Don’t Panic – Keep Things in Perspective
Just one month ago I posted The Essential Elements of a Very Good Day. And those elements are still true:
1. Doing one thing at a time
2. Doing activities that have meaning and depth
3. Enjoying resonant connections with good friends
Then the COVID-19 coronavirus began spreading, and news of the severity of the virus began spreading, and understandable concern verging on panic began spreading.
Of course, we all want to be response-able: cautious, informed, and careful. We also want to be compassionate, informed, and courageous in meeting our fears and other people’s fears. I’ve spent much of the last month soothing other people’s fears, helping them calm their nervous systems (and my own). Here are my essential elements for “keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs.”
* Conscious awareness of the state of your health and of your nervous system
* Take all needed precautions and make all needed preparations
* Manage the emotional contagion
* Manage uncertainty
* Keep everything in a larger perspective
* Look for the helpers
* Trust life
Conscious awareness of the state of your health and of your nervous system
Notice when you’re coughing, sneezing, becoming fatigued. Follow the precautions linked below and get more sleep.
Notice when you’re getting too revved up – anxious, worried, losing your balance and teetering into panic; or you’re shutting down, going into denial, head in the sand, becoming immobilized and not taking wise action. We need our higher brain online and functioning well to meet any potential disaster, and we need to distinguish between a genuine disaster and fears fueled by local and social media.
Try the box breathing recommended in last week’s post Why Some People Survive a Disaster – and Others Don’t to return your nervous system to its range of resilience.
Take all needed precautions and make all needed preparations
This is still the link to the best available precautionary information about COVID-19 I have found, with a fact checking/correction sent in by a conscientious reader: that the virus stays active on surfaces/clothing for a few hours to a few days, not a full week. Another reader sending in the research that validates soap, plain ole ordinary soap, is the best protection against the virus because it reliably dissolves the virus. And here’s the link again to the official Center for Disease Control fact sheet. Both very straightforward and truly helpful.
Manage the emotional contagion
Way back when, I heard a teenage girl tell me quite convincingly that her family no longer went to the local swimming pool because you could catch AIDS swimming in a public pool. Medical personnel and government officials are doing their best to get useful information about COVID-19 out to the public as quickly as possible. In this age of the internet, much of it has already gone viral. But panic can go viral, too, much more quickly than solid information. Our nervous systems are designed to immediately pick up the vibes of other people, no conscious processing needed. And when people around us are swimming in fear, we are going to pick that up and feel the fear in our own bodies, too, on top of whatever fears we might legitimately be feeling ourselves. (Like the bank runs during the Great Depression.)
Coincidentally, while writing this post, I’m reading the chapter on panic in the book I recommended last week, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. Panic is a visceral body-based reaction of the nervous system, the farthest we can be from clear-headed rational thinking and action. In any threat to the community at large, it’s important to differentiate our own thinking from groupthink, and our own responsiveness from other people’s reactivity. Act quickly and conscientiously, but clearly and consciously as well.
Try the Hand on the Heart exercise I always teach first in my workshops. It’s powerful enough to calm down a panic attack in less than a minute.
I’ve posted this quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald so many times in recent months:
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.
The current pandemic of the COVID-19 virus (meaning worldwide) tests our intelligence, our resilience, our faith in life. Decades ago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow for the salubrious experience of moving along in a creative-productive head space between anxiety/stress and boredom/denial. To flow in the face of this pandemic means staying grounded in normalcy, stability, structure, routine – we eat our breakfast, we get the kids off to school, we plan our day, and we know we’re headed off into the larger world where anything could happen on the way to work or to the grocery store, and that’s always true, whether we’re aware of that or not.
Try the What Story Am I Believing Now? exercise to check into ruminative worry and choose to shift it.
Keep everything in a larger perspective
When things are going well, it’s hard to remember that “bad things happen to good people.” But that is the nature of human existence. A flu, a cancer diagnosis, a car accident, a failing economy, war and famine here or elsewhere, floods-tornados-earthquakes – these things happen. We can’t always be strong enough and wise enough to keep them from happening. And people everywhere, throughout human history, cope as best as they can. Finding support in community to cope even better.
And even in the midst of the confusion and uncertainty, try, as my meditation teacher James Baraz teaches, “being grateful for everything that is going more than all right.”
Look for the helpers
Back to Fred Rogers’ good advice: notice the generosity, kindness, patience, helpfulness of your fellow human beings. When I read in the list of recommendations to stock up on zinc lozenges (don’t help with flu but do help with colds, and COVID-19 is considered a form of common cold that can lead to pneumonia), I went to the local Walgreen’s; shelves cleaned out, of course. A clerk very patiently poured through the new shipment of supplies in the back storeroom and found me two packages of zinc lozenges. Once home, I discovered the daily vitamins and calcium-magnesium-zinc supplements I take anyway already had as much zinc in them. I didn’t know. But truly it was the patient helpfulness of the clerk that also boosted my immune system.
Try the Create a Circle of Support exercise to create the virtual resources you need to calm the middle-of-the-night jitters.
Life and death are bigger than we are. I’ve treasured for years the wisdom I learned from Yvonne Rand, Zen Buddhist teacher. Acknowledging the uncertainty and impermanence of all of existence, she and her husband would say to each other every morning before they set off into their day, “We will die; we do not know when or how. I love you.” Acknowledging the uncertainty, embracing the preciousness of every moment of life we have.
Try this exercise to explore the coming and going of existence:
Wisdom tells me I am nothing.
Love tells me I am everything.
Between the two, my life flows.
– Sri Nisargadatta, I Am That
Exercise: I’m Here; I’m Not Here
Imagining your own nonexistence paradoxically helps you feel more alive now and deepens your gratitude for being alive. Your priorities can shift when you are aware that the time you have on this planet is finite and that the possibilities for your life during that time are more than enough. If you have read Stephen Levine’s A Year to Live, you will already be familiar with this exercise; it’s a practice you can do anywhere, anytime.
1. Focus your attention on your own embodiment of yourself — knowing you are in your body, walking, standing, or sitting.
2. Notice your physical surroundings: a room in your home, walking through your neighborhood, in a store.
3. Imagine everything in your surroundings still existing exactly as it is now — without you there. It still exists; you don’t.
4. Return your awareness to yourself existing in your own body right now. You do still exist — whew!
5. Play with imagining that you exist, you don’t, you do, while the landscape remains unchanged.
Playing around with being and nonbeing, developing an equanimity in the skillful flow between the two, and anchoring your resilience in that equanimity vitally strengthens your ability to cope with anything, anything at all. You experience yourself as simply one particular amazing form of that consciousness that can — does — hold everything that has ever been or will be.
Most of all, deepen your own resilience mindset. I am coping. I can learn to cope even better.