So, did that get your attention? What’s a therapist doing telling people to ignore their feelings? Aren’t we, the therapists, supposed to help people get in touch with their feelings? Not necessarily.
This is going to be a relatively short post, and it won’t be as linked to studies, etc. as I normally like. But it came to my attention when I saw an online article titled “motivation is overrated.” Going back and doing a web search to find it, there are too many hits for me to search for the original, so I can’t link to it quickly. But the example I perused was focused on doing exercise and pointed out that lots of times you just don’t feel like doing something, even if it’s good for you. I once was facilitating a therapy group in which we got talking about what was most harmful about depression, and there was a lot of support around that depressed feeling of “I don’t wanna…” where the completion of the phrase could be anything from brushing one’s teeth to taking antidepressant medication. So I’ll cut to the chase: that’s when to ignore your feeling.
The DBT people are big on what they call “wise mind”, which is the intersection of your emotional mind and your rational mind. So when I don’t feel like doing something like getting up when the alarm goes off, but my rational mind tells me that things will be better in the long run if I go to work– especially arriving on time– that’s when I lean more heavily on my rational mind. There’s still an emotional component, but it’s relatively subdued (I know I feel better when I do the right thing) compared to the more dominant emotion (I want to sleep in!).
This skill is important when dealing with mood disorders. If I’m depressed, I frequently have to confront that feeling of “I don’t wanna.” I need to engage in simple self-care activities, get exercise, make it to appointments, etc. even when I feel like doing nothing. If I’m anxious, I may feel a strong desire to run away, as with experiencing panic symptoms in public from agoraphobia. In both cases, I’m feeling a strong negative emotion. In both cases, I can get a better long term outcome if I disregard a strong negative emotion and take action based on a more rational analysis of my situation. Is it difficult? You betcha. But life is hard, and this is one of those avoidance-avoidance choices, or as I like to say, a choice between two bads. You will choose, because the only choice we never get is to not choose, but one of them is still better than the other. That’s why sometimes you have to ignore your feelings. Later, when the fuss has died down and you get back in touch with your feelings, you’ll feel better.
So obviously I’m not really telling you to ignore your feelings in the sense of being in denial, or what people call stuffing feelings. For those who like a reframe, what I’m saying fits with the old saying, “Feel the fear and do it anyway.” There’s a more nuanced, more depth-oriented way of looking at this. I may have an underlying feeling, such as “I want to escape from addiction” which is temporarily crowded out by a more surface and immediate feeling of “I want to get loaded.” This means that the other way of looking at it is to take a moment and choose which feeling you want to guide your actions.
It’s been a while. Like many Americans, I’ve been watching the news and riding the roller coaster. But something happened earlier today that brought me back to a kind of everyday mindfulness, which my Midwestern forebearers would have probably called “paying attention” or “keeping your mind on what you’re doing.” This fits in more with what many current writers have called “secular mindfulness,” something taken from Buddhism but not connected to Buddhist doctrines, dogmas, etc.
Let me give an example taken from the world of sports. In an American football game you may have seen a receiver go out for a pass. The ball is thrown and the receiver, who is open, gets a good toss but doesn’t hold on to it. The commentator may say, “He started to run before he was done catching it,” or something to that effect.
You may have noticed something like this in yourself or others while driving– people who speed up excessively on a surface street that leads to a freeway on ramp. Their minds are on the freeway while they’re still physically on a surface street. They are not present for the time and place they are actually inhabiting.
Let’s use a bigger example– the presidential election. Now that it’s over, you may be looking forward to (or dreading) a new president. Not living in the moment, are we? Whether the results stand (as they always have, not counting 1876, about which people can still argue) or not, it’s nothing I have any influence over– nor do you, unless you’re an expert in local election law in a handful of states. We come back to that Buddhist mantra, “…. grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” Oh, wait, that’s from a Protestant prayer.
