The Tsunami COVID-19, Beware the Undertow
April 2020, Toronto, CANADA
And so it begins…
The crushing power of a tsunami can destroy almost anything we can build, including entire communities. And as the wave of destruction retreats, as it must always do, the undertow can drag what is left of our world out to sea, forever lost to the eternal black deep. As these waves of COVID-19 surge around the globe, we need to take heed of the ensuing undertow. It holds the power to strip us of a core evolutionary need that has allowed us to thrive on this planet. Our need to connect, bond and care for each other.
From our caveman days we were more successful in cooperative packs. Families and allies, banded together were more effective in hunting, breeding and protecting themselves against danger.
And along comes COVID-19, a tsunami that threatens to tear apart our communities.
At the same time, there are beautiful and powerful signs of hope. Forced to remain physically distant people and communities are finding unique, creative and fun ways to come together. We can give thanks for the digital age that has provided the tools to be able to have a heart to heart, face-to-face conversation with a loved one on the other side of the planet. We are discovering and promoting virtual dinner parties, online communities, and the capacity to set-up offices and workgroups from home. Yet these digital connections cannot fully replace what we get from the in-person, face-to-face experience. We rely deeply on non-verbal communication including body language and micro-expressions. But still, there are reasons for hope as these tools, our creativity and our biological/psychological imperative to come together empowers us dig in, and hold fast against the undertow.
It’s not just you, it’s us…
The effects of long-term social isolating are not known. But we do know it is contrary to our very nature. This need is encoded in our DNA and is linked to a vast array of physical and mental health problems: depression, dementia, heart disease and even death. A 2018 Danish study concluded that objective social isolation was associated with a 60–70% increased all-cause mortality. Before the recent dictums to distance and isolate to ‘level the curve’ (minimizing the spread of the virus), Statistics Canada reported over one in five Canadians reported feeling lonely, and this number skyrockets when we poll seniors. The epidemic is so bad the UK government appointed a new minister for loneliness!
Connection not only cures loneliness but it buffers the effect of stress. Stress well-modulated provides us with temporary motivation and strength. However unchecked, stress like loneliness has long been known to impact both mental and physical health.
Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity or CTRA, is a gene expression we find in human immune cells which responds to chronic stress by increasing the production of inflammatory proteins – it is intended as a short-lived acute inflammation to adapt and increase the immune response to fight an injury or infection. Long-lived it becomes a threat and meanwhile, CTRA is downregulating (slowing down) our anti-body genes that decrease our ability to fight a virus. Loneliness, fed by a lack of connection only worsens this response, which in turn harms health and furthers isolation. It’s a system that can weaken our ability to resist the undertow and being swept into the dark abyss.
All of this adds up to just case for a dire warning. We need to be vigilant about what we are learning, or not, from this necessary loss of connection. History has taught us the nefarious power of capitalizing on individual and communal weaknesses, utilizing them to further our disconnection and thus divide and conquer.
Globalism breaks down borders and allows trade and life to move freely across borders. Anti-globalism existed before Covid-19 and is a tried and powerful tool of governments seeking to gain and hold power. The politics of fear and blame have levelled democracies and birthed holocausts. Shut down borders. Build walls. The call to fear, isolate, disconnect from our neighbours and blame the other are the makers of despots and dictators. It frees the individual and their community of responsibility for the inherent challenges of community. What is wrong is ‘their fault’ not ours, and governments and leaders can rise to power on the backs of their chosen targets – usually the weak and most vulnerable.
The dangerous irony is that to beat COVID-19 we must shut down borders and build walls.
Left unnoticed and unchecked the undertow can and will destroy our communities and nations.
There is a solution…
Our well-being and survival are intrinsically linked to our connections with others. Our biology mandates connection…stress, well-managed, boosts our immune systems. It can encourage us to seek and provide support. CTRA is downregulated by positive altruistic connections – the happiness found in caring for others. (Fascinatingly, a study in 2013 at the University of Florida found in hedonistic happiness has the opposite, negative, impact on this gene expression.) In short caring for others improves out health.
Anyone who has flown knows the well-rehearsed safety briefing that tells you, “In an emergency, put your own oxygen mask on first.” It is not an act of selfishness – you need to be conscious to help others.
I live a life walking the fine lines between being a psychotherapist, deeply rooted in the science of neuropsychology, and a spiritual director, who is deeply rooted in academic Christian theology and very wary of organized religion.
I believe in hope, and I know grace. I’m fascinated by the intersections of science, theology and the creation of reality.
I know each of us has a history, and very few of us escape burdens of trauma and oppression. We are all wounded and suffer in some way. Isolation and distancing are a potential mental health crisis in the making and can serve to further our trauma. Some of us suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Our life history seems to be a life-sentence, not a life-lesson. We struggle to shift this paradigm. Communally we may be moving towards a new systemic PTSO, (Post-traumatic Stress Order).
The crisis starts with the individual and like this virus, it can spread through our communities and infect us globally. No community or leader is immune. Without great intention by each of us this virus will win. The tsunami will crush us, and the undertow will drag what is left out to sea.
But there is hope. And it is harder to access for some than others. We must come together. We must find connections in the isolation and build walls that break the tsunami, stop the virus, and still let our compassion flow freely.
It is too easy for me to tell you to wash your hands, stay home, breathe deep, meditate, eat well, get your sleep, and use technology to build connection – good advice, yet these are only options for those of us who have enough privilege to do so.
So many won’t because they can’t. It’s simply not in reach. They don’t have freshwater, a home, a bed to sleep in, or technology. Their trauma runs deep, and should they close their eyes for but a moment they see flashes of terror, not moments of peace. In varying degrees, we are all weak, vulnerable and incapable.
But there is grace. Grace is our ability to regenerate and sanctify, to inspire virtuous impulses, and to impart strength to endure and press past temptation. For some grace is of divine inspiration, for others is simply an inherent pillar of humanity. Through grace, we access the biology of connection and the power stress gives us to put on our own oxygen mask first, giving us the strength to care for others. Through grace we find the compassion to carry those who can’t carry themselves.
We can do this. We have the capacity to survive. It is found in connection. It is in both heeding the wisdom of experts and those who have walked the walk. It is being the hands and feet of those who can’t, and when we can’t be those hands and feet, allowing grace to flow as others put on our oxygen mask for us.
So yes, if you can, wash your hands, stay home, breathe deep, meditate, eat well, get your sleep, and use technology to build connection. And if you can’t know through grace you can find connection and community that will bring the compassion that heals.
Todd Kaufman is a Registered Psychotherapist, Coach and Spiritual Director specializing in anxiety disorders. He is the founder of the Anxiety Release Protocol (ARP), a practical modality used by mental health workers and doctors to quickly relieve anxiety symptoms and help patients and clients find happiness. Todd’s book, ‘TRANSFORMING ANXIETY from Hot Mess to Superpower’ is now available online.
Todd holds undergraduate degrees in the Arts and Fine Arts from York University, and a master’s degree in Divinity from Berkeley California with a focus in counseling and social change.
You can reach Todd through his clinic located on the campus of the Univeristy of Toronto, (when not wisely complying with Public Health directives for social distancing), where he and his therapy dog, Gracey T. Bear provide psychotherapeutic-coaching and workshops, which provide continuing education to mental health workers. You can also meet Todd online at www.TheAnxiety.Clinic 1-800-699-3396.
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“Fear is a very natural response,” said Kaufman, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders at his Toronto-based clinic.