I may have been the last person in the USA to become aware of the attacks on 9-11. I was at home that day on vacation, hammering away at a novel I was writing. Since I didn’t have broadband, I hadn’t checked the news, and this was an era before our phones sprouted brains and tuned into social networks. Around 3 pm Pacific Time a colleague called and left message, saying that she hoped my family was alright. Why wouldn’t they be alright? I wondered. Was there something I didn’t know? Within a few minutes I had returned the call, and after a brief conversation, I turned on the television. Then, like millions of my compatriots, I was swept into the 24-hour, non-stop tsunami of news depicting a country in crisis.
We sometimes panic for a good reason. For example, if you see a small child wandering toward a busy street, a burst of adrenaline will enable you dash across the yard and grab the child’s hand. Or let’s say you drive too fast on a country road and your car ends up in a ditch. The activation of your sympathetic nervous system will enable you to scramble out of the overturned car and pry your friend out of the passenger seat, oblivious to the pain that only comes later. As one author said, our nervous system is designed to save us not to kills us.
One problem with panic is when this same arousal system is triggered and there is no objective threat to be managed, no overturned car or wandering child that demands our quick response. In this case, our heart will race and we may feel short of breath and dizzy. In other words, we have a panic attack. Another problem is when this arousal system remains activated over a longer period of time. Sustained high levels of worry and stress wear down our emotional resilience and render us more vulnerable to some diseases.
The challenges of COVID-19 are likely to be with us for a while, months if not years. I would like to pass along a few tools to help you get through this period without problematic anxiety. One strategy that jumps into mind is to turn worry into action. When we feel like we are doing something that will benefit ourselves and others, we feel more effective and less helpless. Since there remains a lot of uncertainty about out the course of this virus and the social response, preparing for different possibilities can be one way to empower yourself. Many people find it helpful to channel their worry into preparation, e.g., gathering food and medicines, communicating your needs with professors, family or supervisors. What will you (and your pets) need if you can’t leave the house for two weeks? With whom among your friends would it be best to discuss providing mutual support, if needed? How about gathering books to read or craft or art projects that you can engage in? Volunteering is another way to take action. It has the added benefit of focusing your attention on enhancing the well-being of others rather than obsessing about your own.
Another way to dial down your sympathetic nervous system is to disengage from media and focus instead on activities that are relaxing and bring you pleasure and happiness. Of course, staying well informed can be adaptive. But make sure that you balance this with pursuits that have nothing to do with the current crisis. Exercise, drawing and other creative work, cooking, watching Netflix or Hulu, taking long walks, FaceTiming with friends are a few activities that come to mind.
One of my passions as a psychologist is to help others (and myself) tap into the power of the imagination. The imagination can be a source of worry and fear – but engaged with some intention, it can also be a source of healing and transformation. Yesterday, as I made my evening walk around the neighborhood, I became aware of how caught up in the current crisis my thoughts were. The stress of the moment was palpable in my mind and body. To work with this and find my center, I decided to use a technique from Jungian psychology called active imagination*. I immediately visualized my fear as a young person running toward me with their hair standing on end and their clothes on fire. My god, what do I do with that? I wondered. Well, the next thing I imagined was pouring a bucket of water over them. (The imagination has a huge storeroom filled with all sorts of emergency supplies that you can access freely when you need them!) Next I wrapped the person in a blanket, held them close and said, “You’re okay now. I’ve got you. We’re both going to be okay.” As I repeated these words, holding the person in mind, I could feel my whole body softening, my mind calming down. In that moment, I was both the comforter and the comforted. I had embraced my fear.
Afterward, as I continued my walk, my entire being shifted into a different gear. I felt more relaxed, and my thoughts were more free, open and creative.
This visualization also reminded me of the power of receiving (and giving) hugs. You may or may not have someone in your life with whom can share the comfort of physical contact. The need for social distancing may also complicate this strategy these days. But there is powerful technique I can pass along that doesn’t require proximity to another person. This is best done sitting or lying down, and should be done within the limits of your abilities. Take your left hand and place it under your right armpit. Then take your right hand and place it on your left shoulder. Close your eyes and feel the warmth of this self-embrace and draw your focus inside. As you soften into the hug you are giving yourself, allow the good feelings of warmth, safety and tenderness continue to develop. One reason this technique works is that we tend to hold a lot of our stress in our bodies. It’s often harder or much slower to think our way out of distress.
Of course, there are many other ways to ground yourself and find your center. The self-hug is only one of these. I hope that in weeks and months ahead you can be kinder to yourself, listen to what you need, express support to others and seek opportunities to destress.
Mark Evans, Ph.D.
Senior Staff Psychologist
* A good resource on the practice of active imagination is Inner Work by Robert Johnson.