Uncommon Sense in Uncommon Times

What Yoda can teach us about coping with anxiety during the pandemic.

Posted Mar 21, 2020

Strange days indeed. There have been pandemics, plagues, and even world wars before. What makes this time in history unique is the proliferation of information. Some of that is helpful and some of it can be contributing unnecessarily to anxiety and other mental health issues. There is a plethora of misinformation and conflicting information adding to the stress inherent with a pandemic. We must stay informed, but it behooves us to find neutral, non-political sources of information (i.e., WHO, NPR, and the CDC). And because emotions can be contagious, social media may be spreading unprecedented levels of fear across the globe. Limit your time on social media—this might be a strategy that applies generally but may be even more important as fear is spreading today like wildfire. 

“Social-media-distancing” may be the most important practice for mental health throughout this pandemic. 

Limiting our time on social media may be just what the doctor ordered. This means we recognize the contagious and dangerous aspects of hatred regardless of whether the stated view aligns with our positions on a certain issue. As we know with this current virus, contact with viral hatred can infect us. As Friedrich Nietzsche warned, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster ... for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.” 

Fight or flight. Fear is a response that is necessary for our survival. The brain is able to recognize threats and signal to the body the need for action. When we are threatened, our brains trigger the release of epinephrine (adrenaline) to provide us with the energy needed to escape or combat the threat. This is our fight or flight response. However, prolonged exposure to fear and anxiety can be harmful to the body. With chronic anxiety, our cardiovascular system can be compromised, and our immune system is weakened, making us more susceptible to disease. 

The purpose of the chemicals released by our adrenal glands when the brain perceives a threat is action. However, the situation that we are currently in may last several days or weeks and it may not be clear what we can do. Many people, when stressed, talk about how work can be a release, "At least,” they say, “there is something to take my mind off my worries or my grief.” Some of us won’t have that release and it may be compounded with financial uncertainty. In this current situation, if we do not find something to do, we will likely experience the kind of chronic low-level stress that proves to be harmful to our physical and emotional well-being. 

Spiritual solutions. First, I want to look at our fear through an emotional and spiritual perspective. I think what we are seeing in the current climate of our culture is the crescendo of what we have been seeing in our political and cultural climate for some time. 

Yoda[i] taught us, "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering." Fear feels vulnerable and anger and hate come to its defense. Fear is the seed and control is the eventual fruit from that seed. When we hurt or when we are afraid, we protect ourselves from potential threats by trying to control things, especially those things outside our control. It is natural for us to do this. Gill[ii] said it simply, “What we do to stay safe wounds others.”

So what is the antidote? Love. Love with the courage to move through the pain that we feel. For many years, when taught these principles to the young people I worked with in therapy, I would use the story of the Star Wars[iii] saga to illustrate the two fundamental sources of energy available to us: fear and love. I would ask young people if they remembered the final straw that turned Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader? It was the death of his wife. And after that supreme loss, he vowed he would never hurt that way again, never allow himself to be vulnerable again. His solution was to control everything—then, he thought, he could escape suffering.

In contrast, I would ask these same young people if they remembered how Yoda dealt with such pain. Simple: he felt it and he cried. More than just a feeling, love is the courage and strength to be present with ourselves and with others in their pain. 

Practical suggestions. Next, there are a few ideas with the current threat that may be helpful to explore and give some insight into how to best cope with the feelings so many of us are experiencing. Some common suggestions:

  • Take online yoga or other mindfulness classes/lessons. 
  • Download a meditation app and begin a practice of meditation. Anxiety is your nervous system on high-alert and some simple tools may help you to reduce the damaging and exhausting impact of chronic stress.
  • Read a book or work on a project that you haven’t found time for in the past.
  • Write letters to others or yourself. Journaling is having a discussion with yourself and it can be helpful to record your feelings.
  • Exercise from home using streaming services abundantly available online.
  • Also, exercising outdoors (away from other people) can be healing and soothing to the nervous system. 
  • Family games (putting away devices for a bit) can be a nice change for many families.
  • Watch an entertaining series as a family. 
  • Watch something educational—something you have been putting off for the lack of time.
  • Be of service to someone in need.

We find comfort in our connections—online connections can help when we are being encouraged to socially distance. This is why I am offering daily online webinars and podcasts to the public (plus it helps with my own anxiety): Finding You: An Evoke Therapy Podcast.

Be kind to yourself. The feelings you have are real. Avoiding feelings, or trying to control them, leads to the most severe feelings of panic and terror. It is most important that someone can hold your feelings—allow you to feel them without trying to take them away or fix them. Feeling scared or anxious during such times doesn't mean you are broken or need fixing. You just need a place where you are allowed to feel and move through your emotions.

If you don't have a practice of therapy, there is no better time to start. Teletherapy and online therapeutic services are plentiful these days. And who knows, starting it now may lead to a practice that extends far beyond the current dilemma we are facing. In The Audacity to Be You: Learning to Love Your Horrible, Rotten Self, I write that the outcome of therapy is freedom and self-love:

"I have come to determine that the outcome of effective therapy is love for others and love for ourselves. Behind our fear, our shame, and our anger is love. We just need to find it."

These are scary times and I don't have all the answers. In some ways, we are in uncharted territory. But if we are to learn from the lessons of the past, from the myths and the stories that hold the wisdom of eternity, we have but two choices: love or fear. The former will not prevent pain, grief, and sadness, but the latter will ensure our suffering.

References

[i] The Empire Strikes Back. Beverly Hills, Calif. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1980.

[ii] Gill, J.D. (2015). The Letters of Juliet to the Knight in Rusty Armor. Create Space.

[iii] Star Wars. Episode III, Revenge of the Sith. Beverly Hills, Calif. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 2013.