Coping with Anxiety in a Coronavirus World

A Secular Version of the Serenity Prayer:

May I cultivate—

The serenity to accept what I cannot change,

The courage to change what I can,

And the wisdom to know the difference.

In these times of great financial, medical, and social change, stress and anxiety are running rampant. At least I know mine is–at least some time. As someone who has had to deal a lifetime with high anxiety, I have spent a lot of time learning ways to mitigate it and would like to share some, hopefully, helpful suggestions with you, starting with the secular version of the Serenity Prayer above.

Start a COVID-19 journal and record your daily thoughts, feelings, and doings. Focus on the things you can change, control, or at least influence. Make a list of these in your journal. You don’t need to go into a list of things you can’t change or do anything about. Focus on what you can change. By putting your energy and efforts into things you can change and control, your will find yourself less overwhelmed by those things you can’t.

Social distancing adds a whole new level of stress. That is a euphemism. I refer to it as social isolation. I am by nature in my old age pretty much a hermit anyway. My introversion works in my favor here. I prefer to spend large blocks of time in solitude. However, with the Coronavirus social isolation, it sometimes is over the top for even me. So I check in via phone, FaceTime, emails, texting, etc. with friends and family. Unfortunately, humans in particular, and mammals in general, need touch. Occasionally, I have to walk down the street and get a hug from my daughter, granddaughters, and great grandson. My ex drops by about once a week for a visit. These help keep me in equilibrium. So, maintaining social contact is important for your mental health.

In your journal, record how you are feeling. Sometimes day-to-day, but sometimes minute- to-minute. Feeling are conscious mind’s recognition of our underlying emotions. Emotions have real physical and mental consequences. When the emotions get strong enough, they break through into your consciousness–or not. Emotions are the body-mind’s psychophysiological response. That is, they have real physiological and psychological effects. Try to learn to become aware of these. What does anxiety feel like in your body? Anger? Loneliness? Where do you feel them? What do they feel like in your body? Are they constant or do they pulse, etc.? Becoming more conscious of your feelings/emotions is an important component of mental health. When you are not conscious of them, they rule! You find yourself lashing out, wanting a drink, wanting escape from them.

Another important step in the process for dealing with the pandemic is to accept and acknowledge those things we cannot change. Acceptance can be difficult. We’ve lost our job or been furloughed, bills are due, little or not enough money coming in, quickly burning through our reserves, if we were lucky enough to have reserves to begin with, etc. Maybe you or someone you know, or love has come down with the virus. Or worst yet, someone close to you has died. The world is changing under our feet moment by moment. Change is scary, or often is, especially change that that has so upturned our world. Change can really suck! 

Prioritize the changes you listed in your journal. Which have higher priority? Which are easier to accomplish? Which most difficult? Each day try to get something positive done. The feeling of something accomplished can bleed over to the things you can’t change in terms of your feelings. I can remember days in my early career when I felt like the only thing I got accomplished that day was my daily jog. Or later when we moved to our farm, that I got some firewood split. Those feelings of accomplishment help lessen my feelings of frustration and stress.

Maybe it will be mundane things like running the vacuum, dusting, doing the laundry, washing the dishes, cooking. It can be anything that is getting things done that need to be done. Take up that project you have been wanting to start, or thinking about doing for some time. Do something creative.

Keep structure and routine in your life–and your kids’ lives especially. Structure helps maintain a semblance of normalcy in our life.

Serenity is about letting go. We make ourselves suffer because we cling to things; we attach. We want things to be different than they are—or we want them to remain the same; not to change. We want things to go back to the way they were, to the good old days. Good luck with that. Change, impermanence is the fabric of the universe. Everything changes. Nothing is permanent. Well, OK, death is permanent. Accept that change, like shit, happens. Trying to let go and accept that for the moment, it is as it is. 

I am not saying to ignore it. Right now, things suck. Okay, they suck. Accept that. Doesn’t mean you have to like it. Just accept that for right now, it is the way it is.

Tell the truth without blame or judgement. Things suck or are uncomfortable. That is the truth. Now, try to drop the blame and judgements. Those are not going to get you anywhere. Starting from where you are, and things the way they are, what can you do in the present?

What you are doing here with the acceptance is metaphorically opening your psychological hand, letting go of clinging. You don’t have to do anything with the anxiety or about it. Just let it be there. Just let those uncomfortable feelings set there, not judging, not thinking about them, not focusing on them. Observe those feelings for a few moments, not judging them, just letting them sit there; letting them just be. If you let yourself sit in that quiet, non-judgmental place, you will begin to notice that those feelings are not constant. They go up and down. Maybe they pulse. But nonetheless, they do change from moment to moment. Now focus on something you need to get done. Go cook a cake, vacuum the house, pet the dog. Get active doing something you can control.

