How Compassion and Empathy Can Help You Through the COVID-19 Pandemic

“As we grow more of the good inside ourselves, we have more to offer to others.”

fizkes / Shutterstock
fizkes / Shutterstock

Back in January, national security and public health experts were sounding the alarm that an epidemic – like a big storm – was coming. And now it’s here, and getting worse every day.

It’s a scary time. We’re all being tested. As individuals and families, and communities and countries.

We will get through this. There will be another side. Even after the worst events in human history, there is always eventually another side. 

How do we get there? 

Find Your Footing

Personally, I’ve been alarmed, worried about my family and other people, and trying to figure out what to do. As a psychologist, I know it’s natural to feel frozen by threats and look for an escape. But hope is not a plan.

Look for expertise, doctors and others who understand what we’re in for. Then make a plan, if only for today. Knowing that you have a good plan and that you’re following it is comforting and calming. Action can lower anxiety. 

Right now, there’s so much we can’t control, and it’s all too easy to develop “learned helplessness”, which is a slippery slope into depression. So it’s vital to focus on what you can influence, including little things. Stuck at home, maybe now is the time to finally organize the kitchen drawer. Perhaps a time to play more games with your kids, or get more exercise. Then, when you have the feeling of making a choice or being effective in some way, slow down to experience that antidote to helplessness. 

Important choices include what we are not doing these days. Some of the people who get Covid-19 will die. When the stakes are mortal, why add unnecessary risks? Giving up conveniences for a time will save lives – if not one’s own, then someone else’s. 

Calm and Center

So much of what we normally took for granted is no longer available, like the ground suddenly dissolving underfoot. It’s sinking in that we’ll be stuck with this pandemic for many months at least, and dealing with the financial and other consequences for years to come. 

People naturally ask: What’s happening to my job? What should I do if I get sick? Will my hospital have a bed for me? It’s awful not to know the answers. 

From a mental health standpoint, these stresses wear on people where they’re most vulnerable. For example, the isolation of social distancing can be especially hard for people who are trying to stay sober or who have a history of being rejected or abandoned. It’s really important to turn to professional help – if only on the telephone – if you feel distressed or a danger to yourself. 

The more challenging the outer world is, the more important it is to draw on inner strengths such as grit and compassion. Based on how the brain works, these are some simple things we can do. 

•  Bring awareness into your body. For instance, be mindful of three breaths in a row, feeling your chest rising and falling. This naturally reduces activity in the verbal centers of the brain, so there’s less anxious chatter in the mind. It also quiets the brain’s “default mode network,” which pulls you out of repetitive ruminations about the past or future. For a bonus, make one or more exhalations longer than the inhalations, engaging the parasympathetic branch of the nervous system; this slows the heartrate as you breathe out and is naturally calming.

•  Notice that you’re basically all right, right now. Sometimes we are not basically all right: maybe there’s a sudden loss or terrible physical pain. But most of the time, the body is sending signals up into the brain that are like the calls of a night watchman: “all is well.” There is enough air to breathe, the heart is still beating. There may be worry and pain, but in the core of your being, you’re still basically OK. Come into the present and recognize that this is true now, again and again, whatever the future may hold. 

•  Bring to mind times when you felt strong and determined. It might have been when you pushed through the hardest day – or year – of your life. Or kept standing hour after hour at a dying parent’s bedside. Or just kept enduring a tough childhood/illness/ job/etc.: “I’m still here.” Tune into that sense inside, and feel it again. 

•  Take in the good when you can. To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved a “negativity bias.” It routinely looks for bad news, over-focuses on it, over-reacts to it, fast tracks the experience into emotional memory, and gets increasingly sensitized and reactive. It’s like Velcro for bad experiences but Teflon for good ones. 

This worked well back in the Stone Age, but today it creates a lot of needless suffering and conflict – especially at a time of heightened stress. So it’s important to stop reinforcing negative experiences and start reinforcing positive ones. 

Because of “neuroplasticity” – how the nervous system is shaped by what we feel and think – we have the power to change our brains for the better. It’s a two-step process: (1) experience something beneficial such as gratitude for what is good in your life, and then (2) help it leave lasting traces behind in your brain. We usually skip the second step, but it’s crucial. To do it, you could stay with the experience for a breath or longer, feel it in your body, and focus on what is enjoyable or meaningful about it. 

Many times a day, we can weave gratitude, patience, and other inner strengths into the fabric of the nervous system. And as we grow more of the good inside ourselves, we have more to offer to others. 

Take Heart

With social distancing, we’re pulled away from people we enjoyed being with while often crowded together with other people who – if your family is like mine – could be starting to get on each other’s nerves. It’s a kind of double whammy. Meanwhile, there can be a creepy worry that the next person you meet might make you sick.

As challenging as this is, still, we have a fundamental power inside ourselves to open and strengthen the heart. 

For example, I was walking down the street in my neighborhood the other night and saw a father and teenage daughter coming toward me with their dog. My first reaction was to be wary of them and I stepped farther to the side – and then wondered if they were afraid of me as well. He looked tired and preoccupied, and she looked uncertain. I found myself slowing down to say hello. I could see them relax, and there was a shared shrug and grim smile at the weird days we’re in. It was just a moment and we passed on by, but I felt a little better afterward.

In the brain, positive social experiences can, in effect, ripple down the vagus nerve complex that reaches into the heart and lungs and gut, to calm and soothe them. This is one reason we relax around people we like. Oxytocin activity also tends to increase, which lowers anxiety

Simple practices really work. We’re innately empathic, but under pressure we tend to hunker down and put up walls. Instead, you can take that extra beat to listen a little more closely to that other person and imagine what they’re experiencing behind the words. This gives them the sense of feeling felt – in Dan Siegel’s lovely phrase – while helping you feel closer as well. This is the time to be extra generous with our attention, patience, kindness, and love. 

They’re stressed and scared, too. Like in a storm, surges of all kinds are battering everyone and hitting hardest those who are most vulnerable. We can deliberately practice compassion for others – simply the heartfelt wish that they not suffer – even if we disagree with them. We share a common humanity. 

And we can have compassion for ourselves, also burdened and battered by the storm, and maybe already underwater. This is not wallowing in self-pity. In fact, research shows that self-compassion makes people more resilient. We may start with compassion, but it’s not where we stop. 

As I write this and as you are now reading this, millions of people in America and around the world are working hard to deal with this pandemic and its effects. Depending on the person, they could be cleaning a hospital floor, taking care of a child who is now home from school, scrambling to find another job, or putting another patient on a ventilator. We can take heart in their efforts and they can take heart in ours, and we’ll get through this together, brothers and sisters in arms.

Rick Hanson’s book, Neurodharma, is available for pre-order here.

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