I Will Survive : The Science and Art of Not Suffering in a Global Pandemic
It was early in the pandemic and we were all being warned and even threatened to lock down and stay inside to prevent the spread of a global virus that had already killed tens of thousands. And here was Lola*, one of my longer-term anxiety treatment clients telling me she was fine, even chill! Lola had been doing well for some time as we had found a way to end her panic attacks and teach her how to convert all that energy behind her anxiety into her superpower. But I confess as well as she had been doing, I did not expect this response. From COVID-19 to Murder Bees, 2020 seemed like a fair reason to be a tad stressed!
“Not like I relish the fact or anything,” she continued, “but watching everyone else finally see the world as scary as I have, well, it’s a bit comforting to know I’m not alone. Besides which, I’ve got great tools to keep me being this new me, so not a lot of reason to choose to suffer when I don’t have to.”
And there it was, Lola was casually espousing an ancient Buddhist bit of wisdom: Life is suffering, it is up to us whether we want to suffer in response.
Survival Skills during COVID-19
1. Thought Management Skills
In a crisis in takes more than physical skills to survive. To survive successfully, we need to also care for our mental health. Mental health can be negatively impacted when under physical duress. Incidents of partner abuse, depression, anxiety, suicide and even infanticide are on the increase. We all have different skills and capacities that help us negotiate change. If we fail, the outcome for ourselves and others can be just as deadly as the virus itself.
Here’s the kicker – we are not taught about how to think as we grow up and much less, we are not taught how to more specifically manage our thoughts. When thoughts arise that are scary or even worrisome, and we allow them to remain, we begin to ruminate and get stuck in negative thought loops. This can lead to high levels of anxiety and depression.
Like any skill, thought management can be learned. Neuroplasticity, the science of how our brain changes has taught us there are three key elements to rewire our brain. Whether it is learning a new dance move, or how to manage your thoughts, these elements are: Intention, Repetition and Reward.
For centuries the Buddhists have practised various forms of meditation, which can loosely be defined as thought management. The Dalai Lama, a physicist, started The Mindfulness Institute in Chicago to investigate and explore the intersection between science (primarily neurology, the study of the brain) and mindfulness. The discoveries have been remarkable and have taught us a great deal about how to change our brain, by learning how to manage our thoughts.
There are hundreds of different types of meditation, all with differing goals. A ‘Focal Point Meditation’ which you can learn about at www.TheAnxiety.Clinc.com blogs, is specifically designed to teach you how to notice a thought when it first arises, and discard or change that thought quickly before it becomes embedded and turns into worry or anxiety.
Just because you have a thought does not mean you have to keep it! Thoughts that bring you to worry, anxiety, or are otherwise triggering of negative feelings can be vanquished, given the skills.
The author of one of my favourite quotes is debatable, but this quotation sums up much of why we suffer, and how unnecessary suffering is:
“I have suffered many painful events in my life, most of which never happened.”
2. Connection and Community
Connection and community are directly related to not just our physical survival, but to our mental health success. In 2011 the United Nations declared solitary confinement a form of torture. Extended isolation and separation from others in our circles of support (family, friends and associates) can dramatically impact how we think and feel. Thoughts of loneliness and despair can impact our sense of self and worthiness, which in turn impact how we behave in the world.
Humans are designed to do best when connected, and this message is contrary to the very thing that makes us a successful species. (I grant from some perspectives ‘success’ may be a debatable adjective in relationship to humanity!) We must connect to thrive, yet here we are being told to do just the opposite to prevent the spread of the virus – we have been asked to isolate and quarantine.
Intention, Repetition and Reward. Now more than ever we must be intentional about maintaining regular and rewarding connections with those in our lives who bring us joy and love. We must find a way to uphold, uplift and create these connections while still respecting the necessary physical impositions of isolation.
Ironically, technology, the very thing that has driven us away from in-person gatherings at bars and social clubs, may now be a good option to stay connected. Consider making a life rule to replace texting and voice calls with FaceTime, Skype or other platforms with video calling features. Be a leader among your friends and family insisting to see them face to face when you talk. Make a commitment to intentionally reach out to someone (or two) daily with whom you have not spoken in a while. Don’t take no for an answer when people begin to retreat from relationships. Be the voice and face of connection!
We are creating a new normal. As Lola taught us: “There is not a lot of reason to suffer when we don’t have to.“
Our life experiences either become a life sentence or a life lesson. Be intentional about how you think and how you stay connected. You have every right, even in a pandemic, to be doing life, and not let life be doing you!
*Lola is a fictional character whose experience reflects the real-life musings of some of my clients.
Todd Kaufman is a Registered Psychotherapist and Coach specializing in anxiety disorders. You can reach Todd or book an appointment online at www.TheAnxiety.Clinic 1-800-699-3396.