Here are some thoughts and strategies for managing fears and cultivating kindness and compassion amid this epidemic
For anyone who is really struggling with getting anything done
It’s totally understandable that you can’t think straight or shut down when you try to work. You have too much on your mind and it would be totally unreasonable to be any other way. No one can think straight with all this chaos. No one I know is remotely at full capacity right now. So, if nothing else, it can be helpful to get the reminder that you are not alone and there is nothing wrong with how you are feeling. It’s totally understandable, even if that doesn’t make it any less crappy.
And that’s the thing: we can’t get rid of what’s happening. We can’t control what’s going on outside of us. And that sucks. But we never really could control any of it anyway. Think about it: we can’t control traffic or weather, how our kids do in school, what our boss says to us, how boring that thing is that we have to read. We can’t control most of what we think or feel too. I know I’m definitely not in control of my emotions most of the time. And thoughts? We have something like fifty to a hundred thousand thoughts a day. How many of those do we choose? So there’s so much we can’t control.
The primary thing that we can control is how we respond to all of that. I can’t control what’s happening in the world or that I feel scared, but if I can see it, I might just be able to be kinder to myself when it’s happening. I can’t control what’s happening but if I can see it, I might just be able to change my relationship to what’s happening. And that can make all the difference.
Right Now It’s Like This…And it’s Okay
Right now, most of us are scared, anxious, frustrated, or nervous. And we are probably spending a great deal of energy just trying to be “fine.” One of the most helpful things you can do at a time like this is to validate all your feelings. It’s okay to feel however you feel. It’s okay to be sad or scared or happy or bored or annoyed. You don’t have to figure out why it’s there or what you should do about it, it’s just ok.
One thing that can be helpful is to use the phrase “right now, it’s like this.” So when you notice you’re freaking out: right now it’s like this. When you notice worry or frustration: right now it’s like this. And it’s okay. If we can notice that it’s happening in this moment, it helps us see that it won’t last forever.
Practice: Name It to Tame It
When we feel carried away by our emotions, it’s often because the amygdala (the alarm bell of the brain) is over-firing, preventing the prefrontal cortex (the CEO or decision maker) from making rational, healthy decisions. Research shows that naming emotions helps decrease their power over us and reengages the prefrontal cortex, letting us respond deliberately rather than feeling hijacked by our emotions or getting caught up in the thoughts that are fueling them.
Giving your emotions a name brings that rational part of your brain back online.
- Find a comfortable posture. Even if your mind is going crazy or you feel overly emotional, try to find some gentleness in your body. If you can’t sit still, you might choose to sway or walk slowly.
- Take a few deep breaths, feeling what it’s like to breathe.
- Let your breathing be natural and notice how your body feels.
- However you feel, try to notice it just as it is, without needing to eliminate it, figure out why it’s there or what you’re going to do about it, or change it in any way.
- When you’re ready, gently ask yourself, “what am I feeling right now?”
- You don’t have to come up with the perfect answer. It doesn’t even have to be a word at all. Just try to name something (aloud or in your head) that describes how you feel right now.
- Then explore how it feels in your body. What does anger feel like? Where do you feel sadness? Is boredom heavy or light?
- As you pay attention to the emotion, you might notice that it changes and that your mind doesn’t want to stay with your body. Your mind might get caught up in thinking, blaming, or worrying. That’s okay. You can name those emotions or actions too. And whenever you notice your mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back to your breathing, your body, and this moment right now.
- When you’re finished, notice how you feel. You might even name how you feel right now.
This practice might make you feel vulnerable because you’re facing emotions that may be challenging. It’s helpful to know that it isn’t creating emotions; it’s just letting the ones that are present be felt. If it feels like too much, you can always come back to awareness of breathing or connecting to the external environment with your senses.
This meditation helps you become more familiar with your patterns so you can see them more clearly in the future. Every time sadness, frustration, or your big emotions arise, see if you can give them a name, noticing how they feel. You can even get creative with the names: F**’d up Fatima, Horrible Harry, etc.
If/When You’re Panicking
Panicking is easy. I know; it’s my default. It’s natural and automatic. And it doesn’t help even though it’s SO natural. When you start to panic, try to pause, take a few deep breaths or feel your body in space, letting go of the narrative of the thoughts as much as possible. What if the thoughts were just thoughts, like sounds passing by? I know it’s hard.
If you’re stuck in panic mode, please stop reading/watching the news. (I lived in Toronto when SARS was everywhere. And in the city itself, it was concerning but manageable. When I came home to Calgary and saw the news, I became instantly terrified for those poor people suffering under that terror…until I remembered that I was one of them! The news makes everything sound much, much worse.) In the moment, day by day, it’s going to be okay. As Mr. Rogers said, look for the helpers. Check out uplifting news sites like https://www.reddit.com/r/UpliftingNews/..
Avoiding the Second Arrow
There’s a story in the Buddhist tradition where the Buddha asks a group of people if it would hurt to get struck by an arrow. Of course, the people say yes. Then the Buddha asks if it would hurt more to be hit by a second arrow. “Yes,” the people say, “that would be much worse.” Life gives us that first arrow. It’s the inevitable pain that comes from being human: getting sick, stubbing our toes, feeling hurt, etc. But often, we shoot that second arrow at ourselves unknowingly. The first arrow is pain, the second arrow brings suffering.
It’s okay to be scared and feel anxious. That’s the first arrow. All the other arrows are fuelled by the what ifs and fears, the media, and the momentum of panic that builds. Second arrows are when we feel bad about feeling bad, when we compare ourselves to others, or when we think we shouldn’t feel however we feel. And they are natural too! Our job is not to berate ourselves for getting caught in second arrows but to choose to be gentle when we do notice them. Letting all of our feelings be okay is a key strategy to avoid second arrows.
