Coronavirus and the (temporary) loss of what we take for granted: How to keep on going.
At the beginning, the coronavirus outbreak was an experience witnessed from a distance, like so many other world crises. Week after week, it is also becoming more real and relevant in this part of the world. From my observation point in Manhattan, I still see people in denial and also see people filled with anxiety. But, what I also see is an increase in irritability, anger, feeling stuck, a sense of sadness, and a feeling of disorientation and deflation. For people who have had experiences of trauma, this outbreak can be more triggering. Since there is so much good advice already circulating about how to deal with anxiety, I will focus here mostly on the other negative feelings.
The (temporary) loss of what we take for granted.
It is not surprising to me that people experience so many feelings. Our life all of a sudden has changed. In this part of the world, we may be familiar with individual catastrophes, but we are not used to serious changes and preoccupations that involve the entire country, except, perhaps, September 11. Hopefully, this will only be in the short term. This loss of things that we take for granted, like the healthiness of the air we breathe, and a diminished sense of our basic sense of safety, can make us feel not only anxious, but also sad, lonely, deflated and irritable. We have to rethink every move we make and be in a continuous self-observing mode, which can be quite tiring. Relationships among people have become less natural. We are changing our greeting rituals and have reduced bodily contact. There is a strange nervousness in the subway. Touching our faces, and each other, are loving and soothing gestures and we have to forgo much of that now. Our bodily habits have changed and we are re-learning how and when to wash our hands, we are noticing how often we do actually touch our faces and are trying to refrain from doing that. The good news is that we are not powerless in this situation. We can contribute to containing the virus by following the guidelines and avoiding social gatherings and crowded places, even if at times this interferes with our sense of freedom, our desires, and our comfort. The Italian government put it this way to its citizens: “We asked your grandfathers to go to war, we are asking you to stay at home.” This should also be our motto here.
How to keep a sharp mind in difficult times.
To limit the spread of the virus, many people are working from home. This may be a welcome change for some people, but this change of routine can reduce productivity and the isolation and lack of instant and seamless feedback from colleagues can make one feel doubtful and disoriented. In just a few days all of our routines and the community that was part of our lives have changed. To minimize these difficulties, remember that these changes are only temporary. For now, it is important to figure out how to make things work for you. Here are a few suggestions:
Build into your morning and night routines a little ritual, even a moment of silence of one minute will do, when you set your intentions for the following day. Also, build more structure, because the usual structure is not in place now. Create, ahead of time, a work plan and also set some time to troubleshoot against possible distractions. At this time, it is important to monitor your thoughts, to make sure you are not falling into catastrophic and negative thinking. Listen to your internal conversation and dial it back to a realistic level of concern, and eschew unhelpful apocalyptic scenarios. Focus on what you need to do at the moment to keep you safe and well so that you can thrive in the long run. If you create a schedule for the day and you mark it down on paper, or on your electronic calendar, chances are that you will be more productive and less prone to sit in a loop of negativity and worry.
Also, throughout the day, make sure you take satisfying breaks and connect with others. You need to find ways to refuel. If you can, refrain from focusing and talking to people only about what is going on in virusland and refrain from watching the news 24/7. Stay informed but fill yourself also with love and laughter. It is OK to find humor in coronavirus; humor helps release tension and helps your nervous system to not be in a constant alarm mode. For instance, the other day, I had a moment of banter with my colleague Mary in the bathroom of our office. We have been complaining for years about the broken soap dispenser and the lack of hot water and that the management did nothing. But suddenly yesterday the soap dispenser was working. I said in disbelief: “It took a pandemic of coronavirus to get soap in this bathroom, I hope we’ll never get hot water!” We laughed heartily, which was quite uplifting.
Watch out for irritability and unhelpful communications.
Not being able to control this outbreak, feeling vulnerable, and working from home could also make you feel cooped up and irritable toward the other people you are stuck at home with, who like you, may be irritated and anxious (and sometimes also guilty and concerned about the loved and sickly ones that are out of reach). Be mindful of your and other people’s experiences. When you notice the irritation mounting in you, or the person in front of you, avoid angry outbursts by taking time out. Going out these days may not be the best option, but you can take a moment to breathe and re-center or take a tea to soothe and distract yourself. Discharge the frustration with movement, move to a private space and start shaking your hands vigorously, as if they were wet, as if you were getting rid of the tension. Shake your entire body, by unlocking your knees and moving up and down, with arms hanging loose and limp like wet ropes and with your head bobbing, just like my qigong master, Robert Peng, teaches in his videos. Another way to re-center, may be to take a shower and imagining that the stress is being washed away. With anxiety, as well as with anger and sadness, feelings are intensified if you focus on them, creating a narrative and escalating the chatter. Keep informed and connected, but do not allow your thoughts to loom in your mind for the whole day. Another way to feel more powerful and become distracted from current events can be to divert part of our worrying energy to the service of others: who do you know who may need some help or a kind word?
· Be compassionate with your reactions and emotions
· Be compassionate with the reactions and emotions of others
· Watch out for negative and catastrophic thinking
· Take steps to reorient yourself and create structures to keep you focused and centered
· Stay informed
· Protect yourself
· Accept the temporary losses in the richness of your life
· Appreciate how your life is rich, and how much you had taken for granted
· If you can keep an eye on others in need, do so
· Seek moments of pleasure and community, even if virtually, and take humorous breaks