Not that life isn’t always something of a challenging undertaking, but the coronavirus — with its dire predictions, calls for social distancing, quarantines, and widespread closings — has made daily existence, if not unsettling, absolutely frightening.
And too much fright is not good for body and soul … or society as a whole.
According to neuroscientist Dr. Judson Brewer: “When we’re really stressed or anxious, our thinking brains go offline, and we go into survival mode.”
Which is why some people are buying 48 rolls of toilet paper and whole cases of Spam: “When we’re at home, our prefrontal cortices are working properly, so we can make a reasonable grocery and supplies list. When we get to the grocery store, we see everybody running around panicked, and suddenly we join in.
‘The scientific term for this is “social contagion.” Basically, it is the spread of emotion from one person to another. Each time you come into contact with someone who is anxious – and anxiety is even more contagious on social media – you are more likely to catch the panic bug.”
Only when our brains perceive safety does our thinking part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) come back online. That’s when we can rationally plan for the future.”
So how do we keep thinking clearly and not feed irrationality and fear? One behavior I’ve found helpful is to be careful of consuming too much caronavirus news.
That’s not to say I don’t keep up what’s happening online and listen to the news on radio and TV. I do. But I’ve found I feel more centered if I limit myself to a couple of hours or so a day and spend more time reading, writing, listening to music, laughing, praying, talking to family and friends, singing, working in the yard, exercising, watching movies, etc.
All the while maintaining a healthy anxiety that leads to respect for the science that tells me the virus is potentially lethal (so I wash my hands and practice social distancing), as I remain wary of feeding my unease to the point of panic and social contagion.
Toward this end, I daily practice mindfulness, which simply means ‘paying attention’ and letting go of ‘automatic’ negative, fearful thoughts and feelings.
When I sense anxiety beginning to build I take a deep breath and allow it to pass through rather than hold onto it. Through subsequent deep breaths I imagine it floating away like a passing cloud.
I’ve also discovered a simple practice that helps me to invite peace, love and safety. Here’s how it works: 1. Get yourself into a relaxed posture with your spine straight in a chair or lying down. 2. With eyes closed, take three, slow deep breaths; 3. Imagine yourself in a place you feel — or have felt in your past — completely calm and safe (this could be on a beach, in a church, on the couch with your dog, sitting with grandma, etc.); 4. When your mind drifts (as it will) or a sound or sensation draws you away from your safe place, non-judgmentally take a slow, deep breath and bring yourself back to that place as you say the word ‘peace’ to yourself. Repeat as needed.
If you choose to practice this, I recommend starting with a minute or two and building your time up gradually to 20 minutes. You can further use it to bring small bits of safety throughout the day by taking a deep breath, saying the word ‘peace’ to yourself, and imagining your safe place before answering the phone when it rings or when engaging in any other repetitive daily activity.
You’ll notice I use the word ‘practice’ when describing this. Like learning to ride a bike, speak a foreign language, or play a musical instrument, the desired results are only achieved through repetition. Again, I invite you to be non-judgmental about your missteps.
When it comes to social distancing, I’m fortunate to be pretty familiar with a certain form of it through my retreats at Assumption Abbey and getting to know the Trappist monks who socially distance themselves in their cloister in the center of 3,500 acres of Ozark forest.
On Thursday, Franciscan friar Richard Rohr, whose currently in quarantine in New Mexico, wrote about embracing the growth and learning offered by our current situation in his daily online meditation: “We have a chance to go deep, and to go broad. Globally, we’re in this together. Depth is being forced on us by great suffering, which as I like to say, always leads to great love.”
Rohr’s observation, along with several other experiences I’ve had this past week, brought to mind a Native American story that speaks directly to what I’m called to do in these uncertain times.
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
CORRECTION In last week’s column I left a couple of musicians out of my list of KOAM TV Melody Matinee players – banjo player Ralph Hunt and guitarist Bill Thornton. My apologies … and thanks to Gloria Nahon and Marty Vanhouten for pointing out the omissions.
— J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and celebrant. He also operates Knoll Training, Consulting & Training in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 620-231-0499, firstname.lastname@example.org, or 401 W. Euclid, Pittsburg, KS 66762