As I write this, the world is upside down. Here in Minnesota we watched the COVID-19 pandemic approach like an inexorable wave until it was suddenly upon us, and all at once it was hard to breathe.
In the last few weeks, I’ve seen many upcoming jobs get canceled, stretching into late summer. (It’s not a great time to be an actor, or do anything that depends on people congregating in person.) My calendar, once populated with all kinds of projects, rehearsals, performances, meetings, birthday celebrations, and deadlines, is now eerily barren.
“Ah, well,” I thought. “I can use this time to do more writing.” But every time I sit down at the computer, I go down a rabbit hole of headlines involving social distancing guidelines and the latest stats and challenges related to the progressing community spread of the novel coronavirus.
So, how do we keep ourselves and our families and communities safe, sane, and healthy? I went and asked some experts: a therapist, an integrative physician, a psychiatrist, a personal trainer, and a spiritual instructor. Their ideas apply to our current collective crisis, and for whatever might come next.
Flatten the Freakout Curve
Dr. Anna Roth is a holistic psychologist and practicing therapist in Minneapolis. She says the upheaval of the pandemic is uniquely destabilizing because it threatens our core of safety, security, and health. Many tools we use to connect and self-soothe (such as gathering with loved ones or going to the gym) are no longer an option. Or we’re inclined to lean on less-healthy coping strategies, like drinking, drugs, harmful relationship patterns, binge eating, smoking, etc. “One piece of advice won’t address every state,” she says. “Try to sense and feel where you are and how to bring your nervous system to a place of calm.”
Find Calm: “When we are activated or threatened, we often go into a hyper-aroused state—anxious, panicked, and frantic. If people are noticing they’re in a ‘fight or flight’ state, with a quick heartbeat, then they can try to do something soothing—like 10 minutes of deep breathing, restorative yoga, or tapping on acupressure points. (Look for videos to guide you online.) That’s quick, easy, and free.”
Find Energy: “When we become hypo-aroused—numb, sleepy, and depressed—and feeling more shut-down, it’s a good idea to get your heart rate up. Go for a brisk walk, find a free streaming workout online, do some jumping jacks, turn on some music and dance, get your blood pumping.”
Embrace Self-Compassion: “Some people also may be feeling, like, ‘Why aren’t I getting anything done? I should be using this time to organize my closet or get in shape’—but they can’t focus enough to get off the couch. That’s normal when experiencing a threat. Our survival systems are trying to work through this, and being hard on ourselves isn’t helpful.”
Hit the Pause Button: “I think every crisis is an opportunity to sift. The Greek root of ‘crisis’ means ‘to sift.’ It’s a priority clarifier. If we engage from that perspective, we might hear some truths about our life that we couldn’t when we were busier. We have sorely needed a global pause, especially Americans. It’s unfortunate it had to be this way. It’s hard and scary, but I’m observing the insights that are coming from it and I’m grateful for that.”
Share Good Vibes: “Once you’re regulated and feeling good, then reach out to other people and share some of that solid energy with others. Our energy is infectious.”
Fight Off the Virus
Dr. Kara Parker is a functional and integrative primary care physician with Hennepin Healthcare. An estimated 40-80% of the population could be infected, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But its physical and mental impact on each of us will vary. The virus preys on vulnerabilities, including age and whether or not you smoke, have metabolic syndrome, are obese, experience hypertension, or have an immune system that over-responds. Parker says lifestyle choices—sleep, movement, social connection (that is COVID-appropriate)—have a huge effect on your health at this time.
Self-Assess: “Ask, ‘What do I want to make in this space and time? How am I managing stress, how am I sleeping, moving my body? How am I eating when my usual patterns aren’t available?’ You can’t change your age, but you can change how inflamed you are and how well you are.”
Make Lifestyle Adjustments: “We have a lot of control, whether we’ve had the virus, it’s coming, or we never display symptoms. Reduce to a simple, easy-to-store, anti-inflammatory diet and give your immune system less heat to deal with. Blood sugar over 200 is an extreme vulnerability. Repairing gut health is important, especially for those with autoimmunity. Help your immune system to do the right kind of fighting. Maintaining your own health helps you and your community, because you’re less of a vector for transmission.”
Make Mental Adjustments: “It’s important to have good antiseptic practices on a mind-body-spirit level, too—like writing things down to get them out, and finding ways you can give that are impactful. The physical virus is one thing, but the virus that affects us all is fear. Ask yourself what you’re spreading in your energy field, your reposts. Are you being as anti-viral and supportive as possible? Stay socially connected to your close people. When social media is not supportive, say no and have good boundaries, just like you would with the physical virus.”
Practice Mindfulness: “Be mindful of the gifts and possibilities of this moment. The air is already cleaner. Take time to pull out the board games with family. What can you do that makes you and your family better, closer, healthier?”
Dr. Sheila Jowsey-Gregoire is a psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic, where she studies factors that affect the emotional wellbeing of organ transplant candidates, recipients, and donors. She says transplant patients can offer all of us lessons in resilience, as well as successful coping strategies to deal with stress. “Those who seem to do best with major health problems have a strong support network and a sense of purpose and meaning in life,” she says. “A sense of ownership of the situation, and an ability to problem-solve and make things work—those ingredients are present in those who weather the storm.”
