As the novel coronavirus spreads and its impacts deepen, affecting people in our own communities and families, it is a good time to consider its effects on our emotional, psychological, and social lives. Anxiety, loneliness, fear, and grief may all become more acute as the pandemic continues.
So how might we take care of ourselves and those close to us?
In a recent article in The Atlantic, therapist Lisa Gottlieb points out how it’s possible to feel two conflicting emotions at the same time during frightening and unfortunate circumstances. Unexpected combinations like anxiety and gratitude; fear and humor. She calls this “both/and” thinking. In her own life, she is concerned and scared about the coronavirus, and she is glad that she is healthy and spending time with family.
Both/and thinking is a way to promote emotional health because it prevents anxiety from completely taking over.
“Some anxiety is productive—it’s what motivates us to wash our hands often and distance ourselves from others when there’s an important reason to do so,” she writes. “But unproductive anxiety—unchecked rumination—can make our mind spin in all kinds of frightening directions.”
To borrow terminology from psychology, these frightening directions include futurizing and catastrophizing: taking current patterns and focusing on the worst places they could go, no matter how unlikely.
She encourages readers to focus on whatever “ordinariness” of the moment that remains—eating, reading, studying, watching TV—and to consider our separation as a cause to more mindfully reach out to and check up on our classmates, friends, and family in a way we may not otherwise do.
The phone call you’ve been putting off, the email you’ve been meaning to write: now is the time to lean on social bonds and use kindness as a guiding force, both because it benefits those you interact with and yourself.
“I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds,” she says.
In The New York Times, Dr. Harriet Lerner, a psychologist and author of The Dance of Fear, provides ten ways to mitigate anxiety. They include “Know the facts,” “Put the pandemic in perspective,” “Identify the sources of your anxiety,” “Refrain from shaming and blaming,” “Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” take precautionary measures, connect with others, don’t be hard on yourself, engage in self-care, and act with “clarity, compassion, and courage.”
Both Gottlieb and Lerner suggest that being knowledgeable is helpful, but reading too much about the pandemic can be harmful and send us spiraling. Gottlieb suggests updating yourself about the coronavirus once per day.
If you find it too difficult to avoid certain websites that feature heavy amounts of coronavirus coverage, you can use software to temporarily block your browser from accessing these sites. BlockSite for Chrome, Block Site for Firefox, and Freedom are all options. You can also block “coronavirus,” “pandemic,” and “COVID” on twitter after you’ve been updated.
In Wired, psychologists recommend connecting with a therapist, as well as broadening your perspective by considering “how you might look back at these events in a year, or even a few years from now.”
They also suggest meditation or other anxiety-relieving activities that have worked for you in the past, such as journaling, baking, or exercising.
In the Harvard Business Review, David Kessler, who co-wrote with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross On Grief and Grieving and more recently wrote Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, frames our current feelings as a process of grieving. We are collectively grieving what we have already lost, and we are anticipating the grief that will happen should the situation worsen.
He reflects on the five stages of grief, although they don’t always happen in order: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. “Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power les. We find control in acceptance. I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn how to work virtually,” he says.
To combat the anxious state of anticipatory grief, Kessler recommends mindfulness. “Come to the present,” he says. Consider your surroundings, where you are, that you are safe, the texture of things and the sensation of your breath. Focus on what you can control, he adds, and “stock up on compassion.” This might involve being patient with people who could act out due to their own anxiety and grief.
“This is a time to overprotect but not overreact,” he says. And feeling sad is OK, even if our sadness is, we assume, less than the sadness of others. “Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.”
In an interview between Tim Ferris and the author and founder of the Insight Meditation Center Jack Kornfield, Kornfield made a few suggestions to those experiencing mental or emotional difficulty. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, he advocated for acknowledging your anxiety and fear and in fact speaking directly to those emotions.
One strategy is to tell your anxiety, “Thank you for trying to protect me, but I’m OK for now.”
It is also possible to reframe the moment while still acknowledging its difficulties. This time is a chance, he says, to “train yourself in steadiness, trust, the ability to have a vaster and broader perspective, and perhaps more than anything…to develop your sense of care and compassion for everyone else.”
Another strategy he mentions is to imagine everyone who is calm and steady right now and imagine that you are drawing strength from them so that you are getting through difficult times together. It is also helpful to draw strength from those in your own life who are calm, mindful, and have a beneficial perspective.
Reflecting on why she has had trouble focusing and writing, and why she has felt listless yet has had trouble sleeping, novelist R.O. Kwan came to a similar conclusion as Kessler in a recent op-ed: she has been grieving. The coronavirus has laid bare some of the deepest injustices and problems of our country and our world, and it is not easy to reckon with, she says. The economic toll, the suffering, the isolation: it adds up, and it is difficult to process.
Acknowledging what you’re experiencing can help. “This is hard. I hurt. If you’re hurting, too, you’re not alone,” Kwan writes.
As Kessler says, it is OK to feel your feelings.
As a community, the Hamilton Lugar School is committed to supporting its students during this difficult time. Don’t be afraid of reaching out and asking for help.
Counseling is available to students who want professional guidance through CAPS.