The thing is, I do have the ability to focus on what’s in my environment with my senses right now. That could be doing a budget or taking out the trash. It could be listening to a loved one– or talking to them. When I devote some (or all) of my attention to the future or the past, there’s less of me in the present. So mindfulness isn’t necessarily a meditation practice, but can also be an everyday practice for cooking, studying, being in a relationship– anything we do. As the DBT people put it, “one thing in the moment, five senses, non-judgmentally.” I was going to write more, but it turns out that someone else beat me to it. So I encourage one and all to read the article on mindfulness as an everyday practice, and to practice mindfulness with whatever you are doing right now. My experience is that life becomes less stressful, and I become more resilient. And, as with mindfulness meditation, when I fail at it, I observe the failure non-judgmentally and turn the mind back to whatever I was focusing on.
At a time when not just income inequality but wealth inequality are hot topics, It’s inspirational to hear of someone who didn’t use their money to found yet another plutocratic, oligarchic dynasty. He even got some other plutocrats to promise to give away at least half of their billions. You and I will never get to do anything like this, (unless a billionaire stumbles across this blog, highly unlikely) but we can live our own values to the best of our abilities.
I usually try to post something at least monthly, but I have fallen short of that goal. I also try to post on a topic that is not too common, or that relates to a personal interest, But no topic has seemed both personal and topical, considering what has been going on in the news– the bitterness of our politics, the continued public health crisis, social upheaval and conflict and here in California, the fires. Then I saw something that reminded me of a point which, while not unique or special to me, is highly topical: thus the title of this post. I saw an article about how prevalent mental health and addiction symptoms have been during the pandemic and there were no surprises. But one piece of the puzzle is something I have written about before– don’t chase your tail emotionally speaking by feeling bad about feeling bad. Don’t judge your negative emotions negatively.
My local public broadcasting station ran a good call in/talk to the experts segment on coping with all these things at once, and also summarized in an article. The podcast of the initial show is also available.
The key points that resonated with me included self-care; recognizing that I need to take care of myself for a great many reasons, including being able to be there for others if possible but also seeing myself as being equally valid as a recipient of nurture along with others, and framing this in self-compassion: talk to myself the way I would talk to my best friends if they were going through the same thing. The thing that hit me, resulting in this post, is the basic truth: you are not alone. We are all going through various levels of stress. Even those who are relatively unscathed may be experiencing guilt over being better off than others or frustration over normal channels for being able to help others not being available.
Another of the things that came up was that we are, indeed, living through an unprecedented set of conditions. Nobody has gone through this experience. In that sense, we are all on an equal footing. At the same time we need to recognize that our nation has gone through other extremely stressful times– a great civil war, fought on our own soil. A crushing economic depression. Other episodes of epidemic or pandemic illness. Political crises and civil unrest. And we have gotten through these as a country and our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents got through them.
One thing that I’m surprised no one has brought up– limit the amount of time you spend with the news. It’s stuff you can’t change. If you want to be a political activist you can phone bank or do other activities, but you don’t need to scroll through a dozen news stories that show a dozen different views of the same stressors. It’s OK to look for the “aw” stories about the dog that pulled the child from the burning building or how a couple got married in their 90’s or anything that gives you a boost. Avoid triggering your trauma by visuals of bad things that have happened. It’s OK to give that a pass for today. Recognize that you are going through grief and loss, among other things.
Take care of yourself; be willing to both ask for and to give support. Talk kindly to yourself in moments alone. How would you support your best friend?
I have not been posting very often because I continue to try to keep my original purpose of writing about things I haven’t seen mentioned elsewhere, but this piece was just too good to not pass along: it’s about forgiveness.
The author makes a couple of points that I just want to highlight. The main one is the title of this post, which is that when we forgive, it’s because having forgiveness in my heart is more healing for me than having feelings of anger, resentment, and fantasies of revenge. The classic line from 12-step folklore is, “It’s like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” When we undertake the process of forgiving, it’s not about the other person, it’s about peace in our own hearts. The other thing is the danger of unforgiven material turning into resentment. Again, the 12-step world has processes for dealing with resentment, and this is the only place I’ve seen where there is any material on dealing with resentment.
