I don't know about you, but I've been feeling pretty anxious lately, mostly because of those rapidly multiplying little bits of protein and fat. That might sound pretty innocuous, but of course what I am talking about is the coronavirus, officially known as 2019-nCoV and the disease it causes, COVID-19. Our lives, and in fact our world, has been turned upside down by those horrid little nanobits of nasty—giving us a very different kind of March Madness. So it's a pretty tall order not to worry these days.
Worry and anxiety are very natural, given the human tendency to notice the negative and the grave nature of this situation. But, worry is a stressor, and chronic stress can weaken the immune system, the very opposite of what we want right now. So, what can we do to loosen worry, to help dispel it?
Here's the toolkit I am using to stay sane, to move through and beyond what I am calling "covidanxiety." Or you could call these tools seeds of sanity. Please consider passing this on to others, if you think it might be useful. And I'd love to hear from you about what you are doing to survive, even to thrive, in this strange new world.
None of these things will make everything better, especially if you just do them once. But I have found that weaving some of them into my daily life, and doing them repeatedly—like breathing, like eating—is really helping.
I'll end with a poem and a story, each one sent by a friend, that I hope will touch and inspire you.
Prayer and meditation. Of course. There are thousands of ways of doing this—do what works for you. One of my favorites is writing out a conversation between me and my Higher Power. I've done it in letter form as well.
Zapchen. If you've been reading my blog, you know there is a modality I practice and teach my clients called zapchen, developed by Julie Henderson. You don't need to know much about it to practice it, except that doing any (or all) of the things listed below can help increase a sense of ease and calm. If you want to know more, check out my zapchen webpage and/or Julie's site. Some of these may feel silly, but hey, laughter is great for the immune system.
Do one of these, then rest a little bit, noticing any gentle ripples of feeling that may move out through your body. Do a little more, then rest again. Don't do these exercises if you don't want to. The object is to relax and enjoy, not force.
Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This is just what it looks like—a long relaxed verbalized sigh. According to neuroscientist Alex Korb, author of The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time (another great resource), when your exhale is longer than your inhale it sends a message of safety to the brain. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.....
Horselips. Put your lips together somewhere between tight and loose and go bbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbb.... like a horse. This is hard to do if you are smiling or laughing, and hard not to laugh if you are doing this. More about this here (scroll down to the picture of the horse). Be silly. Have fun.
Humming. Just relax and hum...any note, any set of notes. Let the hum expand into your body, gently. You can hum a tune, but it might be easier to relax into the hum if you are not focusing on producing a song. If you are sitting still and humming, you may eventually feel these peaceful vibrations move through your whole body.
Wow. Look at something in the natural world, or a loved one, or anything you like, really. Open your eyes wide and say the word "wow"—drawing it out in a fun way. Notice the amazingness of what you are looking at. Say it again, remembering to widen your eyes. Let your mind wander into all the wonderful details of what you are seeing. Say it out loud or whisper it. Notice how your feel. You'll likely find you are smiling.
A space of grace. We are so used to doing. Getting information. Making decisions. Our fight-flight mechanisms get way overstimulated, given our stressful modern life. And that was very true even before the advent of the pandemic. So... just pause. Just for a moment. Take a deep breath. Allow beauty. Allow peace. Allow space. Allow breathing.
Hands on. In her fascinating book, Lifting Depression: A Neuroscientist's Hands-On Approach to Activating Your Brain's Healing Power, psychologist Kelly Lambert describes how her research lead her to the conclusion that if you:
(a) do something with your hands
(b) that you enjoy and that
(c) is productive in some way,
(d) it will help you feel better.
As in less stressed and depressed, and more positive. Like cooking, gardening, art, music, home improvements, even cleaning house (some people actually enjoy it!). You name it. I have found that it really works. At the very least it is a distraction from all that bad news.
