We walk around with masks on. We stand in line inside the restroom waiting patiently to wash our hands for the suggested 25 seconds. Costco lines are out the door, and the shelves for hand sanitizer, bleach wet wipes and toilet paper are empty. Flights are going on sale as people dash to cancel their travel plans. And employees from major companies are being encouraged to work from home.
Put another way: We are in the midst of not only the spread of the Coronavirus but contagious anxiety! So, just as it is important to take the CDC’s recommended precautions to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, it is also vital to take steps to protect yourself and your children from related anxiety that, left unaddressed, will tend to fester and escalate out of control.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist in Silicon Valley, I hold in the back of my mind the fact that an estimated 97 to 98 percent of people who get COVID-19 recover from it – while clients openly explore their fears of dying from the virus. At the root of their fears are often fears of separation, disconnection and existential annihilation. Having someone help them turn towards and be with these fears helps people process the fear more fully. In mindfulness practices, we say “You must name it to tame it.” I also recommend that people take the following steps to deliberately reduce the spread and escalation of anxiety:
1. Recognize that anxiety is a normal emotion that we can manage. Anxiety is a natural part of a life, intended to alert us to danger. But we need to develop tools so that our anxiety about COVID-19 does not escalate and lead to a chronic condition. Don’t try to stop yourself or your children from feeling anxious; that is likely to increase the feeling of anxiety. Instead, create opportunities to be open about what you or others are feeling, and develop the tools to cope with it. You can say, “I’ll hold how healthy, strong and resilient your body is, while you tell me all about how scared you are to get sick and die.”
2. Make the effort to counter fearful messages with images of good health. Your body has powerful defense mechanisms. Visualize your immune system going into action and protecting you. Think about Killer T-cells, which are able to identify cells that have been infected with a virus and destroy them. If you like, you can keep these images focused on the facts—the actual biology of your body that is designed to protect you. Or, you can use creative imagery, such as imagining your killer T-cells are knights in shining armor ready to fight off any unwanted invaders. The point is that fears will arise, especially when we are bombarded with frightening headlines. We can’t stop this entirely. But we can calmly recognize each moment of fear as “just a story that might or might not happen.” And then, we can actively project a triumphant story in which our body protects us and the bodies of those we love protects them.
3. Thank your body for fighting off viruses every day. Scientists say that 380 trillion viruses live inside of us. It’s true that most of these are not dangerous. But our bodies are both breeding grounds and resilient defense systems. It helps to remember and celebrate that resiliency. It could be as simple as going to bed at night and saying, “Good job, body! You’re doing such a great job with all you were designed to do for me. You are so wise. Thank you for taking such good care of me.” Every body functions better when they are praised for their good work!
4. Visualize healthy lungs. As you close your eyes and bring your attention inward, begin to imagine perfectly healthy lungs that are functioning well. Consider what healthy lungs look like to you. Is there a color? Is there a particular quality to the flow of energy through the lungs when they are seen as healthy? Take creative license here. You can imagine them as they are or more creatively. The point is to do this in a way that helps you.
5. Teach your children. Children are being exposed to a lot of information (and misinformation) about COVID-19 from their friends and social media—and just as susceptible to anxiety as we are (although typically less articulate about these feelings than adults.) So, if you are a parent, it is vital that you talk to you children about the Coronavirus. Teach them about the CDC’s recommend physical precautions. And then, teach them the strategies above to help them keep their minds and spirits healthy.
6. Remember to do things that bring you joy. Whether it is practicing yoga, cooking a favorite meal, listening to music, tending to your garden / indoor plants, playing an instrument, listening to comedians or enjoying board games, do whatever brings you joy or helps you have a good, hearty laugh. Plenty of research shows that music and laughter, after all, helps to boost the immune system!
The bottom line is that when faced with the unknown, we humans often unconsciously imagine worst-case scenarios. And that’s completely natural. But to avoid chronic anxiety, we can’t let that be the only story we keep telling ourselves. In the face of today’s infectious anxiety about the Coronavirus, we can consciously bring to mind a best-case scenario of health by employing both physical and mental strategies of well-being. Doing so is almost certain to help settle the human spirit.
Jaclyn Long is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Silicon Valley. She is also the founder and director of Mind Body Moms and Mindful Child & Family Therapy.