Keeping Calm During Coronavirus
A Practical Guide for Over-thinkers and News Junkies
Coronavirus is in the air.
I’m referring not just to infectious particles, but to the infectious mood that has gripped our nation and put the world on edge. Some are more concerned than others. But no one can deny the anxious, tenuous feeling that has taken hold around the globe.
I do not thrive in these situations. I am a ruminator by nature. I spend lots and lots of time in my own head. My usual response to the abject horrors of the daily news cycle — natural disasters, mass shootings, political upheavals, and the like — is to dive even further into that news cycle. I’m prone in these situations to lose myself in endless, mindless, and ultimately fruitless scrolling. And watching. And texting. A gluttonous consumption of content.
Cost/Benefit of News Cycle Saturation
There’s a short-term payoff in this rumination and content consumption.
First, it creates the illusion of productivity. “Staying on top” of the news-cycle feels like I’m doing something; like I’m taking the situation into my own hands by staying in the know; like I’m gaining an edge. This is nonsense, of course. A fantasy. Remaining responsibly informed matters. But, the Law of Diminishing Returns quickly kicks in.
The more tangible, short-term benefit of this content consumption is the accompanying numbing effect that it achieves, by which my fears and anxieties are muted, stuffed deep down below the level of consciousness. The news articles and YouTube videos and texting with friends — it keeps me busy and distracted, and acts as a sedative in that way.
But a sedative isn’t a cure. The underlying feelings remain. And inevitably, the sedative wears off. The feelings seep out. They take hold of my mood. They make me irritable. Tired. Unable to focus.
Choosing a Different Reaction
For a while now I’ve wanted to cultivate a different way of being in the face of these scary moments. The other night, I had a breakthrough. I attribute this breakthrough to a practice that I’ve recently instituted: I’ve banned my iPhone from the bedroom.
As I sat in bed, I began to ruminate about coronavirus. Here’s a picture into my head:
That one friend posted on Facebook today saying he reviewed the medical papers and that this whole thing is totally overblown.
But then someone on Twitter said his aunt is an epidemiologist and she told him that — and I’m quoting the aunt now — it’s “going to be really bad.”
Oh, God, this is going to be really bad, isn’t it?
They’re saying the fatality rate could be 2%. Doesn’t sound like much — but that’s basically the Spanish Flu.
Didn’t I just see an episode of Downton Abbey where one of the daughters died of Spanish Flu? It looks horrible, just awful. Can you imagine?
My daughter is only one year old. She is so vulnerable. How will we ever protect her?
Now, usually my first step would be to reach for my iPhone. In theory, I would be researching the answers to my queries, the latest updates — everything I need to stay ahead of the curve. In practice, I’d be looking to escape the overwhelming feelings before they fully surfaced and I had to deal with them.
But thanks to my new practice, I had no iPhone to reach for. I was forced, instead, to process those feelings, as opposed to pushing them away. When I emerged from that process, I felt more calm, more at peace, more in control despite recognizing how little control I actually had.
Here’s how I did it (and how you can, too):
Step One – Feel Your Feelings 100%
I think most of us intuitively understand that rejecting/denying our feelings is a futile endeavor. We don’t have to let our emotions control us. But when we avoid those emotions, they do just that. They grab the reins, and take us on a wild ride. Instead, we should acknowledge our feelings. Honor them. Engage with them.
One way to do this is to get out of your head and into your body. It may help to close your eyes, and scan your body. What do you feel? Where do you feel it? Lock into that sensation. Bring all of your attention to it. Get acquainted. These are cues. They’re pointing to the feelings that are dominating your current state, whether you are consciously aware of it or not.
I felt a tightness in my shoulders and butterflies in my stomach. I noticed that my hands were clenched. My heart was beating faster than normal. You know, “fight or flight” stuff. That made sense. My body was responding to a perceived threat. That threat wasn’t a literal pouncing lion in the room with me. More like a figurative pouncing lion in my thoughts.
Step Two – Acknowledge and Accept What is So
So much of our pain is a self-inflicted wound fueled by our own resistance. We resist what we don’t like. We deny what is so. We rebel against how it is.
Step Two is about shifting from resistance to acceptance. This circumstance is so, whether I like it or not. This is happening. We can’t go backwards in time. There can be no reality in which this is not happening. It sounds simple. But it’s a major step, a paradigm-shifting moment.
It’s too early to understand the true extent of the impact of coronavirus. But we know enough to know that the threat is real. So in Step Two, I spent some time dwelling in that acceptance. I may get coronavirus, and I may not. My family might get it, and they may not. It may be a pandemic of Spanish Flu proportions, and it may not. It may wreak irrevocable havoc on my 401k, and it may not. These outcomes are all frightening and also (largely) outside of my control. The uncertainty is part of what’s so.
And here’s the key: the energy I’m putting into resisting that uncertainty is exacerbating its effects. There’s a paradox at play here. The moment you relinquish the illusion of control, is the moment you feel more in control. The moment you give up resisting the bad feelings, is the moment you feel less bad. On a fundamental level, that’s because we’re shifting our relationship to reality, seeing it for what it is, and relating to it appropriately.
I feel like it’s important to say: this isn’t magic. You can’t flip a button and move from crippling fear to serene acceptance. But by intentionally acknowledging difficult feelings and cultivating a mood of acceptance around what is so, you stand a good chance. By losing yourself to the endless onslaught of coverage, rumor-mongering, and hysteria…you stand no chance at all.
Step Three – Take Action Where You Can
Now, I can’t change what is so. This we have established. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t do anything at all. From a place of acceptance, I can now look to taking concrete, tangible steps that I can take, without losing myself in the process, or living in the illusion that the ultimate control is in my hands.
In my case, I realized that I can:
- Wash my hands throughout the day (and encourage my family to do the same).
- Stock up on canned goods in the event of a quarantine.
- Renegotiate the travel plans that I currently have booked for the next several months.
- Check the CDC website (and perhaps some other reputable news sites) periodically to stay up to date.
- Think twice before going to crowded places.
- Delete news apps from my phone and ask a friend who remains in the loop to keep me posted regarding major developments or actionable precautions.
The key is to take a page from the Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
I will do these things — and then I will do no more. I will take precautions — but I will also live my life. I will be present. I will enjoy time with my friends and family. I will make the most of each moment. Because in the end, that really is all that I can do.