The third thing that I think is important is the tip from the article that this may not be something you can do without a therapist. I have had professional experience with people who were survivors of some very traumatic abuse who wanted to engage in a process of forgiveness for a perpetrator, but this can be extremely tricky. The article talks about feeling your feelings, including anger. It also may involve remembering trauma. Not necessarily work to be done alone.
At this point I want to take a short digression into anger management. Many years ago, I was taking anger management group facilitator training and the trainer asserted that anger is never a primary emotion. Not only that, but it is always a stand in– a front, if you will– for either anger or sorrow. I easily accepted the idea that anger is not a primary emotion, but questioned that the only underlying emotions are fear or sorrow. I’ve been thinking about it for twenty years and have never identified a third source for anger. The thing is, anger is essentially a defensive emotion. We’re talking about fight/flight/freeze responses to threat, here. Fear and sorrow are vulnerable emotions, while anger– or even rage– is protective. If I’m on the attack, I’m doing something about my fear or sorrow, although it may be the wrong thing. I can get away from feeling those painful emotions, even if only temporarily. Anger is defensive in the classic sense of the saying that the best defense is a good offense.
The piece points out that forgiveness is a process with steps, and my experience is that it is the final step in a larger process of dealing with being a survivor of trauma. The best process for dealing with trauma that I know about is the Seeking Safety curriculum, which starts and ends, for the most part, in helping trauma survivors deal with the negative emotions that have to be experienced when healing from PTSD. So the process of forgiveness as mentioned in the article may be about forgiveness for something that is emotionally problematic but does not rise to this level, or it could be for something much more troubling. Premature and unaided attempts to engage in forgiveness for perpetrators of serious trauma may be damaging. As they say in some infomercials, “…do not attempt this at home.” If you embark on the process and it is too disturbing, there may be other things you need to do first. Don’t be hesitant to enlist a trained professional. Good luck.
And a small afterword: When we consider how difficult it is for ourselves to forgive others, we are well advised to go softly and refrain, wherever possible, from doing things that may require people to forgive us.
Do a web search for images around the word forgiveness and you will see a great many images, but they will all have words, or at least the first several pages I looked at did. Sources include a great many quotes from Christianity as you might expect, but also from other world religions. I chose the one from C. S. Lewis not because he’s a Christian, but because I thought it was funny, and reflected that forgiveness is far from easy.
I recently saw a post on social media representing nurses and pertaining to our newly-reinvigorated struggles for equality. “Friendly reminder that nurses have to restrain violent, confused, intoxicated and belligerent people all the time. And we make it happen without crushing anyone’s windpipe.”
It reminded me that I once worked in a setting where the staff were occasionally confronted with assaultive clients. Everyone was trained on how to restrain them if it came down to it, but most of the training was on how to de-escalate them. We were specifically trained that, due to the clients being in a residential treatment environment and being minors, under no circumstances could we do anything that might be construed as assault by us against them. In fact, the training included a lot on how to run away, how to escape, to be aware that destruction of property was OK as long as there was no danger to other people. Nobody was armed and the furniture was mostly too heavy to pick up so there were no weapons involved.
The quote referenced above brought back a few memories, but also brought me back to some of the recent discussions about the topic that depending on your sources and your political bent, may have been labeled “defunding the police” or “re-imagining policing.” Some police departments have already announced that they will no longer send armed officers to calls about homeless people or other issues that are not clearly and immediately public safety threats. Fine, but who will they send? Some jurisdictions have what are called “PERT” teams, an acronym for Psychiatric Emergency Response Teams. I always flinch at names like this because I hate it when people say “ATM machine” when the the M stands for machine, or “PIN number” when the the N stands for number, but that’s just one of my little issues… Where were we?
The thing is, a licensed mental health practitioner takes some time to train, and then crisis intervention training is a specialized sub-field. But it definitely takes longer than most police training, which can run perhaps six months. To the best of my knowledge, and I have not done deep research on this, you go on the payroll when you enter the police academy. When I was training to become a Marriage and Family Therapist, there were no public health departments anywhere that offered to pay for two years of training and 3,000 hours of supervised experience in return for accepting a government job as a mental health professional.
