Five Ways to Enhance Your Well-being During the Pandemic

Here's what helps, and it lies beyond managing and coping.

Posted Mar 31, 2020

Yes, this is a terrifying, frightening time for everyone. COVID-19 is escalating throughout the world, and now the US is the epicenter. Most of us know by now some steps to take that can manage the anxiety it generates—how to best cope with daily reports about the rising number of cases and deaths.

Many helpful articles and guides are out there that list specific actions that can help your mental health and well-being. For example, maintaining connections with friends and family; exercising and following a good diet; being compassionate towards others — as described in this Nature article. Or, from the New York Times, staying grounded in the medical facts and data, because anxiety is fueled by misinformation and rumors; prepare for the worst, by stockpiling what you might need in the weeks ahead. And, ask for help when you need it; as well as offering help to others.

These are all useful guides for keeping daily anxiety and uncertainty at bay. They help you function as best you can in daily life, work, and relationships. But we're in the midst of an evolving situation that can unleash a deeper kind of unmoored experience of your life; one that can immobilize you, despite taking all the steps that can help, situationally. 

In my view, you can activate a broader set of mental and emotional capacities that help you actually thrive, through the unknown times ahead, during this period of terror; beyond just coping and managing anxieties. I say "thrive" — as strange as that may sound — because you need to have some sense of how to live as fully as you can. This is crucial during any period of terror — whether during a pandemic, in the midst of a war zone, or living in a concentration camp.

I suggest that you reflect on the following. Incorporate them into a daily mindfulness exercise, or mediation — or prayer, if that resonates more with you.

Reflect on the inevitability of death. Our culture has become intoxicated with denying death and aging. And many products and procedures are available for that, to the delight of companies that profit from our denial.  

But death is inseparable from life. And focusing on it -- letting yourself experience the reality that it's in store for you and me — perhaps sooner than any of us think — doesn't have to be a downer to hide from through denial or escapism. Rather, embracing it can unleash new energy and focus, beyond practical steps like doing a will, and having a list of your passwords for someone to access. 

Specifically, focus on what you want your ultimate legacy to be for the people you care about who remain after you're gone? What contribution will you put into the world through your engagements or activity? What's your desired, ideal legacy? Money? Objects? An enduring sense of love or being loved? A non-material contribution? Creative work? How does that reflection affect your actions and commitments going forward?

Expand the context of your "usual" stress and problems.  President Eisenhower was known to have advised, in his military leadership during World War II, that if you have trouble dealing with a problem, "enlarge" the problem. By which he meant that if you elevated your view, you could see the many factors and forces feeding into the immediate problem. That enables you to know where to attack and deal with the source of your troubles.

So apply that perspective to the everyday, immediate concerns that have occupied your mind and emotions in previous "normal" times and fueled your stress. Perhaps they included continuous work challenges, issues with your partner or children, financial worries, and so forth. The immediate, pervasive threat of sickness and possible death from COVID-19 can help you "enlarge" the picture in which the problems that have been causing you stress exist. Seeing the larger, more overwhelming concerns that we all face can help diminish the old, daily anxieties and stress: the latter can now seem less onerous; less critical, from the elevated view of what we're all facing. That perspective can siphon off the stress that your daily concerns had jacked up. It can help you realize that none of those daily concerns are life-threatening. You'll figure out how to deal with them, somehow. Life continues, one way or another.

Impermanence and continuous change are the "new normal." Forget about looking forward to the return of "normalcy," pre-pandemic. Ain't gonna happen. The world as we have known it will be permanently transformed in many ways, which are yet to be fully made clear.

Until we see what forms that will take — socially, in the workplace, in our political life — we can help ourselves prepare for it. Do that by cultivating this emotional attitude — a mixture of thoughts and feelings — with which you experience your life as always impermanent, in which nothing remains the same, ever. What exists today in your life can change tomorrow, or in an instant. In fact, the nature of life is continuous change, evolution, and unpredictability. And that applies to you. 

The most resilient, adaptable people are those who embrace and work proactively with change and impermanence. Knowing that it can and will occur, they roll with it. If you acknowledge this reality of life, emotionally and mentally, you'll figure out how and what to do as life changes and evolves; rather than sink into despair, immobilization and stagnation.  

Rethink and reassess what really matters, now. Extending from awakening to the "new normal," it will be wise to now stop and take stock of what you're really living for — what truly matters in your life — in this new world of no return to the way things "used to be." 

I'm seeing people reflect more seriously about what they've thought they were living for; thought they could always look forward to. For many, that's focusing them on what they've been aiming for, regarding their career aims and financial goals. How much does career promotion matter; and towards what end? How much financial security is "enough?" And at what cost to their longings for a loving connection with someone; with friends who matter to you; to your relationship with your children or surrogate children. Those latter aims are, in essence, about love; not an acquisition of money, possessions; or public prestige, or recognition. All ultimately fade and disappear. What does that reassessment stir up in you?

Learn from the "new" interconnection and interdependence. True, all the major spiritual traditions; the reality of global economic and political interdependence; and rising climate change reveal how interconnected and interdependent all humans, all life, the ecology of the planet — are totally interwoven.

But now, the worldwide pandemic has made that interdependence visible. Even the most truth-denying, narcissistic person is likely to realize that his or her health and life is directly dependent on how others help or don't help. And vice versa, how his or her own actions directly impact others — for better or for worse.

This pandemic is likely to be transformative in many ways, as I wrote at the beginning of this essay. But perhaps the most positive transformation will be a societal, perhaps global awakening that we're all in this together.  Will collective action and mutual responsibility emerge? Will that open up new actions that promote the common good — across ethnic, national or other boundaries? Stay tuned.