World Health Organization experts agree that the spread of COVID-19 is going to get worse before it gets better. For those in the Western hemisphere, the threat is no longer far away in China. It is now at our doorstep. Taking aim at our beloved sports events, our hospitals, our schools, our tireless healthcare workers, police and even the US national treasure, Tom Hanks.
As recently as this weekend, like many of us, I was weighing travel decisions for spring break. Now, four days later, it’s clear a no-go is the only decision. Things are changing quickly. Panic is setting in and we need to manage our fear in order to get through this together.
Our brains are wired for short-term threats
Humans are wired to act on more present threats than the distant future. The thought of climate change is a far less threat to our brain than a baseball screaming at our head. There has been much written about the perils of the evolution of our short-term, problem-solving brain.
Now that the COVID-19 is a clear and present danger our brains are ready to go on the defensive. And, boy are we ready! First, we saw the supply of face masks depleted, then hand sanitizer, and now in some countries, toilet paper.
8 ways to prepare and not panic during the COVID-19
Educate yourself. Find a credible source like the World Health Organization. Read up. Write down any questions you have and follow-up with your doctor, local public health office, local government, and school system for more specific information. Writing down your questions and getting answers is a much more productive way of dealing with them than letting them spin in your problem-solving brain. And, let’s face it, if there’s an absence of information, we tend to make up stuff, and it’s not usually positive. We are hardwired to see threats, not opportunities.
Limit your social media and news cycle time – If there was ever a time to put your phone down, it’s now. Especially if social media is making you anxious, confused, or irritated. (Wait, isn’t this every day? wink wink) There are many “health experts” on social media who are not qualified to provide information as well as their cousins — alarmists and pot-stirrers. Unfollow them for 30 days or forever. Your life satisfaction will improve drastically. Admittedly, I don’t have any empirical data to support that claim – it’s just a keen hunch. Also, stay out of the endless media news cycle. It’s not healthy. In this information age, you can go to sites (online/on-air) when you need information. Take control and don’t let information be constantly pushed at you.
Lean into your fear. Remember Stuart Smalley from Saturday Night Live? (The hyperlink includes one of my favorite bits with basketball legend Michael Jordan). Stuart would replace his negative thoughts with a positive affirmation. This is a classic cognitive-behavioral technique. His famous affirmation when the thought occurred that he wasn’t good enough was,
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it people like me.”Stuart Smalley
Stuart used a technique to replace negative thoughts with positive ones. While it is true that stopping a thought negative thought and reframing with a positive one is a strategy that can work. Over time, it can backfire on us. The way language works in our brains is that it is relational. Therefore, with repeated use replacing a negative thought with a positive one, the thoughts become associative and related. Meaning, our brains can equate a fearful or harmful thought to the positive one. While it’s an innocuous answer, try saying hot to yourself and then, pause. Wait for it! After the pause, often, the word “cold” will come to mind. This is the relational nature of how our brain learns language.
Instead, try leaning into your fear and defuse it. Let me explain. Many of us might experience “What IF” questions. “What IF my elderly father gets COVID-19, What IF my child gets it, What if we go somewhere and someone is infected.” What IF” questions are natural in life. But, when they become looping, repetitive, and drain our energy and focus, we need to make a change. Try this technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy which is rooted in research and mindfulness.
- Make a distinction from the thinking mind and the observing mind.
- Your thinking mind produces the thought, for example, “What if my 90-year-old father gets COVID-19?”
- Your observing mind then notices the thought. And uses curiosity. Why am I worried about this? The answer would be something like, “I love him and am afraid of losing him.”
- Even the act of noticing that thought vs. being in can bring you some relief.
- Next, thank your thinking mind for being concerned about your father. After all, it is doing its job.
- Give your fear a shape or a color. This will help defuse the fear. You might notice your heart rate reduces and the charge of the thought reduces. You might have to practice this a few times and it’s best to do it when you are really caught in the thought loop.
- If you really want to take action on the thought, write it down. Then, write out the constructive ways to address the legitimate concern for your father instead of swimming in the anxiety and fear. For example, you could write a letter letting him know how much he means to you, you can make sure he doesn’t have to go out for groceries, etc. These positive actions are often helpful, constructive and can remove our suffering. Sometimes, it literally just takes defusing the fear to release it. We give it less power by leaning into it. It sounds counterintuitive, but it works. Note: This technique works best when the emotion doesn’t match the facts. So, in this case, if your father is in a safe place, has food and is well-cared for and the fact is that he is at low-risk in his current situation and you keep obsessing that he is going to become ill, then, writing down the fear and making the actions logical is helpful.
Help Others – We are relational beings — our survival depends upon it. Help others who are in need and at risk. If you know of people who are in high-risk categories, drop them a note in their mailbox, InBox, or call them to see if you can run an errand for them. Make sure they are still in connection with others. Isolation can cause stress for humans and reduce the immune system. Set-up a daily time to talk to them on the phone or a free video service like Skype or Google Hangouts.
Be with your kids – Spend quality time with your family. With the cancellations of events, schools, and adults working from home, use the time for positive connection. Play board games, draw, exercise, and answer any questions they may have. Limit their screen use, too – never a bad idea under any circumstances.
Go to Nature – Mother Nature is our best healer. She is the conduit to a feeling that there is something bigger than ourselves, and can change our brain by improving our moods. She’s a powerhouse! Plus, all that quality time with your kids is going to require a change of scenery. Especially if you have two active tweens, as we do. Take your kids out in nature! They might complain at first, but they always adapt and get into it. I’m still amazed at the hours our boys can spend skipping rocks or playing by the side of a stream. And, I’m equally amazed by how fun it is when I join them despite my inability to improve my rock skipping skills.
Practice Gratitude – Gratitude keeps the mind focused on the present moment and the beauty in our lives. During times of crisis, our ego wants to take over and worry about the future and wish for calmer times in the past. Keep a gratitude journal or at mealtime have each family member share something they are grateful for in the present moment. Not what happened yesterday, but something they are feeling or having right now. It’s never too late to teach young and old this simple mindfulness technique.
Practice Compassion – Elizabeth Gilbert one of my favorite authors and people I admire just posted a helpful reminder on Instagram:
“Overreacting to people overreacting Another form of overreacting.”Elizabeth Gilbert Post on Instagram
Judging others is another way our ego keeps our identity safe, right. and in charge. Resist acting on the judgment. Notice it with the observing mind. And, then, put your attention on your heart. It always has the right answers. We don’t need our ego to practice compassion for others during this challenging time.
Stay safe and remember to choose love not fear.