Hmmm… there’s a thought. If we want to take money that has been used to militarize policing and use it to humanize policing, this would be a clear path to address a clear need for street-based mental health crisis intervention. If we really want to re-imagine the police, or divert money from urban assault vehicles to mental health responses, maybe we should look at training and funding this kind of service. Do a quick web search for “Tactical Armored Vehicle” and see all the vendors. Look at a few pictures. How much do you think one of those babies will cost? How many trained mental health professionals could we add for the cost of a couple of those? And the mental health professionals would be working full time, every day, not sitting in a garage waiting for civil unrest to break out. Maybe if we did that, we wouldn’t be so worried about civil unrest.
I’m not going link to a bunch of sources here. I encourage everyone to do homework. I remember going to a conference where one presenter showed a chart that documented a change that happened during “de-institutionalization” of California’s severely mentally ill. In one Bay Area county, the year that a large state hospital closed, the county jail population doubled. So “de-institutionalization” was a de facto criminalization of mental illness. Today, the three largest locked ward mental hospitals in America are all county jails. This is in addition to the mass incarceration resulting from the war on drugs famously started by Ronald Reagan and carried on by most of his successors in the White House. Again, I didn’t personally check the numbers but the head of a Bay Area behavioral health department said publicly a few years ago that funding for addiction treatment has been flat for forty years.
Changes take time and money and political will. Most communities, whatever they say, are not going to disband the police force in the next couple of weeks. But we can and must train the existing cops more rigorously in de-escalating upset people. I recently saw a video of a cop pulling a gun on a guy who was unarmed and not assaultive. The citizen was being uncooperative, most certainly qualified as resisting arrest. But the law enforcement guy totally lost it and threatened the citizen with what amounts to summary execution. That’s not right in anyone’s book. Notice I have scrubbed all references to race. Feel welcome to look up statistics on which category of unarmed jerks resisting arrest get shot the most (no surprises) but even one person, of any race, is too many. De-escalating situations is the most needed skill, and I’m just going to guess, not the most widely trained and probably not reviewed. There is an established curriculum called CIT, Crisis Intervention Training, so we don’t need to invent it. We need to train everyone in law enforcement to do it.
So my modest proposal is this: train, train, train the existing officers on restraint– restraining themselves, de-escalation, and how to restrain people without damaging them if it comes to that. In the video referenced above, two cops ultimately restrained and arrested the citizen. What I don’t get is, if the cop in the first part of the video knew he had backup and the citizen was unarmed, why did he even draw his weapon? It leads me to speculate that the officer himself was on edge and ready to snap. That brings me to my second proposal, perhaps a controversial one: take better care of the cops. I mentioned this briefly in the last post: we know that these men and women are in a high-stress job, get exposed to a lot of trauma, have a high suicide rate, and have a culture which discourages asking for help. But we can change that. If, for example, all officers had a monthly meeting with a mental health counselor it would eliminate the stigma of talking to one. Would they resist it? I imagine so. Providing mental health assistance might be more controversial with the cops than the general public.
People tend to resist change. If there were more PERT members available with the ability to do rapid response in the field 24/7 then the cops could call for them. If the cops all had CIT they would be more confident about their own abilities to de-escalate situations. All this costs money, but so do those armored vehicles. So does incarceration of the mentally ill. So do lawsuits that arise from shooting unarmed mentally ill citizens.
If we re-imagine policing as a high stress job which seriously damages the mental health of its practitioners, then we can start to reshape to stoic culture of “the thin blue line.” Is that a long term culture change project? Absolutely. But then again, so is fighting systemic racism, and most people are up for that. If we want to rehumanize our society, we need to destigmatize homelessness, poverty, being female, addiction, mental illness, being Black or Brown, LGBTQ–and being a cop. Check your reaction to the laundry list. If you were nodding your head right up until the last item…
Re-imagining policing does involve de-funding: de-fund the war on drugs. De-fund the militarization of the police. But not generically de-funding government. We have been on that path for forty years and it has led us to this. Spend the money on helping both the people on the street and those who respond to them. Rehumanize our society. It’s cheaper in the long run, and ethically far superior.
