When I first moved from the city to the suburbs, I noticed an odd calm wash over me. I felt my muscles unclench like my body was exhaling for the first time in years. I wasn’t sure why this was happening to my body, but the next time I drove back into the city and felt my shoulders tense, I realized what was occurring. My body was reacting to the increased level of vigilance I felt I needed to exist in when I was in the city. There are more people in the city than in the suburbs and those people in the city are riding bikes, taking the bus, driving cars, taking the light rail, riding in taxis, walking on the sidewalks and crossing streets. In the suburbs I only had to be vigilant of other cars. I could relax more when I was in public because there were fewer people and fewer modes of transportation that I had to be mindful of. The release of the extra vigilance from my life was palpable. More vigilance means more anxiety in my life.
I’m reminded of my body’s reaction to what I call "vigilance anxiety" often during the pandemic. Being socially vigilant means being aware of not just your own space and person, but of others’ as well. We all assume a certain amount of vigilance anxiety when we are in public spaces. We have to navigate traffic and other people, but having to by hyper vigilant, which the pandemic often requires, is a new way of being for many people in public. Having to be aware of social distancing space, the continual adjustment of personal boundaries and navigating the spectrum of other people’s comfort with spacial awareness is causing me a near constant level of anxiety when I'm in public. It’s like a current that runs under every experience I have in spaces when I’m near other people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about how anxiety affects my life, it’s that it acts to pull me out of the present moment. The more anxiety I have, the less present I am and the less present I am, the less likely it is that I’m presenting my best self to the world.
We all have differing levels of vigilance we need to have when we are in public spaces. I’m reminded that some people have more need to be hyper vigilant in our society, often because of the marginalized identities they hold. Often times their lives depend on them being hyper vigilant as they navigate public spaces. As a woman, I am more vigilant in dark, secluded places because experience tells me I may be at risk of danger in these spaces. As a lesbian, I’m vigilant of what situations and to whom I disclose my sexual identity, as some spaces and people are safer than others. I often wonder what is the cost to us as human beings for needing to be hyper vigilant? What price do we pay in the form of our mental health for the need to be overly vigilant in public spaces?
I don’t have any answers to these questions, I just know that there is a cost and often times the price is high. Anytime we are pulled from the present moment for needing to be vigilant, we are stripped of a portion of our humanity because we are taken into the flight, fight, freeze responses of anxiety inducing situations. More often than not these days, we are required to be in these states of reaction to anxiety; the pandemic requires it. Imagine being in the fight, flight, freeze mode for the majority or all of your time in public spaces. I’m sure there are many people holding marginalized identities who exist in this place of hyper vigilant anxiety far too much.
I’m aware that a certain amount of vigilance is necessary to be a good citizen and neighbor. I don’t want to be a person who only thinks about my own space and safety in public. I want to be vigilant of others’ health and safety; this makes me a better human being. Perhaps that is what leaves me feeling anxious at having to be more vigilant in public spaces these days, the knowledge that not everyone is being vigilant of and for other people. There needs to be a balance in how we’re all vigilant for ourselves and for each other’s safety. Our mental health depends on it and for many people, their very lives depend on it.