I wrote the first iteration of this post back in March when I was traveling in Thailand.
The virus was spreading in China and Italy. The cases in the United States were growing, as was the level of panic.
As a therapist specializing in treating anxiety, I realized that I would be returning home from paradise to some terrified clients and worried friends and family.
While I didn’t know what the ensuing weeks and months would look like, I knew what we all needed to do: self-care, self-care, and self-care.
I wrote this in the hopes of helping ease fears, lessen panic, and encourage a mindful and measured response to the uncertainties of daily life (pandemic or not).
I want to encourage people to remember the following:
1. Even if you are afraid, you don’t have to panic.
Notice your fear, tend to your feelings by soothing (or if necessary, distracting) yourself, and then consciously commit to reining in the emotion beyond that. Fear is a totally normal and appropriate response to a scary situation, and different people will feel different amounts of it.
Panic is when that fear takes over. It impairs judgment and can wreak havoc on functioning as well as physical health (and even the immune system). Think what the most helpful, compassionate, and comforting response would be if someone responded perfectly to your fears.
Then imagine giving yourself the gift of that response, notice what it would feel like to receive that support, notice yourself relax and feel soothed by calming words, such as “This will pass,” or “You’re going to be okay.”
Panic is when our brain imagines and latches onto a worst-case scenario. Relaxation and resiliency are when we choose to focus on positives or choose to distract ourselves in order to return to a calm state. The following tip is also a helpful way to stop panic in its tracks.
This is as important as it is simple. When you focus on your breath, you take your focus off of other (stressful) things. It is the key to a successful meditation or yoga practice as well as any workout: everything you control with your mind and body begins with your breath.
In a panicked state, do 3-6 breathing: in through your nose for three, out through your mouth for six.
In a calmer state, do yoga breathing, which is 4-7-8 breathing: breathe in for four, hold for seven, out for eight.
Do a minute of this and notice yourself relax, and your mind gets clearer. Do this multiple times a day and start to notice your baseline anxiety lower itself.
3. Respond, don’t react.
This advice applies to a lot of life situations! If you are in immediate danger (someone lunging at you with a knife), you need to react immediately with your fight-or-flight instinct. In this case, letting your physical instincts take over rather than using your wits is the best course of action for survival, and that is why we evolved with that reaction.
For all other threats and stressors, we need to use our reasoning skills and respond with informed thinking, thoughtful planning, problem-solving, and measured words, not just survival instincts. That means catching yourself in a state of heightened emotion before having a knee-jerk reaction like lashing out at a loved one.
Give yourself time to soothe and reflect on choosing a thoughtful response like expressing your needs to your loved one.
4. Control what you can control.
This is my consistent advice for any time things feel out of control. What is still in your control? What choices do you still have today? You make thousands of small decisions each day: what to wear, what to eat, what to watch, what to read, what to say, what to think about.
You still have choice and control in your day. Remembering this at times of instability is important and grounding. Choose to watch or read enough news to be informed, but not so much that you feel overwhelmed.
Choose to take care of your body and mind with routine exercise and meditation practice.
Choose to start a gratitude practice by writing down three things each day you feel grateful for.
Choose to take measures to reduce risks in your life rather than focusing on potential negative outcomes.
5. Adjust your focus.
I dabble in photography, and I find it fascinating how many people can look at the same subject but come away with vastly different pictures of it.
Often, what you see will depend on what you are looking for and how well you adjust your camera settings, given the circumstances you are photographing in. There is lighting, composition, focus, and framing.
The same applies to how we perceive life circumstances. Look for what is positive, stable, and helpful right now, and keep that front and center. Expand your focus to realize other factors that make the current situation less scary.
Quarantines and social distancing have slowed the spread of the virus, people are coming together to help one another by mask-wearing and sharing resources, and vaccines are being developed.
You don’t have to ignore what is negative, scary, and anxiety-inducing, but you can choose not to focus on that. You can choose to keep it in context and try to allow some positive light to what you see.
There will always be new challenges, whether they’re personal, political, global, or environmental. We live in a constantly changing world. We must evolve along with it.
This will be a difficult time for a lot of people; I encourage everyone to take deep breaths, focus on what is reasonable and helpful, and echo these lessons to your children too.
We can be scared, but we can also embody our inherent ability to handle adversity. We can quiet our fears, focus on reason, educate ourselves to make good decisions, and respond rationally and compassionately.