We all need to keep looking at ourselves, working on our own prejudices. I’m with you on that. I’m still working on my own, and I hope I will keep working. Stay safe. Help others to stay safe. We’re in it together. Remember what the Buddha said– “Hate never conquered hate.”
(Sadly enough, the top image comes from an eight year old article about defunding mental health clinics in Chicago, where Cook County Jail is one of the three largest inpatient mental health facilities in the nationhttps://www.huffpost.com/entry/chicago-mental-health-clinic-closures_b_1333498?slideshow=true#gallery/5be1f911e4b0aeaf24c47f18/5)
I have been in much the same emotional state as those reading, I expect. I’ll honestly admit– I did everything in my power to avoid the actual video of George Floyd being killed. But it was so prevalent that I was exposed to it as someone else watched broadcast TV news. It would take a heart of stone– or someone already numbed by too much trauma– to not react. The three choices when in a traumatic situation are to fight, flee, or freeze. When the situation is overwhelming, the choice is not necessarily conscious. Which made me think. We have heard a variety of voices mention that numbing experience. So many of us have been so exposed to so much that we have started to numb in self-defense. Others have started to numb through the use of chemical agents. I suspect that when the numbers are counted, this period of American life will see a huge jump in addictive disease— coming on top of the opioid epidemic. Remember when the opioid epidemic was considered one of our worst problems?
Doctor Judith Herman, in her book, Trauma and Recovery has done the most comprehensive overview of trauma that I am familiar with. She is especially important for introducing the complex PTSD concept– that PTSD symptoms don’t have to arise from a single overwhelming trauma, such as combat or a natural disaster, but can arise from a longer term exposure to a traumatic environment, such as sexual abuse, internment, or dare I say it, systemic racism. But in this difficult time we are living, we need to be aware that first responders, including law enforcement, can have complex PTSD from having been present at too many scenes of violence and trauma. We can all start to become symptomatic as well from too much vicarious trauma.
In a world where everyone is traumatized, the first line of defense is compassion– for self and others. But let’s take a moment to try to understand what trauma does to the brain. Here’s a somewhat technical description: “In combination with exaggerated amygdalar responses seen in patients with PTSD, a limited capacity for discerning threat due to hippocampal and amygdalar dysfunction may promote paranoia, hypervigilance, behavioral activation, exaggerated stress responses, and further acquisition of fear associations. Disrupted prefrontal cortical function may then serve to facilitate PTSD pathology further as a result of deficient suppression of stress responses, fear associations, and extinction.” The source article can be viewed here.
I will be open to instruction from those with a greater background in neuroscience than mine who provide references to good sources, but my understanding is that parts of the limbic system (a more primitive part of the brain in evolutionary terms) are on high alert for more trauma and more likely to see environmental cues as threatening, while the cortex is less involved in running the show. So someone who has complex trauma from systemic racism is likely to be more on edge and more likely to see threats and more likely to react emotionally. And someone who has complex trauma from a day job that involves being present at domestic disputes, car crashes, and other scenes of violence is more likely to be more on edge and more likely to see neutral events as threats as well. Now put the two groups face to face on the streets. There’s a formula… With that in mind, we can feel grateful that there has been so much peace in so many places. Feel welcome to not dwell on how much worse it could be.
And I will not take time here to go into intergenerational or transgenerational trauma but yes, that’s a real thing. It was not made up by wishy-washy liberals and is based in epigenetics.