Use Good Coping Strategies: “Dr. Dennis Charney, a psychiatrist with Mount Sinai School of Medicine, noted that resilient people tend to share 10 qualities: They’re optimistic; they learn from resilient role models; they have a strong support network; they’re flexible; they’re problem solvers; they accept the situation for what it is; they help others; they exercise; they have some kind of faith or moral compass; and they keep a sense of humor. Those 10 attributes are accessible to all of us. They don’t cost anything, and they’re profoundly helpful.”
Help Others: “It’s so easy to feel out of control, but you can grab some back by helping your community. When I’m doing my work helping others, I can’t be thinking about panic. Our brains can’t think of two things at once, so focusing on productive things that you know are helpful is a good way to stay out of a crisis state.”
Project Hope: “One strong message of people who are experienced in responding to disasters is to project hope. We have every reason to be hopeful and optimistic. There will be silver linings that come out of this. We may have new ways of helping people through innovative technologies that emerge and better ways of responding to pandemics in the future.”
Consider Positives: “Families are spending more time together, not distracted by activities and events. This may be a real renaissance in connectedness. We’ve already seen that in Italy, with people singing to each other, exercising as a group, connecting in such creative and inspiring ways.”
Find Spiritual Solace
Siri Myhrom is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, where she also teaches a class on contemplative prayer at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. The class is open to all, regardless of religious affiliation, and it’s based in the Ignatian tradition of looking for the divine in all the experiences of one’s life, from the mundane to the extreme. “There’s a hunger and a deep loneliness culturally,” she says. “People are longing for reconnection with something that’s more meaningful—particularly now, when we’re in crisis mode, and it’s, like, ‘None of the things I’ve been using to try to get through are sufficient.’”
Identify Dependencies: “Our culture is set up for us to be addicted to a bunch of stuff. [Actor and author] Russell Brand talks about how addiction is when there’s something outside of us and we assign it some job it’s not designed to do. Like, alcohol is how to get through the day, or TV is how to avoid being present in an unsatisfactory life. Or substitute sugar, shopping, social media. Addiction is us assigning this thing a job to soothe us, give us value, purpose, and meaning. That’s what we’ve been up to on a big scale for a long time. Something like this comes along, and we don’t have access to some of those things. And it’s not like it’s been working that well. Our obsession with being in a perpetual state of bliss isn’t panning out for us, and this is making it clear how those strategies are not effective.”
Dig Deeper: “A contemplative practice is available to anybody of any belief system, or no particular belief system. What we understand as hunger for the eternal could also be hunger for a grounding sense of peace or connection. As humans, there’s this nearly universal curiosity about ‘Why am I here? Do I have a purpose? How do I get through hard things?’ Eventually, we bump up against these larger questions.”
Connect with Something Bigger: “Try writing out a conversation with your higher self. Or, some go forest bathing (see p. 24) and have conversations with the divine in the form of a tree or the changing sky or a creature they observe. We can trust the things that resonate with us and draw us. Go to the lake and listen to the water move and feel something different than your everyday life. That’s worth paying attention to; that’s an experience of the divine.”
Cultivate Hope: “Hope is an orientation that we have toward peace and trust without knowing how. We have an impulse to respond to a higher wisdom in times like this, to intentionally commit to beauty. It takes a different kind of courage. A situation like this calls out of us the best of who we are—the most courageous, honest, and resilient.”
Twin Cities-based Yevhen Yelena is a DIY artist, musician, and personal trainer staying sane by keeping busy and fit. The Ukrainian-American had already converted part of his apartment into a production studio to host mini concerts, but when Minnesotans started working from home, he began creating livestream workouts that anyone can attempt—without access to a gym or expensive equipment. Visit his Instagram (@yevhenyelena) and his YouTube for workout ideas.
Improvise Weights: “It eliminates the barrier to entry for folks who can’t afford equipment or can’t get to the store. The two biggest tools I’m using are a chair—anything sturdy enough to stand on—and gallon jugs, like for detergent or milk. You can fill them with water—to the top or halfway—to create your own range of weights as options during the workout. I’m trying a broomstick and a frying pan for some core exercises. I’ve tried bottles, chairs, couch cushions, and have been roaming around the house laying out all this equipment; I had all the pots and pans and suitcases out earlier this week.”
Reap Mental Benefits: “We need strong bodies and minds to weather these times. It also releases endorphins. An uncertain future is anxiety-inducing, and endorphins can help you stay calm and think clearly.”
Push Through It: “I moved here [from Ukraine] when I was 7. Life there is much sparser, and there’s a general atmosphere of hopelessness. But even through that, people continue moving forward. We’ve experienced wars, famine, and depression in Ukraine, so I think I kind of already have a ‘save up for the hard times’ mentality. This is a pivotal time. Systems are going to break apart, and when that happens, new ones are built. People are more likely to get ahead of the curve and see new possibilities and opportunities if they’re actively searching for them.”