There is something in the air far more infectious on a human scale than a virus. It has infiltrated our homes, unsteadied our thoughts, and has tugged at our heartstrings. It has threatened to tear apart our economy, caused a rise in firearm sales, and has given toilet paper a disappearing act. This something is fear and what is indeed more alarming and longstanding than a biological pandemic is a psychological one.
I write this from my home, 17 miles from midtown Manhattan, awaiting test results and safely isolated from all but my two boys. Worried, like everyone else, if there will be enough money in my bank to feed us if we are to remain quarantined for more weeks, concerned that our grocery stores will not be adequately stocked, and compassionate for my friends in the health sector who are working tirelessly without necessary supplies and protocol in place to tame this virus. But I will say this: the only thing that I am afraid of is the seemingly steady rise in fear itself.
Fear is an evolutionary survival mechanism. It alerts us to threats towards our safety, regardless if those threats are real or imagined. It triggers an adrenal response and heightens our awareness so that we can physically escape actual danger and take quick, responsible plans of action. But what happens when fear runs rampant and hijacks our reason and rationality? What happens when fear goes viral?
I am not discounting the very real threat and danger that the novel Coronavirus poses. I read the WHO reports and am seeing the data like anyone else. Justified fear should be addressed, calmly and methodically. But a very concerning side effect of this epidemic is our first social media pandemic and as a result, the ensuing panic and mental hysteria it has created. We are being fed a constant stream of not just misguided advice, but propaganda and information that is centered on scare-mongering. People are finding themselves in a state of frenzy and with fear being delivered at their fingertips we have become a society in fight or flight mode.
The moment social media and news channels alerted the public of the imminent spread of Covid-19, Americans ran to their supermarkets in an exaggerated quest for survival. Sensibility, decency, and interconnectedness were abandoned in most towns as people pushed and shoved to wipe shelves clean of basic supplies and food. Online retailers’ stock of paper goods and hand soap reached zero in a manner of hours. Xenophobia and conspiracy theories flooded our newsfeed and isolation became a top trending topic. In speaking to my own friends and family, I have observed an overwhelming sense of despondency and of hopelessness. People are glued to their smartphone and tv screens, drowning in the constant influx of virus and proverbial “doomsday” coverage. Everyone has been assaulted by the recognition of their own mortality. Orders to isolate and lockdown are causing people to feel trapped and “locked-in”. Despite this being a global experience, people are feeling scared and alone.
So what do we do about it? How do we tame the spread and destruction of a viral assault of fear? How do we preserve our sanity in a society that is polluted with an endless delivery of despair and anxiety-provoking information? We start by recognizing that we may not have control over external sources but are in full control of how we perceive them. We establish boundaries for ourselves. We commit to doing what humans have been doing since beginning-less time, we survive. We surrender our need to control the world around us and focus on creating opportunities within us.
We are social beings. We thrive on touch and community. Isolation combined with the überification of “negative news” is doing far more lasting damage than any disease ever will. We were already on the brink of catastrophic global loneliness and now here we are, thrust into actual disengagement. But it’s not too late. Here are five practical ways to override the fear loop and foster a perspective of hope and optimism:
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1) Disconnect to reconnect
We are all guilty of saying “I wish I had more time” to see my family, catch up with friends, clean my house, read a book, etc. Well, here it is… time. Let’s use it well and as a gift! Step away from the tv, news outlets, and social media, and step into quality time with your family, home, and self. Commit to calling a distant friend or loved one every day. Play board games with your children. Cook with your partner. Clean out your closet with pride. Dedicate a block of time every day as no media time. Unplugging for a bit each day will mitigate the chemical response that constant virus coverage provokes. Replace that time by creating moments and memories of joy.
For many of us, our current environment is anything but calm. Our kids, partners, and pets are all there all the time and our office has become our home which means, we are dealing with a lot of moving parts. Our minds need to take breaks too. We require silence and order for our thoughts. Take a few moments every day to yourself, even if it means rising a bit earlier than everyone else, to sit silently with just your thoughts. Without judgment, pay attention to the nature of your thoughts and recognize, that they like everything else, are transient and do not have to control you. Enjoy listening to the sound of your breath and appreciate the stillness. This is a practice in peace and the more we exercise this ability of our mind, the weaker our ability to feel fear becomes.
Being sheltered in doesn’t mean sitting down. You can and should still move and enjoy it! Turn on music and dance (nobody is looking)! Take up a practice in online yoga. Go for a walk outside (although please practice responsible distancing). Vacuum in a rhythm, fold laundry to a beat. Play active charades with your kids! Get naked with your partner! Move!! We are alive so let’s act like it!
4) Get creative
This is the time to think outside of the box. This is the time to get innovative. Little ones need to socialize? Have a FaceTime playdate. Missing a night out? Give a hand at cooking and set up your dining in another room or outside. Feeling starved for hobbies or interests? Discover new ones. Read, draw, paint, garden, write letters! This is such a generous opportunity for us to abandon inhibitions and explore new ideas and curiosities.
5) Have gratitude
Even and especially in times of chaos, it is integral to hold tight to our blessings, recognizing the opportunities that even struggle presents us. Gratitude allows us to have compassion in our hearts. It anchors us to hope rather than fear or dismay. For those of us sheltered in, we are blessed to have shelter. For those of us, working from home, we are blessed to have work. For those of us, bunkered in with a full house, we are blessed to have family and friends. For those of us afflicted with illness, we are blessed to have today. Keeping a small diary or journal and just jotting down a few things for which you feel grateful has terrific power over your mental strength and aptitude.
We aren’t alone. And this is important to remember. Fear doesn’t have to consume us. In fact, we can and should use it to ground us and reshape our perspective. In contemplating fear, the Buddhist spiritual leader, Thich Nhat Hanh, said “We are very afraid of being powerless. But we have the power to look deeply at our fears, and then fear cannot control us.” Let us all accept this tenet and move forward. Together.
Robbi Geane King is a plant-based chef, wellness consultant, and educator and the creator of The Gratifüde Diet, a coaching program on gratitude and spiritual weight gain. You can connect with Robbi on Instagram @robbigking.