What you will find when you do this is that those negative feelings will themselves change. As you focus your mind and efforts on something you can change and do, you will realize, yeah, they are still there, but their negative energy or intensity has decreased.

The Serenity Prayer is a Stoic-based prayer, with great wisdom and comfort. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) uses it as their cornerstone for battling addiction. Stoicism says, don’t put your energy into those things you cannot change, accept them and move on. Instead, focus your energy on those things you can change, or at least can influence. What can you do in these difficult times? Here are a few concrete things you can do:

  • Follow guidelines from CDC about washing your hands, facemasks, social distancing, etc.
  • Be proactive about your finances. Don’t sit around waiting for someone else to do it for you. Contact your mortgage holder, landlord, bank, credit card companies, financial institutions, etc., ask about financial relief they are providing. Many are willing to work with you in these difficult times.
  • Don’t kill, strangle, etc. your spouse or kids if you are stuck at home with them all day long. Be kind to yourself. Create ways to take time out and nurture yourself.
  • Get outside and into nature. The flowers are beautiful this time of year. 
  • Adopt a healthy, more vegetarian diet. Believe it of not, there is a critical link between our gut and brain. A healthy, plant-based diet actually helps lower and regulates our emotions, especially stress and anxiety. Most of us have seen in our own lives how stress increases acid indigestion and reflux, for example. That is the mind acting on the gut. But it is a two way communication street. The gut also intimately interacts and communicates and effects the mind. When we stress eat or eat unhealthy diets, these feed back to the brain, creating stress to it. Recent research is singing these interconnections and importances loud and clear. Be kind to you stomach and gut, and it will help your level of stress and anxiety. One final caveat here: plant-based is not talking about high starch, potatoes and corn. It is talking about the leafy green stuff; red, purple, and orange, such as loose leaf lettuce, kale, spinach, collards, asparagus, tomatoes, carrots, fruit, etc.
  • “Crisis” in Chinese, I have heard, means opportunity. In this corona crisis, it is an opportunity for you to take your life in a new, different direction. Take advantage of that. Focus your energies on the things in your life that were not serving you well and try to let go of them. Is there another direction you would like to take your life? Maybe now is the time to explore that.
  • It is a great time to turn your attention to your spirituality. Take it out, dust it off, maybe even polish it a little. Create it, if you don’t already have any. Spirituality here is about cultivating inner-peace and personal growth.
  • Practice Positive Psychology: below is a draft of a section from the last chapter of my upcoming book, The Guru on the Mountain: A Quest for Spiritual Growth, that has slightly adapted for this article:

Toward a positive psychology of health and wellness

Spirituality that focuses on inner peace and personal growth, leads to a positive psychology of health and wellness.[i] In contrast, Western medicine and mental health classically focus on pathology, with little emphasis on emotional health, psychological resiliency, inner peace, or holistic wellness. Wellness is much more than the absence of disease. It is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being. It is much more global and holistic.

Wellness requires supportive relationships, emotional and psychological resilience (a.k.a. equanimity). We are social and tribal organisms. These are in our genes. Social relationships and a sense of belonging are a must. We also need to feel connected to something bigger than ourselves. This latter does not require a supreme being, gods, or angels. Rather it can be our community, humanity, nature, the universe. In Lakota spirituality, Mitakuye Oyasin—all our relations, or, all are related—is used in all ceremonies as a way of acknowledging that we are all interconnected to each other, to nature and her children, to the universe. From an existential perspective, wellness also requires that we feel that our life has meaning and purpose. We need passion to feel alive and that our life is worth living; that our life matters. 

Other factors of wellness: 

  • A feeling of mastery and self-control. Wellness requires that we feel more or less in control of our lives. That we are not helpless victims blown by winds outside our control. That we have an internal locus of control over our lives. Yes, there is a lot we can’t control, but there is a lot we can.
  • Lowered consumerism where more is not better. In our Western culture we have been sold a bill of goods, not the goods themselves. Everywhere we turn, buy this or buy that—and you will be happy. Things may make you “happy” for a short time. Soon their newness wears off, and you search around for the next thing that will bring you “happiness.”

Happiness is an emotion. It is ephemeral like all emotions. It comes; it goes. What you are striving for is inner-peace, which is a state of being. Emotions are the underlying psycho-physiological response of our body-mind. Feelings are the conscious mind’s awareness of those responses. 