But what is the action item here, for personal survival and for systemic change? It is compassion for self and for others. I can remember sitting in group therapy groups with PTSD survivors (Seeking Safety) and experiencing again and again the frustration of the group members that even mothers and spouses would come up with the tired lines, “It’s all in your head” and “Get over it” or “Move on with y our life.” Would that it were that easy. As the article cited above points out, PTSD remodels your brain, physically and biochemically. The first step in healing, as with so many other areas of mental health therapy, is to acknowledge that the problem is a problem in and of itself. Your trauma is your trauma. The other person’s trauma is theirs. There is no hierarchy of suffering. There is no contest of “your pain is less humongous than my pain.” That doesn’t help anyone. It only divides us from one another.
There is folk wisdom in the idea that if you are drowning in the middle of a lake it doesn’t matter whether you fell off a yacht or were dumped there by kidnappers. The task is to save yourself from drowning. This idea is also voiced in the saying that I received from the Buddhist tradition, “When the house is on fire, which is more important? To find out who started it, or to put it out?”
So in these troubled times, first be good to yourself. If you want to advocate for change but your trauma does not permit demonstrating in the streets, you can find other things to do. If you have a couple of spare dollars, donate. If you have time to engage in political action by letter writing, petition signing, or calling your elected representatives, do that. Remember, it is local officials like the mayor and the district attorney who take action in most of these issues, and you have more access to them and your vote counts more to them than in a statewide or national election. NO matter how cynical you may be about politics, remember that failure to vote is a vote for the status quo. Support the right kinds of businesses when you shop. But even if your voice is one of many, your Federal Senator has a staff of interns who itemize what issues people write in about and which way the opinions are trending. There is no action so small that it doesn’t count.
Do your best to find it in your heart to have compassion for the suffering of all people including those who you perceive as being on the other side. I remember a great quote attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Also, the saying of the Buddha, “Hate never conquered hate.” Remember that when you make the effort to have compassion, your heart is filled with compassion which will be healing for yourself, regardless of what happens to others.
If this post is somewhat scattered, my apologies. There is so much I wanted to say, but I”m trying to keep a focus on mental health and healing.
To find out how antidepressant cow works, you will need to read the article linked below. While antidepressant cows will not necessarily work for everyone, the good news is that there are other things– multiple things– that will do the job.
I have not been diligently working on new content, but this article by Johann Hari is worth checking out. To me it seems ridiculous that we need to come back to some of this stuff– the field of psychiatry/clinical psychology started with talk therapy and social/environmental interventions, after all. But at least people are coming back to what we have known all along. Be well, stay safe. Most importantly, remember that there are things that are within your own power to do that can help you, that staying in touch with other people is important, that we need to get outside & get time with nature. remember, what we need to do is physical distancing, not social distancing. It’s harder to stay in touch with people right now, but more important than ever.
Many years ago when I was a college student, I went to visit a friend who lived in exurban Connecticut. My friend was the third of that name and was so called “Buddy,” the other names having been used on the first and second holders of the name. His father was an attorney handling business law, and quite successful. However, Buddy’s dad had what some people would call a character defect– impatience. This was especially a problem for him while driving, so his solution was to have a big Cadillac limo and a hired driver whose task it would be to drive like a demon, to satisfy Buddy’s dad’s impatience without the dad having to be the one getting the speeding ticket. That was Buddy’s summer job. I went on a trip with them in the front seat and indeed, Buddy drove like a demon. On another trip in the family car going to pick up his girlfriend from work, Buddy drove in a calm and relaxed manner.
One day during the visit, it was Buddy’s job to drive with his father and some of the father’s friends into New York City to go to the races and then to dinner and for some drinks. I rode along in the front seat. After dinner, Buddy and I went to see the movie Siddhartha, based on Herman Hesse’s novel, while Buddy’s dad & friends had a couple of cocktails. We were to pick them up after the movie. It was a beautiful film, shot on location in Northern India, all about the life of Siddhartha and how he ultimately found peace (Read the book or watch the movie. The book is always better than the movie, of course).
