The new coronavirus that causes the dreaded COVID-19 flu is spreading inexorably across the globe. Amid minute-by-minute news flashes documenting the gradual shut-down of schools, businesses, sports tournaments and economies it’s easy to feel terrified and out of control.
I spent the first few weeks of the coronavirus saga in blissful denial (“This is happening elsewhere. My family will be fine — our immune systems are iron-clad. It’s basically the flu, only slightly worse. They’ll find a vaccine.”).
More recently, my level of engagement ratcheted up to mild concern (Repeat trips to the supermarket to stock up on beans, rice and canned foods (all the toilet paper was already gone). Deciding to delay booking my planned summer trip to Europe. Increasingly frequent news checks. Shifting all my consultations to Zoom.)
Today, I started to worry in earnest. Our school district announced that schools would close for at least two weeks. Sports and cultural events were getting canceled. The streets were empty. And my supermarket looked as if a swarm of locusts had swept through (spare a thought for the woefully unappreciated cauliflower — it was the only vegetable the panic-shoppers left in the freezer section).
Self-care as an antidote to stress
As I waited in a half-hour supermarket check-out line this afternoon with my relatively modest collection of items, I asked myself: Should I panic?
Almost immediately came the resounding answer: “No!” Instead, I decided to throw self-care at the problem.
You see, at times like these I feel the best thing we can do is to keep calm, carry on and care for ourselves and loved ones. Not only may our unflappable demeanor reassure others; a cool, calm, can-do attitude is also one of our best protections against infection. Psychological stress weakens the immune system — thus making us more vulnerable to infection by the coronavirus or some other pathogen. Thus, it’s particularly important not to panic, but rather, to retain a sense of control over our lives.
Indeed, now — more than ever — it’s important to remember that so many things are still in our control! Like: What we eat; how we can retool our jobs to work from home (where possible); when we go to sleep and wake up; how we can continue to get daily exercise, daylight and fresh air; which media we follow and how much time we want to spend every day talking or hearing about the pandemic.
Not “What If,” but “What Is”
We can even control our thoughts. Yes, really! Whenever we notice ourselves catastrophizing about things we can’t control (aggressive viruses, gyrating stock markets, the economy, etc.), we can gently tell ourselves to come back to the present. For unless we’re sick or at risk of imminent eviction, the present, in most cases, is benign, and that’s something to be grateful for.
A client once shared a neat cognitive trick with me that she uses when she gets anxious about things she can’t control or predict. Here’s how it works: Instead of asking yourself “what if…” [… “I caught the virus from getting gas and scratching my nose,” or “… I lose my job and get evicted because I can’t pay my rent,” or “the supermarkets run out of food”], remind yourself of “what is.” In other words: What’s happening in the current moment. If you are feeling healthy (right now), have a home (right now) and have plenty of food to eat (right now), remind yourself that “what is” in the present is good. And should any of that change, you can deal with it. Humans are highly adaptable and resilient, and you are no exception.
Of course it’s OK to feel scared, sad or angry; no feelings should be suppressed, even the painful ones. My kids, for instance, are deeply disappointed that their 18th birthday party, high school graduation and prom are likely to get canceled and college plans are up in the air. I’m very concerned about the health of my 82-year-old mother, who lives alone thousands of miles away and whom I can’t visit or bring here. All of us are sad that our planned summer vacation probably won’t happen. I’m worried about my financial future as business opportunities I had been working on shrivel on the vine.
However, much as it feel justified and — temporarily — relieving to wallow in self-pity or have a good scream, the sooner we pick ourselves up and get back to self-care, the better. Because self-care helps us feel in control. Not of everything, but of more than you can imagine.
Self-care is a sign of strength, not self-indulgence
When I talk to my clients about the importance of self-care and self-compassion, they think I’m talking about self-indulgence, self-pity, laziness or some other manifestation of a weak character. But I mean the very opposite: Valuing your physical and emotional well-being is a sign of strength and resilience and requires clear intentions, strong commitment and solid boundaries.
It’s totally fine to let ourselves go a little every now and then, staying in our workout clothes all day, binge-watching The Crown til midnight, eating cookies and drinking wine. But when the going gets tough, self-care means: Going to bed when you’re tired (usually around 10-10.30 pm), setting the alarm around the usual time, eating real meals rather than snacking out way through the day, and doing our usual routines.
“Taking bold action — or any action — now will help you get through these stressful times and will help you feel more in control,” psychotherapist and nutritionist Mary Kay Irvin writes in her weekly newsletter. “Taking action also helps reduce anxiety. It’s 8:00 a.m. right now and I’ve done 2 loads of laundry, had 2 cups of green tea and washed a sink full of dishes.”
Self-care as an antidote to stress
And anything that reduces our anxiety will reduce our feelings of stress. As psychotherapist Dan Mager explains in this article on self-calming to combat stress, “fear, anxiety, and stress are a vicious triangle — they contribute to and reinforce each other. The more fear and anxiety people experience, the more stressed out they tend to be. And the more stressed out people are, the more anxious and fearful they tend to be.”
Learning and practicing ways to facilitate relaxation in order to counteract the stress you experience is vital to health, balance, and healing, he writes. “Activating the relaxation response helps to facilitate the experience of that all-important, but often elusive, quality: serenity/inner peace/peace of mind.”
So how can we activate this relaxation response when all around us are aflutter with apocalyptic visions of death and destruction? Mager recommends intentional (conscious) breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, yoga, Chi Kung, and meditation.
In addition to these excellent stress-busters, I recommend that you try even simpler things, such as taking walks in nature (no risk of infection as long as we don’t hug passers-by); prioritizing sleep; cooking simple, nourishing meals; spending more time than usual calling friends and loved ones; and minimizing exposure to news reports.
After a long blogging hiatus, I have decided to start writing a series of posts about immune health, life and self-care in the time of the coronavirus, both here and on Modern Mediterranean. I will share stress-management tips, nutrition advice, thoughts on exercise and nourishing recipes to help you through the difficult weeks and months to come.
Together we can do this. And, who knows? Maybe we’ll come out of this crisis wiser, calmer and more connected. God knows we could all use that.