With inner-peace, emotions come and go without disturbing that inner sense of being. It is hard to remember that when you are in the throes of anger, sadness, loneliness, etc. This is what equanimity is about: bringing yourself back to your spiritual mountain top when your emotions/feelings knock you off, and being more resistant to being knocked off in the first place. This ability takes practice, as in spiritual practice

  • Mindfulness and wellness go hand in hand. Mindfulness, the ability to stay fully present in the moment in whatever you are doing, and, at the same time, maintain, a global, but unfocused awareness of the world and others around you. It is not being lost in a video game, book, or some other activity to the exclusion of what is going on around you.
  • Optimism. Psychological well-being is healthy. Wellness is about a sense of well-being, which encompasses optimism. Studies have found, for example, that optimistic people are 18% less likely to die of all causes of death compared to pessimistic people.[ii] Optimistic people, take better care of themselves (lifestyle, exercise, etc.); take action rather than collapse, again that internal locus of control that my actions will help; and have good social support systems.

Here are a few of things I am doing as an example:

First let me say a word about my credo: Reduce, repair, reuse, repurpose, compost, and simplify. I am a strong believer in self-reliance and self-sufficiency. Self-reliance, as so wonderfully championed by Walt Whitman in his Leaves of Grass, is about trusting yourself to guide you, not society or peers. It is also about being authentic and real, not acting out of your inner psychological issues, but from a place of inner-wisdom and balance. It does not mean ignoring society or culture, just trust yourself to make the best choices for you.

Self-reliance is about depending on yourself to meet your needs, including financial. This can be tricky. Increasingly these days and at this age in my life, I am thinking about this a lot with all the economic uncertainty, massive unemployment, and business closures. I’m making some mid-course corrections, brought on by the Coronavirus and pandemic. Rethinking some things as to how I supplement my income for example.

My day starts out with a 20-30 meditation sitting, usually between 6:00-6:30a.m., these days as I am somewhat retired. My sitting is followed by coffee and journaling. Folowing breakfast, my mornings are dedicated mainly to writing and miscellaneous office stuff. Then comes lunch and a post-lunch power nap, usually 20 minutes. Afternoons, are physical work in garden, yard, projects, and/or exercise. Cocktails at 4:00 or 5:00. Then fixing dinner and watching the news. Banjo practice afterwards. My day ends with watching a movie or reading, mainly the latter. There is a lot of flexibility in this schedule. It is not rigid. More like Captain Jack’s (Pirates of the Caribbean) “guidelines.”

I’m learning to play the banjo and sew for example. I have been working on the finishing touch of my second book, and working on revising and updating one of my websites (this one), which represent the new direction I want to take this last season of my life. Then there is all the projects I am doing around here. Now I have more time to get them done and am, in fact, knocking them out, all the while coming up with other projects I would like to do.

I have a large garden in which I grow a lot of my own veggies, can or freeze what I can not eat if possible, and give away a lot of it. I try to eat seasonally, based a lot on what comes out of the garden–like my grandparents used to do when I was a kid growing up. I love to cook and cook a wide variety of dishes and cuisines. Heavy on the spicy end often–cajun, Tex-Mex, chili–but country, Italian, Chinese, German. It is difficult cooking for one these days, and I get tired of leftovers. The dogs are more than willing to help out, but much of it goes into the freezer for quick fix microwaveable meals. I have a well-equipped shop and do a lot of my own repairs and maintenance.

Meanwhile, I have pretty much parked my truck, and am bicycling more. Which brings up exercise. Do something physical. Not only does exercise reduce stress and anxiety, it stimulates brain growth. “Exercise” does not include emotional eating! Or drinking! These don’t count as exercise. With gardening, yard work, and building projects, I get a lot of exercise anyway, but none of it aerobic. I try to workout at the gym 2-3 times a week and take a couple of long (> 10 miles) bicycle rides each week.

These are just some ideas of what I am doing, and do, to help self-regulate, cultivate. Come up with your own healthy game plan for your own life. Good luck. Gassho.

[i] Much of this comes from “Wellness and the Brain: The Psychobiology of Positive States” workshop presented by John D. Preston, Psy.D., ABPP, Alliant International University Sacramento. Hanson, R. and Mendins, R. (2009) Buddha’s Brain. New Harbinger: Oakland. Seligman, MEP (2012) Flourish. Free Press: New York

[ii] Chida, Yoichi MD, PhD; Steptoe, Andrew. Positive Psychological Well-Being and Mortality: A Quantitative Review of Prospective Observational Studies. Psychosomatic Medicine: 70 (7): 741-756.