We came out feeling peaceful and relaxed ourselves, and picked up Buddy’s dad & friends to go back to Connecticut. We got onto FDR Drive North and were immediately stuck in stop-and-go (mostly stopped) traffic. Per his job duties, Buddy changed lanes repeatedly, trying to get ahead, but after about twenty minutes we could both see that we were surrounded by the same six or eight cars that had always been there. Buddy did what many people would do in his place. He changed strategies, sitting in one lane to see if it perhaps would ultimately go faster than the other lanes. If not, he hadn’t been getting anywhere anyway, so why not just wait it out?
During the twenty minutes of repeatedly lane changes, Buddy’s dad had been sitting in the back of the limo, talking with his friends. After a few minutes of no lane changes, he ran down the glass partition between the back & front of the limo.
“What are you doing?” he inquired, somewhat peevishly.
Nettled, but also still remembering the movie and Siddhartha’s success at finding peace Buddy replied, “I’m waiting.”
This was the trigger for a verbal tirade from Buddy’s dad, with the punchline, “That’s not doing anything!” Up went the glass partition for the remainder of the ride.
Thus was it shown that waiting is doing something, and that Buddy could do it while his father could not.
Lately we all have been doing a lot of waiting. Patience is a skill that can be practiced and improved. Some days we may do it better than others. That’s life. But you can do it. Remember to also practice self-compassion. Keep well.
Photo by the author: San Mateo County coast, south of Half Moon Bay looking north.
I am staying home like everyone else, surfing media like everyone else, most of it either humorous (my choice) or useless (most news as usual). But I ran across an item from someone who was writing as a self-proclaimed “recovering from health anxiety” person and it looked pretty good, so I am putting up the link here.
The one thing I want to put in a word about is the cognitive distortion of catastrophizing. You can find a lot of definitions online, but my personal version is that we catastrophize when we go beyond making mountains out of mole hills and turn them into erupting volcanoes.
One way of dealing with this is by the use of counter-examples. So when we look at the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center we see that over 100,00 people have recovered from the illness. We see that the world wide death rate is around four percent– much less in some countries and some groups. So even if I get sick, my chances are 96% over all of coming out the other side in one piece. That doesn’t mean we don’t do all the obvious things– keep six feet apart, wash hands a lot, stay home– you’ve heard it all before. The additional good news is that when I do these things they’re also for other people, not just for myself.
From one point of view, this is one crisis that’s easy to confront: we can respond by adhering to the self-isolation and social distancing– 6 feet! guidelines, i.e., I can help out by doing exactly nothing! Just stay home and read a book in the bathtub, if you’ve got a tub. Harder done than said, as the article on managing health anxiety points out, but you’ve got a window of opportunity. Or you can take the time to begin or work on your mindfulness practice or re-organize your sock drawer, or garden if you have a garden, or… you get the idea. Now is the time to do some guilt-free binge watching of old TV shows and movies. Personally I’m a fan of Miyazaki, but if you don’t have his stuff on disk I don’t think it’s available to stream.
This whole thing reminds me of a study that I read many years ago where researchers in Norway looked at sensory deprivation and the reports of hallucinations and other extreme phenomena in some of the literature. They did a very interesting, somewhat low-budget version of sensory isolation using two different groups– one was city-dwelling Norwegians much like the rest of the Western world. The other was a group of rural Norwegians who were used to going through long, isolated winters in the far north. They gave everyone sandblasted goggles to wear that created a blank gray-screen visual field, played low volume white noise, and had people move around as little as possible in small living quarters that were designed for the experiment. So it was not the absolute sensory deprivation of “tanking” but a little closer to real-world boredom, if you will.
The urban dwellers reported that after a number of hours of this they began to experience visual and auditory phenomena akin to hallucinations, such as seeing/hearing patterns that were not there– no real hearing voice or seeing giant pink bunnies or anything, but still some disordered perceptions. The rural isolates reported that they spent the time in isolation “Thinking about things they had done or planned to do.” No big deal.
I guess that for those of us living in the media-saturated age, doing nothing is a bit of a challenge. So you can spend a little time working on yourself. Or not. You’ve got time right now.
When you’re re-reading that old romance novel or spy thriller in the tub, light a candle– in a safe holder– and put on some soft music. It’s OK. We’re going to get through this.