Practice: What’s Underneath the Thoughts?
Most of us get struck by pretty terrible thoughts, even more so right now. The following practice is designed to help us see that thoughts are just thoughts, they aren’t necessarily true or right even if though they feel 100% right at the time. The goal isn’t to control your thoughts, it’s to stop letting them control you and stop letting them fuel automatic reactions. The way to do this is to notice what’s really happening when a thought takes hold by paying attention to the process of thinking rather than the content of the thought and by seeing that you are not your thoughts and they don’t have to define you.
In many Eastern cultures, thinking is another sense. Just like the ears hear, the mind thinks. And just like we can let sounds come and go without needing to do anything about them or take them personally, we can do the same with thoughts.
Give It A Try
- Start the same way as the breath practice: find a comfortable, upright posture and take a few deep breaths, checking out how you feel right now.
- Let the breath be natural. Spend a few moments on the physical sensations of breathing.
- When you notice that you are thinking, see if you can let those thoughts come and go without getting caught up in their story. You might imagine the thoughts are clouds in the sky or even cars going by as you wait for the bus. You get to just watch them pass without needing to do anything but notice.
- Don’t worry about getting caught up in the thoughts. It’s inevitable and definitely okay. Whenever you do notice you have been thinking, gently come back to the feeling of breathing and letting those thoughts come and go. As soon as you notice thinking, you’re actually back in the present moment.
- If you feel like you’re stuck in a thought or worry, rather than trying to force yourself to let it go, see if you can explore what it feels like instead of trying to get rid of it, diving into it, or beating yourself up for having it. Thoughts are usually connected quite closely to emotions. Rather than thinking the thought, see if you can pay attention to the emotion. Besides thinking, what’s really happening at this very moment? What does it feel like? Where do you feel it in your body?
- Every time you get caught back up in thinking or judging, try to let go of the story of the thought and come back to the physical sensations of this moment. Notice what your breath feels like. Notice everything you can about what you are feeling right now.
- It doesn’t matter if you have a million thoughts while you do this. The idea is to see the thoughts and explore what’s underneath them, rather than trying to think your way through them or make them go away.
It’s helpful to remember that thoughts aren’t bad and you don’t have to get rid of them. If you can see them, even if you see that you are really stuck in them, then you still get some space from that thought.
Give Yourself a Break or You Don’t Have to Become a World-Class Yodeller During this Time
One of the loveliest things that’s coming out of this chaos is the many offerings available online. And that can cause pressure on all of us. So here it is: you don’t have to master a new skill, learn a new language, visit all of the (or any) art museums, or take every yoga class. You don’t need to master homeschooling or even be good at it. It’s okay for parents to relax our rules around screen time. If the only thing you do during this time is stay home and do your best to take care of yourself, that’s enough.
Set Limits on Media/Social Media Use or Get Off Your Phone Before It Makes You Crazy (crazier?)
We want to be informed but the 24 hour, non-stop, pressure-filled news cycle is enough to make anyone panic, even without an epidemic. It can be very helpful to monitor how often you check your phone or the news or even how long you talk about what’s going on. You might actually set a timer. Literally give yourself 5 minutes to check the news and then that’s it, done for the day. You’ll still be informed and you’re less likely to get caught up in the momentum of the bad news that makes for good headlines.
It doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves or someone else tells us that it’s okay to be sad or to try not to listen to those rampaging thoughts. It’s just too hard to avoid sometimes! So instead of trying to talk yourself out of it, beat yourself up for feeling this way, or analyzing the problem (which usually leads to more suffering, not less); it can be really helpful to try some self-compassion.
Most of us are experts at self-criticism. It’s deeply ingrained and one of the hardest habits to change. Think about it: would you ever talk to anyone else as cruelly as you speak to yourself? How mean is the voice in your own head, at least some of the time? Self-compassion has three main components: kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity. We connect to these qualities to give ourselves some much needed care.
Give it a try:
- Start by taking a few deep breaths. Notice what it feels like to be you right now. Do your best to let it be without judging it or trying to get rid of it even if what you’re feeling is really hard.
- You might need to remind yourself that it’s okay to take this time for yourself.
- If you have time, begin with a short breath meditation or take a moment to release any obvious tension in your body. This can help settle your mind a bit, giving you a chance to really be with the self-compassion practice.
- Imagine you could breathe in kindness and compassion and breathe out anything that’s not helpful.
- In your mind, say some of the following phrases (or ones you create for yourself).
- Kindness: “I’m okay.” “I don’t have to solve this right now.” “I wish to be peaceful.” “I love myself.”
- Mindfulness: ‘I’m really suffering right now.” “This moment is really hard.” “This hurts.”
- Common Humanity: “I’m not alone.” “There is nothing wrong with me.” “Other people feel this way too.”
- It can be helpful to imagine someone you love or someone who loves you giving you a hug and saying the phrases with or to you.
- As much as possible, let go of the need to fix or solve whatever arises as you do this. Instead just try to let yourself be cared for by those phrases and intentions. If it brings up tears or judgments, that’s okay. Imagine holding yourself the way you hold your children when they are in pain, giving yourself the care you would give them.
- Take a few more deep breaths and let yourself feel supported.
If this feels phony or fake, don’t worry. It’s a natural response and you aren’t doing it wrong. If you can do it anyway, you’ll probably find it makes a difference, regardless of how it feels at first.
Self-compassion isn’t about getting rid of painful feelings. The intention is to be kind and gentle to ourselves just as we are while things are hard. You might find your own phrases that resonate for you.