Mindfulness Tips For Getting Beyond COVID Panic And Denial

Oct 02, 2020


This is part two of my series on my personal experience with COVID-19. I’m still recovering from it now, in mid-September. In my previous vlog, I discussed some of what I learned from my experience of recovery; you can refer to it here. Today, I want to share one particular observation that I have, in the hopes that you’ll find it helpful in the coming months.

I’ve noticed that the way people respond to COVID tends towards either panic or denial, with very little in between. Of course, some people have managed to find a balance of self-awareness and gotten enough information that they can make decisions that they feel pretty solid about. But it’s very common for people to be stuck in a place of panic: “Oh my god, I don’t want to get it, this is the most horrible thing; the world is ending; everyone’s going to get it; it’s a disaster.”

Other people are stuck in a place of denial–“There’s no disease, I’m not going to get the disease, nobody that I know is going to get the disease.” I’m here to tell you, someone who you know got the disease. Plus, I didn’t get it by doing a lot of risky stuff; I was very careful, more careful than most people I know, and I still got it! So it is clearly possible that you could get COVID, or that somebody you care about very much could get COVID. I was very lucky; I got one of the light cases of COVID, and there are people who are desperately ill with COVID for a long period of time, or who don’t survive. Then, of course, there are people who don’t have symptoms at all.

The thing is, although both panic and denial are perfectly understandable responses, neither are particularly helpful when it comes to preventing yourself from catching the disease, or responding to others. When you are in complete denial about something, you don’t learn about it. You don’t get the information you need in order to make good decisions. When you have complete panic about something, it’s hard to access the part of your brain that takes in information and processes it in a logical way. While you’re in either of these positions, on either end of this spectrum, it’s very hard to make decisions.

The reason I’m talking about this is because it’s September and I’m in Wisconsin. Last week, it was 50 degrees and raining all week long. Fall is here, and it’s just going to get colder. We’re not that far from the winter. What that means is that every single one of us is going to be making a lot of decisions, soon, about personal safety and family safety.

In my family, this is the season when we usually think about winter family plans and family gatherings, and we have a real cost-benefit analysis to consider. We’ve been socially-distanced and/or quarantined from our loved ones for a really long time, and the cost of that, in terms of mental health and stability, is not inconsequential. On the other hand, the cost of contracting COVID is quite substantial, including from a mental-health standpoint (as I can testify).

We need our critical thinking skills to help us do a cost-benefit analysis about what activities we do and don’t want to do in the coming months. We also need all the good information that we can get; we still don’t know a lot about how COVID spreads, but we know a lot more than we did in July, and tons more than we did in March. Therefore, I just want to say, if you think that you’re going to be making decisions (and I can’t imagine who’s not going to be making decisions about how to respond to COVID in the next few months), I would encourage you to get out of the two extreme positions of panicky anxiety and complete denial, and instead see what you can learn about the actual transmission of the disease. What do we know now? We know quite a bit. What’s risky, and what’s less risky? Think about how you and your family can problem-solve together to best meet everybody’s needs. Making these decisions will require us to move beyond both denial and panic and access our more informed and rational selves.

This brings us back to emotional self-regulation. What I’m referring to by that is the emotional project of steadying yourself so that you can assess information and assess your own feelings and preferences–both what you desire and feel is important to you, and what information you can learn about the disease. As you begin to sort through that complicated, overlapping set of information, you’re going to come up with a sort of overlapping Venn diagram. Whatever lands in the overlapping place is going to guide you towards your personal action plan.

If you are feeling really panicky or shut-down about this, what I would strongly recommend is a meditation practice. Start with just a little practice getting grounded, and see if you can get yourself at least 15 minutes of feeling grounded. To feel grounded for 15 minutes might take you an hour or 45 minutes, or it might just take you 15 minutes. Practice makes it quicker.

I also think just daydreaming is worthwhile: daydreaming, or just gazing around and experiencing, but not thinking so much, not hyper-processing what just happened, just kind of “oh, this is nice.” You can have that “Oh, this is nice” experience whenever you want. Even just when you’re driving, and a shaft of sunlight hits your face, see if you can make that moment of “Oh, this is nice” last five seconds, ten seconds, twenty-five seconds–can you get a whole thirty seconds of “Mmm, that’s nice” out of that little shaft of sunlight? You can look for and heighten and lengthen enjoyment, rather than skipping right over it. That’s a mindfulness practice.

There are a lot of ways to do it. You can also monitor thinking, and decide not to engage with all the thoughts. Imagine that a thought is like a visitor to your home: the thought knocks on the door, you look out, and you decide “I’m going to open the door” or “I’m not going to open the door to this thought.” Some people picture the thought on a balloon that floats away, or a cloud that floats by, or a train, with each car having a thought or a topic, and you just let them go by. Whatever way of envisioning this works best for you is great. That’s another self-regulation or getting grounded muscle: the muscle of thought-choosing. Do I want to engage with this thought, or do I prefer not to engage with this thought right now?

You also can dive into your body and have a mindfulness experience from deepening your relationship with your body. That might look like noticing the sensation of air as it enters your body with your breath, fills your body with breath, and then, as the breath leaves your body, what that sensation feels like. I like focusing into my body for signs of life: how can I tell just by sensation that I’m alive, when I’m not moving and I’m not touching anything in particular? What can I feel from inside that tells me I’m living? Is there a little tingle or a little buzz? Am I aware of my heartbeat? That is a deep kind of tuning in. If you can do it for five seconds, twenty seconds, a minute, that’s wonderful, and if you can do it for five minutes, you get a real break from thinking.

All of those are ways of getting a mindfulness practice into your life without doing any kind of inconvenient thing. Maybe you’re telling yourself “I don’t have time for that” or “I don’t have the ability for that.” You totally have time for it and you totally have the ability for it. Just notice that shaft of sunlight, or that little positive emotion that you feel, and make it a little bigger, a little longer.

Those are my suggestions for getting you out of panic and denial, so you can figure out what you’re going to do to cope with your current set of circumstances, whatever they may be. The beautiful thing about these tools is that they’re relevant whether you’re having an easy time of it or a hard time of it. In fact, it’s easier to build this skillset when you’re having an easy time of it (trust me on that). Practice now, so that when you’re having a day when you’re feeling a little overwhelmed by all the decisions you have to make, or you’re feeling under the weather, you’ll be a little more prepared.

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