is not a personal merit. Stop.)

Ever find yourself getting panicky about a mundane task because all the individual steps come rushing in at one time, rather than using the Wikihow template and making simple chronological lists? Suddenly you’re so exhausted or so manic that you can’t make heads or tails of how to get started, you just have an encyclopedia of tasks filling your head at once?

Yep. That’s how my brain wants to run. If I start thinking about a random, even fun task, and feeling the bubble of overwhelm swelling in my chest, I know I’m thinking too fucking far ahead.

EX: “I want to garden, but then I need plants, and a hose, and fertilizer, I should go to Walmart, there has to be a lot of sun, I need to buy tomato cages, I wonder if plants are cheap at the nursery up the block, the soil will need to be supplemented, find time to water them every day, when am I going to get to Home Depot, I’ll need to stock up on Neem oil, what if I go out of town, get some herbs too, I have to put up fencing for the pests… Nevermind, I’m not starting a garden.”

(stares at ceiling)

Life doesn’t come at you all at once. You can’t complete 10 tasks simultaneously, so don’t think of them that way. Just slow down and get started on step one. Time will happen, and you’ll move on to step two.

A new hack I’ve been using to circumvent this problem is saying, “Today I’m going to begin thinking about working on X.” Then, 90% of the time, I’ll gently start the activity and completely finish it without the overwhelm having a fucking chance to creep in.

If you’re only thinking about starting the project and maybe gathering some necessary supplies in the corner for later, there’s no pressure, no expectations, nothing to worry about. Start moving like it ain’t no thing either way.

Boom, task is complete, and your brain never even registered all the steps involved. You just did them.

You gotta sneak up on that fucker sometimes. Try it.

10. Snacks

I already spoke about losing appetite and neglecting physical sensations. On a similar but opposite token, I get way snacky when I’m not mentally sound.

I would say, step one is not eating for a week… step two is overindulging by constantly, mindlessly, shoving crunchy things into my mouth when I’m not even hungry. (Yeah, I get that it’s part of the starvation response, too. Don’t worry. I know about my bad habits.)

When you’re overwhelmed or unsure of what to do with your time, you don’t have the energy to answer any texts, everything low-grade hurts, and you’ve been dissociated from your gut for a few weeks already, what do you do?

Well, I fill my hours and about 10% of my attention with snacks instead of (here we go again) making decisions about how to spend my time. Sound familiar?

Turn on Netflix, sort of watch an entire series, and pile a bag of Doritos into your mouth like someone’s coming to take them away. Have trouble sleeping, decide to grab a snack, and spend 2 hours eating peanut butter in bed while you scroll through imgur until 2am. Mmhmm. Have a spare night to yourself, get depressed about a text you were expecting, and eat your way through 3 days of food.

Were you hungry at any point? Nah. Did you even particularly enjoy the food? Barely even noticed it beyond the first bite. Do you now have five new pounds of fat hanging around your midsection to feel ashamed about? Yep. Will that somehow make you eat more, cuz fuck it? Yiiiiip.

Whenever I stop dissociating and remember that my body still exists down there, I will be furious with myself. Then I will be more anxious and depressed because I’m embarrassed and self-berating. Ah, yes, the joys of distracted anxiety snacking.

SO, before it gets to the point of ruining your body condition, like it used to for me, just try to keep an eye on yourself every day. It’s cool if your body fluctuates a few pounds every month. Sometimes I just need a fucking lazy day with a box of Cocoa Rice to recoup, but I try to be aware of my macronutrient balance, my sugar intake, and the possibility that I just need to chug some goddamn water and take a hike before I mindlessly eat the whole pantry.

It’s easy to get lost in the moment, but in hindsight, you know when you had a bad snack day. You can feel it and see it in the sober light of day. And you know this sin must be balanced out with exercise and no-shit-snack days. Plural – “days.” Because it’s easier to shove calories in than it is to work them off.

No excuses. Ya made this bed.

Is it easier to just keep your snack pantry empty and your meals at designated times? Leave bad foods at the grocery store? Keep snacks away from your bedtime relaxation space? Don't work with foods and drinks to buffer the boredom?

Yeah… ugh. Regimented and boring. But your body will thank you.

And there you have it, ten more-subtle signs of anxiety from the JBean book of fuckery to look out for.

Take note of your sneakiest anxiety symptoms and write them down somewhere to seal in the learning. I know that sounds like overkill, but your mind is a tricky place. When you’re anxious, you probably won’t remember your list of stupid behaviors – so leave yourself clues, like Momento.

When you’re anxious, you probably won’t remember your list of stupid behaviors – so leave yourself clues, like Momento.

If you recognize how you’re feeling, you can change how you’re thinking. Check in regularly, catch warning signs early, and hopefully you can set your brain back on the right track before the train runs off the rails.

I can’t be the only one discovering new things about themselves in quarantine. What subtle symptoms of anxiety or depression have you noticed? How do you deal?