Get outside. We do not need to stay huddled in our houses--there is no prohibition on being outside! (Except, of course, when curfews are in effect.). Remember sunshine? Remember vitamin D? Remember the healing power of nature when our souls are disturbed? Check out this wonderful poem by Wendell Berry, "The Peace of Wild Things." Take a walk with a friend—it's a little different with social distancing, but still can be a really nice shared experience.
Be active. I've never been much of an exercise nut, certainly not an athlete, but I love to swim and depend on it to keep me sane and at least somewhat fit. So, I was pretty bummed (that word dates me, doesn't it?) when I heard that all our local pools were closing due to the pandemic. But there is lots of research indicating that exercise boosts the immune system. So now I am figuring out alternatives: walking, exercycling, gardening, yardwork, dance, and yoga. There are lots of great videos online—here's one recommended by my physical therapist: 30 Days of Yoga - Start Here. Find a way to move that suits you. And keep moving. (Note: As much as I love writing these blog posts, I took a break just now to go for a walk—trying to practice what I preach!)
Laugh and smile: Way back in the 1980s, Saturday Review editor and activist Norman Cousins wrote about his use of laughter to heal himself of an autoimmune disease, in his book, Anatomy of an Illness. There's been a lot of research since then that supports that concept. So download some funny movies, read humorous books, look at comic strips and cartoons (Calvin and Hobbs, Zits, Dilbert and New Yorker cartoons being some personal favorites). I wrote a blog post on smiling and laughing if you want to read a little more on the topic.
Help something grow: in a garden or in a little pot on your windowsill or balcony. You'll not only be inspired and get a bit of exercise, you'll also be growing something healthy that you can eventually eat, without having to go to the grocery store. Sprouting seeds in a quart jar is a good quick option for fresh food. And it's doing something happy and productive with your hands.
Power poses. Remember Amy Cuddy and her Power Poses? Since they appear to bring about an increased sense of confidence and well-being, I would be willing to bet that they strengthen the immune system too. The link above is to the condensed talk; here's the link to her full talk.
Limit COVID-related screentime. TV. Phone. Computer. Of course we want to keep up with what is going on related to the pandemic. But we can all too easily get our circuits overloaded. Way overloaded. And many forms of media are designed to be addictive, so it is hard to resist. But do try tearing yourself away to try some of the alternatives suggested here.
There's a GREAT article on the BBC website: Coronavirus: How to protect your mental health, with information on topics I didn't cover like social media settings and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and more on news overload and how to handle it.
A Poem. I shared this poem with many of you a few days ago. I include it here because it is so sane and lovely.
Pandemic by Lynn Ungar, composed on 3/11/20
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
A Story by Children's Book Insider (CBI) co-founder Jon Bard.
A while back, I tested for my black belt in kempo karate. It was a grueling affair - 8 1/2 hours of intense mental and physical tests. At one point, we were told to run up a steep hill and, when we got to the top, perform one of our forms. Then back down, then back up. Over and over. People half my age were green at the gills (and worse!) and I wondered exactly how much more I could take. I fought back as my mind told me to just quit. Just then, after coming down the hill, my Sensei (teacher) walked up to me and said:
"You know this is gonna end, right? This will not last forever."
Something switched in my brain. Because, when you're running up and down a hill, it's easy to start thinking you'll spend the rest of your life running up and down that hill. When you're inside an intense ordeal, it's hard to see anything else. Until someone is kind enough to remind you that:
"You know this is gonna end, right? This will not last forever."
After that, my mindset changed completely. I immediately told myself "Every step I take, every minute that passes is one step and one minute closer to the end. And then I'll celebrate." For the rest of the test, I kept the image of receiving my belt and the wonderful feeling I'd have front and center. And I kept telling myself "another minute closer to the end." So, members of our beloved CBI family, I tell you that this will not last forever. This will end. And then, we will all celebrate.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Next time I'll write about............hmmmm, I'm not sure. Things are changing so fast. In any case, I do plan to post next Wednesday.
Remember to breathe.
Etty Fidele, unSplash
Horse photo: unknown
Greg Beck, unSplash
Daniel Hjalmarsson, unSplash
Chang Duong, unSplash