With phrasing, like “shelter in place” and “social distancing” any self-respecting binge-watcher may mistake the present state of the world as a dystopian end-of-days series streaming on one of the numerous online platforms that are, now, a normal part of life. Rest assured, this state of events is all too real; from the political posturing to the over-reactive panic to the cynical bystanders, and yes to the shocking and ever-growing fatalities.
Like many citizens of the world, Americans are no stranger to tragedy. We often look back with nostalgia on past times when we band together as a united people to move through tragedy instigated by nature or humans. Will this period be remembered as such a time? Well, that depends upon who is asking and who is answering. Some officials in positions of leadership insist that this country is maintaining its resilient and valiant status, conquering a frightful foe. Others in communities, particularly communities with few resources and higher risk for vulnerability, will argue that the line of division only grows deeper and wider between the haves and the have-nots.
What is abundantly clear, is a spectrum of responses to the pandemic known as COVID-19. Social media and news outlets are fertile grounds for arguments about how serious the impact of this coronavirus really is. By now, many have seen the footage of consumers fighting in grocery stores over the last bulk package of toilet paper, or folks who sniffle getting berated by anxious and afraid observers. This is another nostalgic image of how humans respond to tragedy, more specifically fear of tragedy. During the months, even years, following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, many people appearing to resemble middle eastern descent, even in the slightest way, were victims of ridicule or hate crimes. The same can be said about Japanese Americans after World War II, protesters and outspoken veterans in the late 60s and early 70s, and African Americans throughout much of their history on American soil. These reactions to fear are not unique to the United States; they are renowned in all corners of the Earth.
Since we cannot solve the world’s problems in one conversation, let’s start with addressing what we can do in regard to what is happening right now, in the present. So many people are experiencing significant spikes in anxiety, due to the current coronavirus. I’d like to extend an invitation to the people at large to be mindful, alert, and rational. It’s easy to allow the anxiety to sneak up and take control, but we don’t need to let it drive, just because it’s present. One important point is to acknowledge that anxiety and fear are not inherently bad. They come in pretty handy when causing us to pay attention to potential threats, like oncoming traffic or venomous animals protecting their space. With that said, anxiety can become overwhelming and quite paralyzing, such that its usefulness evades us. In order to help promote intentional vigilance and calm rational self-care, I’m offering some recommendations.
Consider limiting your consumption of news to once or twice per day. Take in only the necessary and helpful information. News channels constantly discussing threats and statistics of COVID-19 running as your background noise is not healthy. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association found that news consumption can lead to decreased mood, increase in anxiety, and even exacerbate anxiety about content not directly related to the broadcast (Johnston, Davey, 2001). If you need background noise, consider a lighthearted television show or music. Alternatively, and more highly recommended, try silence. It’s peaceful.
Be mindful and intentional with your communication. Since many of us will be confined to our homes, or required to maintain physical distance, one may lean more heavily on text or social media as outlets for connection. Use the technology available to your advantage. However, remember that communicating in text, especially when frequently abbreviated, is difficult to interpret inflection and tone. You may also consider old-fashioned phone calls, FaceTime, or other video chat options. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. In a 2015 study, psychologist, Dr. Julianne Holt-Lundstad, found that the absence of social connection can be as harmful to one’s health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, or abusing alcohol. Dr. Holt-Lundstad also found that social isolation and loneliness can be more harmful to physical and mental health than obesity.
Be kind and compassionate. On the topic of written communication, we all have a responsibility to be kind and compassionate. Remember, accurate interpretation of tone and inflection is difficult in text. Getting defensive, and going on a vengeful or shaming rant will likely bring more stress than resolution. Consider to whom you want to give permission and power to judge you or determine your value. Also, consider that your life’s mission may not be to change the mind of an acquaintance or stranger on social media. If you’re inclined to post an alternate point of view, exercise your right to do so, and leave it.
When given the opportunity, Go Outside! You cannot contract coronavirus from trees. Yes, there is still a need to maintain a healthy distance from people outside your home (at least six feet). There is no law prohibiting you from being in your yard, or exploring the wilderness on a rural minimally populated hiking trail. As with other recommendations, just be mindful of your space and the boundaries of others. Believe it or not, being in forests actually improves immunity. In fact, one study found that being in the forest for as little as one day can boost “natural killer cells” in our bodies, thereby improving our immune system for up to seven days (Li Q, et al, 2007).
Avoid filling the voids of boredom with random activities or distractions. Instead, be intentional. Try meditation, yoga, mindful walking, or get creative with art. In times of being confined to our homes, movement is important and healthy mind stimulation are crucial.
Be mindful of impulsive online shopping. Retailers, like most of us, are worried about negative financial impacts. Their marketing may become more appealing than ever. If you need it, or actually want it, who am I to advise against it? Just pause and pay attention to why you’re buying the item. Did you open that online shopping app only because you’re bored? Have you been wanting/needing this item for a long time, and it’s finally on sale? Pay attention to what is actually happening for you and why you’re engaging in any particular behavior, shopping included.
Be intentional about what you put in your body. For some folks, boredom can lead to excessive eating and/or excessive consumption of alcohol, or mindless snacking. When we are stagnate, it’s important to pay extra attention to what we consume. You may not burn off what you put on quite as easily.
Finally, stay present with thoughts. When emotions are more sensitive to reactivity, we tend to invent stories about the future. For instance, some folks talk about conspiracies, how long the pandemic restrictions will last, or how quarantine means restriction of anything outside for months. Our minds will wonder, and we may even fantasize; that’s okay. Just recognize that thoughts are not facts. Just because you have a thought that the world is ending, does not mean that it actually is. You have permission to access the present rational self, and be curious about those ominous thoughts. Curiosity tends to lead to information and awareness. Judgment and reaction tend to generate stories of threat and survival.
Perhaps, you want to use this time to reconnect with yourself. Get to know who you actually are; aside from who you’re supposed to be in your professional role, or who you keep trying to be in order to be happy. Learn about the authentic and genuine you. Likewise, you may get to know close loved ones on a deeper level.
One amazing and effective way to practice staying present is through meditation. What better time than now to incorporate a daily meditation practice? Start small; 5 - 10 minutes, and work your way up from there. If you notice that you need some guidance, no worries. There are several guided meditation apps out there. Just search your app store, and you’re sure to find several. Try them out to see what you like and what you don’t. Steer clear of the recordings claiming to change your life in one sitting. All you really need is to focus on your breath, and practice letting the thoughts pass by without giving too much attention or gravity to them.
There is no one way to navigate this pandemic, anymore than other times of tragedy. One simple and consistently effective way to move through challenging times is by paying attention on purpose, viewing self and others through a lens of curiosity and compassion. Try it; you might like it.
Holt-Lundstad, J., Smith, T., Baker, M, Harris, T., Stephenson, D. (2015) Perspectives on Psychological Science, Vol. 10, No. 2
Johnston, W., Davey, G. (2011). The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. The British Journal of Psychology. www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com. Viewed March 20, 2020.
Li, Q., Morimoto, K., Nakadai, A., et al. (2007). Forest bathing enhances natural killer activity and expression of anti-cancer proteins. International Journal of Immunopathological Pharmacology. 2 Supp 2, p. 3-8.