BUILDING PSYCHIC IMMUNITY TO EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY Managing Universal Uncertainty
My Dear Friends,
In the genesis of this latest assault on our existence there are many views, positions, and experiences that generate consequent behaviors—some productive, some not so much. Polarized sentiment abounds: one extreme seeing a conspiracy that needs to be exposed. Another extreme registering panic and end-of-times imagery. However, there are those in the middle who see and behave more rationally than their polarized fellow humans. Here is a thoughtful question from one such “Middle Earthling” and my response.
Q. Given the potential suffering associated with the Coronavirus, how can we prevent the stress from becoming overwhelming? Would you suggest just not reading or watching the news? Let’s say you try to prevent the stress from entering, but then it gets you. What then? It seems like social isolation can trigger previously worked-on depression or anxiety cycles, and given being home all day, these seem especially difficult to combat. What would you suggest especially if we are going to be this way for a long time?
A. These are ultra-challenging times—no doubt about it—and there is reason enough, as well, to believe that all earth’s inhabitants, not just Homo sapiens, are at mortal risk. Further—more is yet to come. I don’t want to diminish these realities. Along with this, however, for the adaptive mind, for the mind that is open to seeing opportunities within obstacles, there is good medicine against the rising tide of anxiety and depression generated by this latest bio-crisis.
So, what to do? How to activate the dormant, and innate human ability to overcome anxiety or depression when the images of real life threats invade your mind?
The skill needed is to cultivate the ability to catch that emotionally-laden fear idea as it rises into your awareness…..and reject it out of hand. Immediately! Additionally, since that temptation to panic will not stay away, like a circling mosquito looking for a place to land and infect you, you must vigorously replace your ego’s phobia with a previously prepared counter to that negativity. Like a warrior preparing for battle, or an A-student preparing for her final history exam, gather for yourself an arsenal of protective mind-weapons to enlist and take the scare-demon down.
Consider Charles Darwin’s survival message contained deep within his Origin of the Species.Most people speak of his work as being about “Survival of the Fittest.” Something many are thinking about right now! Indeed, Darwin discovered that being fit was an important component for survival. However, his compelling lesson are clearly stated in his exact words: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survive, but those most adaptable to change.” Adaptation!
Here are some ideas and actions I am teaching my clients and students:
**Make contact with loved ones now, before tragedy strikes. Let them know that should anything happen to them (like having an accident, or getting sick and being quarantined, or incapacitated) such that it would prevent you from contacting them in person or electronically, that you intend to thoughtfully be with them. Thinking of them, attempting to make contact with them, sending them love and healing thoughts. Imagine how consoling this knowledge would be for anyone caught alone with no companion, no recourse, no promise of reconnection. If you have a loved one already quarantined, send a letter, or a card, and a photo of yourself. Reach out to them in a spiritual sense, intending them love, light and healing.
**Study and get to know Covid-19 so that you understand, like a graduate student, its genesis, anatomy, and functioning, and course. Take the fear it provokes away from it. Kill it in your mind with intimate knowledge of its essence. This alone will lighten your anxiety.
**Collect now, or find and read among your unread books, inspirational and informational literature that is hopeful and productive, that will nourish your soul, staying away from gloom and doom news and other such material. Headlines are enough to tell you the essence of the pandemic, without getting into everyone’s mind!
**Exercise frequently, at any time—yoga, tai chi, dance, walk, jog—making an intentional effort to do so. Use brief, effortful bodily movements taken from any exercise system to build will power and promote psychological and biological immune defenses. Work to keep your intention to strengthen your mind and immune system vibrant throughout the activity.
**Keep frequent (electronic) contact with upbeat associates and friends, declining to listen long to dire reports and lamentations, other than to gain updates and useful information, and to acquire knowledge of how to more effectively intervene in overcoming whatever obstacles the crisis throws at you.
**Be a mental First Responder: Proactively take on whatever challenges this crisis bestows upon you. Further, check out places to safely volunteer your now free time.
**If the crisis worsens, intensify your enlisted tool use, challenging yourself, just as an athlete adds more weight and repetitions to her program as her strength and skill increases, or as challenges arise. As Sun Tzu said: “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
**For my students, I also teach them the process of enlisting both discursive and non-discursive meditation in conquering their inner crises. Internal rituals that work for many. If you are yourself a meditator, or are willing to learn meditation, besides challenging your own fears by way of cultivating a more evolved self, meditation can be used to summon and face your own coming death. Such a death-tempered mind will spawn more confidence in dealing with survival concerns. The benefits include a measured relief from mortal fear—just by having deeply faced it down! As Henry David Thoreau said, in quelling this universal existential anxiety: “Every blade in the field; every leaf in the forest lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.” More regularly read and study mystics and philosophers like Emerson and Gibran, and mystics who have who faced greater challenges than this and who thus inspire us to overcome and reach beyond panic.
As those who study consciousness grow and advance, they naturally enhance their ability to control and reduce inflammation. This occurs as they study themselves, subsequently reducing stress-causing attitudes and behaviors. These are replaced with self-appreciating virtues beneficial to body as well as mind. Consequently, their bio-chemistry begins to change as well. It begins to shift in accord with improved mental choices, like virtue cultivation, meditation, seeking a higher order of meaning. In this way they strengthen their overall immune responses both biological and mental. As a result, this calms sympathetic nervous system responses, and ultimately soothes all emotional reactivity.
Finally, revisit these ideas frequently, as mental medicine, to keep yourself inspired and proactive!