The world has gone a little crazy this week. The slow build in the news about the Corona Virus taking place over the last few months felt remote. Foreign. It was a thing that other countries were going through. It was a news article I paid attention to with interest, but casual interest, figuring it wouldn’t impact me all that much. It felt like political news, or news of Australian and Amazon wildfires. And then it started hitting the news more locally, like Seattle and New York City.
And then, four days ago, it exploded. There was an onrush of news about flights and vacations being cancelled, major events like South by Southwest and March Madness being delayed or shut down, and theme parks closing. And within hours, it spread to school closures and local venues (like the swimming pool I frequent) being closed.
A myriad of emotions have set in since then. In me, in my children, in my family and loved ones, and in the general public. The world suddenly feels like a very small place. News feels familiar instead of foreign when I realize we are experiencing in Salt Lake City what they are experiencing in Seoul and Wuhan and Florence. It is a big world full of people, and we are much more the same than we are different.
This morning, I stopped by a coffee shop that I frequent. I go to this place twice a week. I know the baristas by name. I can sit there for hours and read and write. Today, everything was different. It was like an alternate reality. I walked in to see the tables empty of chairs (to enforce social distancing) and the chairs empty of people. I walked up to the counter, and the barista seemed nervous about handing me my coffee. She was anxious about taking my card to pay for the coffee, and sprayed down the counter and area with a sanitized rag, then she immediately washed her hands. It seemed physically painful for her to be there. It was… sad.
Last week, after school got cancelled, I had to sit down with my sons and talk to them about the realities about to face us. They won’t be seeing their friends at school. They wouldn’t even be going back on Monday. They might be out for days, or weeks, or the rest of the school year. I needed them to understand the seriousness of all of this, while at the same time helping them stay calm. I tried to implement a balance of social responsibility while assuring them that everything is going to be fine. I want them to be careful and realistic, but also optimistic and playful. It’s a delicate space to dwell in. This is hard for me to understand at 41; it’s an entire reality shift for them at ages 8 and 11.
But I think it is important for all of us to find that balance. There has to be a healthy space between socially responsible and mentally well. We humans are social creatures. We swarm to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, and concerts. We thrive on game nights, house parties, and social ventures. (Well, many of us do). To be suddenly removed from all of that, and left to our own support systems, it strikes up a deep and primal fear for many. We are worried about our medically vulnerable loved ones. We are worried about our food supply. We are worried about our ability to pay our bills if there isn’t consistent pay or work coming in. We are worried about being exposed to the virus. And we are worried because many other people don’t seem worried at all.
I think we need to be careful to let that worry have its place. But we can’t let it go too far. Worry should spark us toward social responsibility, not toward paranoia. I’m avoiding shaking hands with others, and hugging anyone but my family. But I’m still happy to see friends in small gathering, to visit local businesses for fast transactions. I’m still exercising, eating healthy, and seeing clients (though some in remote sessions), while frequently washing my hands and wiping down surfaces. Social distancing does not mean self-quarantining.
When I’m working with clients who have anxiety, I reassure them frequently with the Serenity Prayer (though many of them just ignore the God part). ‘God grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ It applies here. We need to be responsible for ourselves and our activities. We need to listen to the medical professionals. We need to take care of ourselves and our families. But delving into panic, into hoarding goods, into catastrophizing and making things out to be tougher than they actually are, well, those things don’t help.
The number one tool in combating anxiety is BREATH. Breath and mindfulness. Slow, measured breathing when things feel impossible. Careful consistent planning. Long walks in the sunlight. Drinking water. Moving our bodies. Staying connected with friends. Working on projects. Staying task-oriented. Setting new routines.
The truth is, there is a lot up in the air. We don’t know what headlines will hit the news tomorrow and inspire a fresh wave of nervousness. But delving into the anxiety too far is not going to change things. This is a difficult time, and we will need to support each other through it.
When I break anxiety apart, I find fear and sadness underneath. This is a time that is scary and difficult. And it has to be experienced just a few hours at a time. That is what we have control over. A few hours at a time, leading up to a day at a time.
Take a deep breath. We are all going through this together.