Sign of the times: anxiety is real

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TWH – Can’t find the keys or the athamé? Neither can anybody else. Yes, we may really be forgetting more than we used to, and it’s likely because of the chaotic state of the world.

Anxiety is the culprit. It impacts productivity at work, but long before it becomes obviously noticeable in work activities, it shows up in simple events like a person forgetting what they went to the back bedroom for, or being unable to keep a simple list in memory. But many of the practices of Paganism involve mindfulness and engaging the natural world in ways that protect against anxiety.


Even as the lockdown eases, the inherently stressful effects of the pandemic continue. There remains a reasonable fear about the disease, catching it, and the possibility of infecting others, especially loved ones. There is also an added burden if one falls or lives with someone who is one of the COVID-19 risk groups.

COVID-19 has also brought about significant economic pain and damage, the scope of which remains uncertain. Unemployment numbers remain historically high in many nations.

In addition to COVID-19 and its effects, many are witnessing the social changes and unrest brought about by those seeking justice through the Black Lives Matter movement.

There are constant acts of atrocity hitting our newsfeeds and television screens.  Just in the last 24 hours, these are some headlines: another black man is killed in Atlanta followed by protests, a prominent First Nations chief is tackled and punched by police in Alberta, and coronavirus cases are surging in US States, Brazil, and Russia, while re-emerging in China.

The news media is replete with stories of uncertainty and inhumanity. The stories have made it even more challenging to navigate worry, fear, and anxiety.

Anxiety affects all our functioning. We are all cautioned to recognize that it is a serious condition, regardless of whether it reaches clinically significant levels. Anxiety impacts our mental landscape and understanding of information, as well as our physical senses, through increased blood pressure and heartbeat, hormonal fluctuations, and pain awareness. Anxiety can be debilitating.

“Everything is harder,” said one of my colleagues recently. “Everything takes more effort, physical and mental… Nothing seems relaxing, and certainly not Facebook.” He added, “I also feel as though I am always busy, busier than being in the office while getting less and less done.”

The generalized anxiety and stress of the current moment have other consequences too that can make matter worse: outbursts of anger, changes in sleep patterns, weight gain, and insomnia. It can also lead to other serious issues such as the abuse of tobacco, alcohol, and other substances.

Forget-me-not flowers [Pixabay]

The forgetfulness mentioned earlier may be a sign of anxiety even when we don’t feel the anxiety in full force. Stress and anxiety can interfere with the formation of memory and inhibit recollection as well.

While forgetfulness may be a sign of more serious disease that requires the attention of a health care provider, forgetting itself is not destructive. It may have beneficial consequences that are protective. Our brains discard unnecessary information that may be unpleasant, undesirable, or unnecessary. The brain flushes inconsequential information or limits the effect of an unpleasant event. For example, a child might accidentally walk into a web or fall from a bike, become scared for a moment, but then forget about it as the day goes one.

Forgetting at a moment there is a trigger, however, may be telling us something important. About 10 years ago, researchers at the University of Notre Dame ran an experiment to determine the cause of instant amnesia.  They found that short term memory was flushed by crossing an “event horizon,” in this case, a doorway.

The working hypothesis is that the brain becomes so full of information that the moment there is a change of scene, it attempts to flush unimportant memory to keep processing the important bits of data it has stored.

The flush is a malfunction of short-term memory.  But it may be an important one that is highlighting the amount of worry and anxiety a person might be experiencing.

Last year, researchers at the University of Turku in Finland looked at the relationship between cognitive performance, working memory, and anxiety.  They focused on an online non-clinical sample of adults. They found that increased anxiety – even transient or temporary anxiety – was related to working memory performance across all cognitive tasks.

Headline-related anxiety is real. It is also normal. It is important we validate that anxiety in ourselves as well as when others share their experience and their challenges.

The American Psychological Association had registered increases in stress two years before the pandemic.

Those little acts of forgetfulness might just be our brains saying that it is time to step away from the news for a while, as well as social media. Our brains might be saying, “I’m full, time to go knit, or walk outside, or spend a little while in front of the altar.”

Much of the advice to lowering stress remains the same: take time to exercise, pace ourselves, connect with friends and loved ones, and, as many Pagans already know, breathe. But most importantly, we must give ourselves permission to feel anxiety and admit it is real.

The Center for Disease Control recognizes that all of us may feel stress given the pandemic and uncertain times.  They provide the following advice:

If you have an immediate crisis, here are resources:

Find a health care provider or treatment for substance use disorder and mental health