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What Is the Psychological Equivalent to Washing Your Hands for 20 Seconds?

Amidst all the fear and stress, this is the time to come together and support one another.

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Wavebreakmedia/ Shutterstock
Wavebreakmedia/ Shutterstock

With COVID-19 at the forefront of our minds and media outlets, how many times have we heard “stay away from large crowds”, “travel only when necessary”, “avoid shaking hands”, “strengthen your immune system”, and by all means “wash your hands a full 20 seconds”. These are all very important precautions, but a huge factor we are forgetting to mention is that our stress levels and emotions play a substantial role in our health and immune system. Little has been said about the psychological equivalent of washing your hands to maintain your emotional health during this unprecedented even

This message is a call-to-action to protect yourself not only physically but also psychologically during this time of heightened stress.

STEP ONE: in this process is to recognize that when we feel threat, especially in this world of increasing divisiveness and fear, we are more likely to react from an irrational primal place of “fight or flight.” This might mean seeing our very own neighbors in line at the store as competitors for resources or people on the street as carriers of the virus.  So how do we best function through this crisis when our instinct is to resort to a feeling of danger and dread?

STEP TWO: observe and get in touch with your personal perspective. We don’t have control of these current life circumstances, but we can control how we are responding to them. Let’s look at a few binaries to tune in to how we are emotionally reacting to this situation. 

FEAR VS. PROTECTION

When you wash your hands are you subtly, consciously or unconsciously, saying, “I’m doing this because I fear that if I don’t, I’m going to die?” Or does your self talk sound something like, “I am washing because this is the best way that I can protect myself and my loved ones?” As you crumple up your paper towel do you feel good about protecting yourself and others OR are you fueling your fears?

XENOPHOBIA V. INTERDEPENDENCE

A sign that social distancing has gone too far is when we have reduced others to simply potential “carriers of the virus”. Xenophobia, or fear of strangers, is likely to increase as we feel more and more of a sense of threat. Instead, our goal should be to feel a sense of interdependence with others, joined in a battle with a common goal. We still maintain a sense of community while also keeping a 6 feet perimeter from each other.  

WORRY VS. CONCERN

A common conviction during times like this is that the more I worry about something, the less likely it is to happen. Can you think of a particular time in your life when worrying about something decreased the chances of it happening? On the contrary, worry only serves to make you more vulnerable. Research tells us that anxiety compromises our immune system. The next time you experience that creeping feeling of dread or worry starting to gain a foothold in your cranium, see if you can alter it by stating, “yes I’m concerned about “X,Y, or Z” and here is what I am going to do about it.” 

CATASTROPHIZING VS. PLANNING

“The sky is falling; the sky is falling”. Media thrive on Chicken Little’s admonition, and take any opportunity to explain how bad things may appear to be. It is important to know that a solid plan can, and will, leave you feeling secure that you can handle whatever arises. Take back possession of your mind from media fueled fears and state that you are concerned but have an action plan that leaves you with a sense of psychological control and calm

FATALISTIC VS. OPTIMISTIC

This is probably not a good time to meander down the sidewalk singing, “Stay on the sunny side, always on the sunny side…”. But it’s not reasonable to carry a placard with, “The End is near” either. In this time of uncertainty, everything points to the fact that this pandemic will come to an end after several weeks or months. Carrying around a worst-case- scenario has an immediate high cost to you physically and psychologically. It feeds your worry, increases your threat response, and likely interferes with rational planning. Having a proactive positive plan to meet the challenge and believing in it will allow you to be optimistic.

STEP THREE: TAKE BACK POSSESSION OF YOUR MIND

They don’t call it “the grip of fear” for nothing. After evaluating which of the above binaries your current emotions fall into, start to take action to reframe and control where you are psychologically going. Observe whether these shifts leave you in a significantly different place.  “I wash my hands because this is way, I can protect myself from the virus and feel a sense of INTERDEPENDENCE with others in my community who are also experiencing this. I am CONCERNED about the seriousness or the situation and I have made a good PLAN to deal with this. I am OPTIMISTIC about the outcome.  

If you are experiencing high anxiety or you are overwhelmed, reach out to friends, clergy, psychotherapists and loved ones. This is a time to take advantage of your social network. 

While disinfecting your emotional state may not be quite as easy as a quick Purell pump, taking the 20 seconds to affirm that you have not only clean hands, but also a clear and rational attitude will greatly benefit the health and immunity of you and those around you. 

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