Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living Through A Pandemic - When the Real is Surreal

"We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” - Thich Nhat Hanh
"The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have." - Epictetus

Veggie bags, scaly hands, itchy faces, and fear
Last week driving through town, it looked a lot like 7am on Thanksgiving, the roads eerily quiet and empty until arriving at the jam-packed supermarket parking lot. Along the way, I start to notice some tightness around my chest, slight brain fog, and a tickle in my throat.  “Is it Coronavirus?” a voice inside my head shouted with the alarm and fervor of George Costanza’s iconic Seinfield scene “Is it Lupus?” I softened my shoulders and reminded myself, more likely it’s anxiety. Under normal circumstances, I may not have even noticed these fleeting physiological sensations. After all, a minute ago I was feeling fine. In the past few days, many people have shared their own accounts of feeling worried by a cough or sneeze, wondering if they may have the virus, and then moments later realizing they are actually feeling okay.

Living through a pandemic, you notice lots of things you may not have realized before, like how difficult it is to open grocery store vegetable bags with dry fingers, how quickly hands chap from repeated washings, the number of times you touch your face, or have the urge to do so, and how narrow your focus becomes when fear encompasses you. Remembering the function of fear is to keep us alive, and the narrowing of attention helps our brain make predictions about our safety or danger and is a survival mechanism, hopefully knowing this will help with understanding why our fear persists.  After all, we are living through a global pandemic.

Not surprisingly, people are feeling vigilant, alert systems are activated, carefully observing updates to the situation. Wherever we turn, we are told about the danger of contagion, for ourselves, our loved ones, and others all around the world. With our threat systems in overdrive in anticipation about how long the pandemic will last, the potential loss of life, and, for now, the end of life as we know it, many experience thought loops, repeating worries in their minds.  Over an extended period of time, this is a recipe for depletion and gloom.

Individuals with a trauma history or propensity towards anxiety will want to notice if they are experiencing hyper-vigilance, another of the mind’s ways of seeking protection.  Behaviors such as obsessive watching over one’s surroundings, anticipating danger and threat at every corner. Being constantly on guard, having an increase of startle reflex, overreacting to things happening around you, and difficulty sleeping, may be connected to this amplified state of alertness. Physical elements are not always present, but may include dilated pupils, rapid breathing, restlessness, sweating, and/or an increased heartbeat.

Anxiety wants us to do something, take action. Noticing where you have control can push away despair 

With so many things out of our control these days, it can help to reflect on what is in one’s control. How we think about things, what we pay attention to, and what we say to ourselves are all great places to start. Focused intention and attention will assist you in weathering this long storm.  Allow whatever emotions show up to be there, take the time to label your emotions, their intensity from 1-10, and identify the physical sensations you are experiencing. These are all strategies that will help with managing your emotions.

Other Actions 
Offering help to a neighbor or calling someone you know who is self-quarantined due to their age or health conditions are steps that can help with one’s own feelings of isolation or helplessness.

Leave some essential supplies at the store for the next person, so there is enough for everyone.
Being a good community member helps the person arriving at the store out of supplies the ability to take care of themselves and loved ones.

If you have the option to donate time or resources to local food pantries or community services in need of extra help, there are people who have been laid off, struggling to make ends meet; in need of assistance.

Ask yourself, “How can I use this time at home to make my life better in some way?” It may be cleaning out your closets, DIY home improvement projects, organizing your photos, creative activities, or simply deleting old emails. Using this time to take care of things you have put off is a way of refocusing yourself away from thinking of what you are currently missing.

If you can't think of something to do, work backwards and ask yourself, “When this is all over, what will you be glad you completed or started? How do you want to spend the time you have? What does managing a crisis look like for you?” These can be your gauges for navigating through this time of uncertainty.

Dedicate time every day to being outside, or if mobility or temperature interfere, sit by a window, listen to the birds chirping and feel the sunlight on your face. Intentionally sitting quietly can be soothing.

To decrease anxiety, limit time watching the news 

As Dr. Christine Padesky, Co-founder of the Center for Cognitive Therapy, says, “While COVID-19 is here with us all the time, we don't need to be reading and learning about it all the time. Checking the news once or twice a day allows you to stay informed about relevant updates.”

Being engaged in the here and now can lower anxiety. You may have noticed when you are cooking a meal, talking to a loved one, or going for a walk and not listening to news about the coronavirus, you feel better; calmer.

Gratitude and Perspective Taking

Gratitude is another way to shift your attention, and helps switch perspective from the narrow focus of danger to an expansive sense of hope and appreciation.

While living through a global pandemic, what in your life is going okay?
Spend some time thinking about this. The act of writing your answers down is considered to be an effective way of establishing a sense of wellness.  If that’s not going to happen because you don’t like writing, or are not someone who would ever do that,  you can still do the exercise thinking about what is going okay for you, your loved ones, neighbors and acquaintances, and community at large.

Noticing any possible upside or perks to being home and slowing down can also decrease anxiety.

Sending good wishes to others may also offer you comfort.

Places to rest your mind 
Imagery such as a safe space can help calm the mind.

Start by getting comfortable in a quiet place, and take a couple of minutes to focus on your breathing, close your eyes, become aware of any tension in your body, and with each exhale see if you can soften a little at the place of tension.

Imagine a place where you feel calm, peaceful, and safe. It may be a place you've been to before, somewhere you've dreamed about going to, somewhere you've seen a picture of, or just a peaceful place you create in your mind.

Look around you, notice the colors and shapes in this place. What else do you see?

Now notice the sounds around you, or perhaps the silence. Sounds close to you and the sounds further away.

Notice the smells in this safe place.  Perhaps the salty air of a beach, flowers or cut grass in a meadow, or the  fresh scent of a cozy blanket 

Then focus on any skin sensations - the earth beneath you or whatever is supporting you in that place, the temperature, any movement of air, anything else you can touch.

Take in the pleasant physical sensations in your body while you enjoy this safe place.

You may choose to give your peaceful and safe place a name, whether one word or a phrase that you can use to bring that image back, anytime you need to.

You can choose to linger here for a while, enjoying the peacefulness and serenity.

You can leave whenever you want to, just by opening your eyes and being aware of where you are 'here and now'.  Remember your safe place is always there for you and can offer a mental vacation while in quarantine.

Guided Meditation - Modified Breathing Space
An additional mindfulness exercise to help step out of automatic pilot, slow down, and pay attention to the present moment is called a Modified Breathing Space. It’s my recording and is free to download or stream on SoundCloud:
Modified Breathing Space

Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty. Letting your mind and body rest, restore, & recharge is something you can do to help you get through this pandemic. Learning and practicing mindfulness can help you notice and identify the experiences going on inside you.

Remember, we are all in this together!

There’s a vast amount of wonderful free resources to learn more about mindfulness and compassion online. Here are just a few: