Perspective check – pandemic version

So apparently there’s some virus or something going around. I went to the grocery store, and it was like something out of the movies. The canned goods were picked over like Wal-Mart on Black Friday. The toilet paper and paper towel aisle was empty. All the gallons of milk were gone, though half-gallons were still available.

Idaho currently has 2 (update: 50) confirmed cases of COVID-19. We don’t really have a dense population, so we’re unlikely to get a bad outbreak. But we do have a lot of folks who are preppers, and/or who fantasize about the zombie apocalypse.

I feel strangely unaffected. Like, I can feel the anxiety growing when I watch the news, but it’s nothing more than a normal anxiety day for me.

So I’m gonna share a few thoughts on that.

Pandemic Anxiety

Sounds like the name of a punk band.

There’s this sort of itch I get when I’m feeling anxious. It’s like a tingle about an inch or so outside my skin. Maybe a psychic itch is a good way to describe it. Like all my tiny little arm-hairs are standing up, hyper-tuned to the air currents.

I find myself looking around, watching my surroundings. Odd or abnormal behavior stands out – is that person drunk, or having mental illness issues, and are they considering violence? Is that person just nervous, or on meth, or are they hyper-fearful?

I consider what other humans are doing. I’m not afraid of the apocalypse, but other people are, and they’re buying up all the toilet paper. So I better stock up, because who knows what those other people will do.

The schools are closed, so now I have to worry about the kids being home. Work might close, and I don’t know what I’ll do if they cut my pay. I’m especially worried that people won’t come in to where I work, and that loss of business will hurt my company.

And what about my uncle with lung cancer? What if I catch COVID-19, and pass it to someone with a sick grandma? What if – what if – what if…

That’s what’s going on in my mind.

Here’s the thing though. My brain does that all the time. If you’re struggling too, here are a few things that help me.

Obligatory disclaimer

I’m hot a healthcare professional. I’m not trained or licensed to give medical advice. If you’re experiencing mental illness or distress. please see a professional. Email me if you need help finding one.

Magical and spiritual advice is not a substitute for scientific or medical information.

These suggestions should be read as a supplement to your existing mental health treatment plan.


Reducing acute anxiety

Use these techniques if you have an immediate or intense spike of fear or anxiety. Your goal is to re-engage your rational mind, so that it can override the emotional parts of your brain that are freaking out.

First of all, breathe. Slowly. Use your finger to measure your pulse, and inhale for 4 heartbeats, then exhale for 4 heartbeats.

Keep doing that until your heart rate slows down. I feel it as a sensation like cool water is washing through my body.

Count to 20, slowly. Visualize each number as you count it. If you get distracted, start over. When you get to 20, go back down to 1.

Name and list all the colors you can see. (Seriously. This works like gangbusters for me.)

Now, breathe again. Let your belly expand, instead of breathing into your chest. Ground and center. Use your breath to connect to the Earth and Cosmic energy channels.

Let’s do something about those beliefs

Part of the reason you’re freaking the fuck out, is because of secondary information. For example: when you see a spider on the wall during the day, and it’s got a tiny little shadow underneath it, the spider is less scary. When you see that same spider at night by the light of a table lamp, the spider throws a longer shadow making it look bigger and scarier.

The spider hasn’t changed. Your perspective changed. The shadow is secondary information, which your brain is associating with the spider.

Also, the information you associate with the spider changes your reaction. If you believe spiders represent dirty, poisonous, disembodied hands, alien-looking creatures, sticky webs, sucking the liquefied guts out of insects – sure, spiders are terrifying.

If you think of spiders as shy, helpful critters that eat harmful bugs you can’t see in your house, they suddenly seem a lot less frightening.

Your beliefs determine your reality. Right now, you might be thinking “If I get this virus, people could die!”

Let’s put that in perspective. If you get any virus, people could die. Certain strains of HPV can cause cancer. HIV causes AIDS.

Virii are a normal part of nature. Herds of elk, antelope, and even cattle are regularly wiped out by diseases. Plants can get diseases too, that affect crop yields. People get diseases.

There’s a belief, I think, that our normal state is to always be healthy. This extends a bit into believing that if we don’t prevent an illness, it’s the same thing as causing an illness. This is logically inaccurate.

You don’t have to accept a particular belief at face value. Instead, challenge it, and see if it fits with everything else you know. It might not. Or it might. But you don’t know until you evaluate it.

First Belief:

Is the virus really that bad or abnormal? In your mind, think of a range of different diseases. Bubonic plague: killed millions, easily treated with antibiotics. 1918 flu: killed millions, targeted weird demographics. Mad cow disease: scary as hell, but quickly contained, and not transmitted between humans. Polio: holy crap bad, like crutches and iron-lung bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Chicken pox: Sucky, but not too bad. Smallpox: really bad, but vaccine-preventable. Measles, mumps: bad, but vaccine-preventable.

Common cold: sucky, but survivable even without medication. Seasonal flu: sucky, but survivable, though take precautions to stay hydrated.

COVID-19 is slightly more serious than a seasonal flu, and seems to be quite a bit less serious than the 1918 flu. So if you get it – and you probably will – it’s probably not the end of the world.

And even if it is – believe that, and take appropriate action to prevent or mitigate that. There’s a whole meditation practice on contemplating your own mortality. Check it out.

Second Belief:

I can always trust [authoritative source] to tell it like it is!

OK – so I’ve heard rumblings that this is an “escaped bioweapon,” that “cities have been placed on lockdown,” that “This virus is no big deal, just act normally.” That’s a lot of conflicting information.

It’s easy, I think, to distrust the news agencies and the government. When we’re getting a lot of conflicting stories, it’s tempting to just assume the worst. In this case, the worst is motivating individuals to take actions that are really unhelpful for societies.

Instead, practice good news hygiene. Don’t take everything you hear at face value. You can weight the value of a particular piece of information differently. For example – one healthcare professional in Italy might have a frightening story. I would wait until I heard 2 or 3 stories from healthcare professionals in different regions before giving this story a lot of weight.

Sometimes a person’s story can be weighted depending on the context. There was a really bad outbreak in Washington… at a retirement home. Trump is saying this outbreak is no big deal… because he doesn’t want the stock market to crash on his buddies.

The WHO and CDC are organizations that study disease. Their word should carry a moderate to high weight. It might be tempting to consider them participating in a cover-up. If you do, it’s helpful to think – what would they stand to gain? Is it feasible for them to effectively cover up something this big? How do their stories compare to other healthcare professionals? Is it better for me to trust people who study disease, than to distrust them?

Look for the extremes, then look for moderate positions between them. Give more weight to moderate positions. If someone is hyping you up with a lot of fear, they might be trying to hold your attention on behalf of their advertisers. If they’re telling you nothing is wrong, they may want you to keep buying things so their stock portfolio doesn’t crash. If someone says “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face, and stay away from large crowds,” that is a much more moderate and reasonable position.

Third Belief:

I can prevent myself from getting sick.

You have control over precisely one person: yourself. You cannot control the actions of another person.

So we could, as a society, collectively agree to stay home. We could agree to wash our damn hands. We could suspend travel, and avoid large gatherings.

But there’s always that one asshole who ignores the warnings, catches the bug, and passes it to everyone. That literally happened in South Korea.

Practice good hygiene for yourself. Advocate for others to do the same. Consider that some people won’t, and take appropriate precautions. And please, challenge any of your beliefs that would lead you to assume the best or worst about other people.

Other Beliefs:

Only you can know what your beliefs are about this. And only you can challenge them. One helpful trick is to reframe the argument. That is, put it in a different context, or change up some of the argument. For example:

Some people believe that talking about a 2-3% mortality rate is the equivalent of wanting people to die. Challenge that belief – what are some of that person’s other motivations? Do they want people to die, or are they reassuring themselves? Are they talking about deliberately exposing one sensitive person to Coronavirus, or are they speaking in more general terms about a population?

Some people claim that chloroquine is a miracle drug for combating COVID-19. Some people who have taken it have died. Or at least, that’s how the stories go. This is not much different than believing that burning sage will kill all the coronaviruses. (It doesn’t.) It’s easy to start grasping for anything that might offer hope of a cure. This is not much different from a drowning person reflexively drowning their helper. Challenge the belief, and find a variety of different perspectives before knocking back that bottle of aquarium cleaner.

Acute Anxiety/Fear vs. General Anxiety/Fear

The first set of suggestions above was designed to help you with acute anxiety. That’s when there’s a clear trigger, and an intense feeling of anxiety.

The second suggestion was designed to help you with general anxiety. That’s when you feel like you have to look over your shoulder, like you could get blindsided, or you just generally feel unsafe.

It’s important to recognize the difference between acute anxiety and general anxiety. What works for one doesn’t always work for the other.

For me, it works sort of like this. On any given day I’m probably running at about 8 out of 10 anxiety. It might dip to 6 or 5, if I stay away from people or stressful situations.

(I’m working on it. After a couple years, I’m down to about 3-5 / 10 on most days. Also, personal note – if you’re new to experiencing a lot of anxiety, this is what it’s like every day for some of us. Let us show you around, we know the area. 🙂 )

Each stressor I experience amps up that feeling of general anxiety. I might start the day at a 1. Get up, and read something shitty on the internet – boom, up to 2 or 3. Phone rings, but I let it go to voicemail – 4. Drive to work, someone drives like an asshole – 5. At work, I have to make a phone call – now I’m at 7 or 8.

The height of that anxiety rating is the approximate percent chance that I’ll have an acute anxiety attack. So, if I’m at a 2, that’s about 20% chance of being triggered. At an 8, I’m at about 80%.

When I’m feeling anxiety, it affects the way I perceive things. Remember the spider on the wall? The more anxiety I feel, the more I perceive that spider as a threat. I have to literally tell myself – out loud, sometimes – that it’s just a tiny little arachnid, and can’t possibly harm me. Sometimes, that counter-messaging is the only thing that works to counter the inner feelings of fear.

That fear prevents me from seeing anything but the terrifying spider. I can rationally know that the spider is harmless, but my whole body is screaming at me to kill it with fire.

Now – consider this from the perspective of immigration. If you have that body-level anxiety about immigrants, there is no way you can possibly think rationally about them. You’re going to feel threatened, and respond accordingly.

People feel this about people of color.

About witches.

About women.

About strangers and social situations.

Anything, really. But especially, right now, the Coronavirus.

We make different decisions when we’re anxious

This should come as no surprise to anyone in the New Age or adjacent spiritual circles. I mean, we’ve all been beaten to death by the “Choose Love Not Fear” messaging.

The reality is trickier than that.

Sometimes, people don’t know that their perspective is limited. Because that’s the only perspective they have. They don’t have anything to compare it to.

Further, people tend to make more conservative choices when they’re afraid. If you’re scared of the spider on the wall, you’re more likely to kill it than escort it outside. Likewise, if you’re afraid of Coronavirus, you might feel like you need to stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer.

If you’re afraid of people who are afraid of Coronavirus, you might also stockpile face masks and hand sanitizer. And toilet paper.

If you’re afraid of criminals, you might feel like you need to own a firearm. If you’re afraid of people of color, you might hesitate giving them the right to vote, or you might screen them more heavily for crime and firearm possession.

If you’re afraid of immigrants, you’re more likely to want a border wall.

The thing is, people don’t often realize they’re acting out of fear. It’s like having a pair of colored glasses (or ski goggles) on. Eventually, your brain filters out the color and it looks normal. You don’t even realize you’re not seeing certain colors.

If you’re thinking right now that voting patterns can be predicated on how much fear a group of people is experiencing, I would say you’re on the right track, and posit that it’s a more common political strategy than we both realize.

Individual vs. Group

I wanted to touch on this for a moment. I’m pretty sure I’ve written about this elsewhere – originally, Jason Miller articulated it well. Essentially, the conversation is different when we’re talking about individuals versus when we talk about groups.

In a perfect world, we would recognize that each of us is an individual. But that’s not really how our brains work. Our brains like to chunk information together, so we can expand our understanding to bigger bits.

It should be no surprise, then, that when people share a common trait, it’s natural for us to lump them together as a group.

When we’re talking about sociology, politics, or even pandemics, the big picture is often all people have the mental capacity to handle. Can you imagine if each epidemiologist had to keep each person’s life story straight, for each infection in an outbreak?

Yikes. Not possible.

So, it’s helpful to consider the source. When an epidemiologist is talking about a pandemic affecting certain portions of the population, it’s not that they don’t care. It’s not that they want those people to die. They’re just focused on big-picture. It’s literally not personal.

In addition, the actions you should take can be different, depending on whether you are acting as an individual or as part of a group.

We’re being asked to practice social distancing because we’re members of a group, and this is a better policy for the group as a whole. But it’s damn inconvenient for some individuals. Like those who want to go out bar-hopping. Or people who don’t want their airplane stock to lose value.

Individuals looking out for themselves is the reason we have toilet paper shortages. Those people prioritized their own individual interests over the interests of the group. As a result, society doesn’t have enough toilet paper.

Incidentally, this can be applied to money (billionaires hoarding money), housing (landlords hoarding properties), even famine (food companies hoarding food). When the supply of a thing is restricted, the price goes up. My hope is that we, as a society, realize this – and that we realize how much power we can wield as a group. (AKA union.)

But back to the individual. We each have to look out for ourselves. In Nature, it’s a rough existence, with disease, famine, and predators always out to get you.

But having to watch over your shoulder, and be totally responsible for you and you alone, creates a lot of fucking anxiety and exhaustion. (Ask me how I know.)

Fortunately, most animals – humans included – come equipped with a Social Module. This causes us to bond with other people, to create cooperative and trusting communities. We reinforce these communities with language, culture, shared values, shared resources, and common defense. We protect them with laws and rules to punish people who act against the group’s interest.

I have more to say on this, in the context of personal versus social identity. Look for that in another post.

For now, just consider that in order to receive the benefits of being part of a society, you need to be mindful of the balance between your personal interests and the group’s interests.

In other words, wash your damn hands – no one else wants your cooties. And quit hoarding the toilet paper. Breathe, chill out, and it will all be OK. Even if something bad happens –

It Will Be OK.

A few final thoughts

I hope you’re coming away from this post with a few things to think about.

Main point: fear and anxiety change the way you behave. Take immediate action to get out of a place of fear, and into a place of love and compassion.

Another way to put it might be this. You have two basic modes: smallness and bigness. When something new and big comes along, smallness freaks the fuck out, because there’s no way it can handle all of that. Bigness has the capacity to handle that new thing without feeling overwhelmed.

The difference is sort of like dumping a gallon of water into a drinking glass, versus dumping it into a swimming pool.

(In case it’s not obvious, you want to be in bigness mode. Hat-tip to Fabeku Fatunmise for his work on bigness and coherence.)

With regard to the virus, keep two minds. Remember to take care of yourself. That means rest, hydration, nutrition, and washing your hands. Also remember that you have an obligation to your community, to help keep the outbreak from getting out of hand. Follow the CDC and WHO recommendations and change your behavior.

Viral outbreaks are totally natural. You’ll probably catch this one at some point. What we don’t want, is to catch it all at the same time. It’s easier to handle 50 people at a time in the hospital for several weeks, than 5,000 people all at once.

Stay safe out there, folks. Catch you next post.