Learn what does and what does not work.

Originally posted in Psychology Today

A long time ago, probably from age 14 on, I asked myself if people like me can be happy. I had my doubts. Too much was missing in my life; too little under my control. Nothing could stop the threat to which I was subjected daily.

Time stood still. I could not conceive of a better future, even though the thought was offered to me on occasion. It was as if the ocean floor of my mind was too deep to let the anchor of thought catch. I was anxious, never quite knowing when to let my guard down, where to go, and what to do. If the home is not a safe haven, what is?

Such free-floating anxiety is the result of ongoing fear of psychological or physical harm with which we currently struggle as we face the coronavirus, COVID-19. I am a trauma expert due to training. My personal experience comes in handy in as it is easy to empathize, but also to think critically about various coping mechanisms.

Apparently, we are in a situation in which we struggle with a sense of time — a week feels like a day and a day like a week; there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel; people have a hard time realizing that “this too shall pass.” The economy, a looming recession or worse, our own job situation as well as the threat of catching the disease, all that seems mostly out of our control. Many feel helpless and confused. Rational thought is hard to come by as we find ourselves in denial or have moved on to fear and anger.
When I wore my N95 mask in the market the other day, a woman rushed to me, demanding to know, “Where did you get this mask from?” (By the way, a fireman had handed me “my precious” during the last big fire in Southern California). Another person mocked me for being overly cautious, pointing a finger. When we deviate ever so slightly from another’s evaluation of the pandemic, we ourselves might feel righteous and engage in judgmental behavior.

The unpredictability of the situation seems nerve-wracking, with senseless speculation and alarming conspiracy theories on the rise. Many have difficulties finding sound sleep. Others think it is prudent to warn everybody every chance they get, feeling wise as they stir panic. (Panic is never wise! Please, be sufficiently worried, but keep your head on). All these reactions are hallmarks of a traumatic response. What is there to do?

1. Dull your senses.

Why again are liquor stores considered an essential business that must remain open during a pandemic? I suppose for the same reason as alcohol is being served on long flights: It keeps the passengers quiet and manageable. Unless they become too drunk, of course. Alcohol is not the only drug of choice to which many resort during heightened stress, as the opioid crisis suggests. We like to dull our senses when things feel “too much.”

While this makes instant sense, we should all be warned of the unintended consequences. As many trauma victims become dependent on alcohol and other drugs, make sure you do not overuse if you must take any. I am already scared of the upcoming domestic violence that results from drug abuse. Be very, very cautious as you attempt to medicate away your emotional response. And those who already have a history of dependency, keep your commitment to stay away completely. If you feel “too much,” rather distract yourself with engaging games, projects, movies, and series. Be kind to your senses and find kind ways to appease them: listen to music, take a bath, take a walk outside your home and listen to the birds or the wind, speak to loved ones and receive virtual hugs.

2. Limit news-watching.

Many people feel they can control their situation by staying on top of the news, as if knowing is doing. As a result, they are “on alert” 24/7 and frequently suffer from insomnia. Make sure you receive ample information. Do not stick your head in the sand—denial is futile, not just for you, but for others too—but then take a break from the news.

3. Create a sense of agency.

In contrast to a child who faces an overpowering adult, you do have the ability to act. Wash your hands with perfect attention for 22 seconds, clean the surfaces, and observe your hands: They have a mind of their own and want to touch your face. Most importantly, as you probably miss part of your exterior structure with your gym and/or your job site closed, you must focus on organizing your interior life. Structure your day. Make a schedule for yourself and your children and notice when you follow through. Say it out loud when you do notice it. In other words, consciously experience your scheduled activities.
Cook a delicious meal, bake, clean, repair, paint, read, take a bath, go to bed and rise at a specific time. Move. Use exercise programs inside the house. Let yourself become aware of not being stuck but safe in the house. Decide to have a conversation with someone on the telephone at a planned time (see articles about “Loneliness”). Schedule a conversation with your partner. Come up with ideas of a date on the weekend. Take charge of your time and feel the impact of your own doing with conscious awareness.

4. Surrender to a lack of control.

In the deepest sense, we do not control life. There is a simple saying in Buddhism: “Relax, nothing is under control.” To live with the fact that the world turns around without our doing; that thoughts come and go; that our brain is much like a liver, operating automatically and unconsciously, might feel too scary now. However, when “creating a sense of agency” does not work, we must find a way to entrust ourselves to the flow of life.

I do not believe it wise to induce such a surrender with drugs, as the intellectual and neuroscientist Sam Harris does. Even though he warns of psychosis for the feeble-minded, he took a dose of magic mushrooms (psilocybin) and raves about it,1

“The visions come in waves and each time they receded, I found myself saying or thinking, ‘Show me more.’ There was a sense of being led by something across an inner landscape…It’s like your mind is being extruded across a landscape and conformed to it and squeezed and evaporated.”

Harris came out of the visions intact, with gratitude and a renewed sense of perspective of what really matters to him. He concedes that some come out of such a trip suicidal, terrified, and, irrevocably, mentally broken.

While I believe such induced surrender is too dangerous at this point of scientific insight and diagnostic abilities and strongly advise against it, Harris does illustrate that it can be beneficial to pause the idea of being in control.

Therefore, try something more benign. Unless you tend to obsess or feel paranoid, you are likely to benefit from sitting quietly and looking inside. As you simply notice that your breath goes on without conscious effort, as you observe the rising and falling of your tummy, the cold air coming in and the warm air coming out, you are meditating.

Sitting like this is making friends with the fact that much of life just happens. As we have more time during the stay-at-home order, let us cultivate serenity, the humble acknowledgment that the river of life flows eternally without our interference. This is scary at first. And absolutely beautiful at second.

Look at a flower, and let it mean something to you. Let yourself have a deep belly laugh. It is okay to laugh and let yourself go. Celebrate your relationships with all things in life. Realize that you have been gifted this life and that there is a whole world out there you can love.

The virus will take its course — hopefully, and with our collective help, a more benign one than some predict. There are hardships to be faced. But we have food in the markets and water in the pipes — toilet paper is on the way, I trust … We have each other as we sit in this one boat on a stormy sea that carries us, always.

In case you wonder: After creating a sense of agency and entrusting myself once again to life, I ended up a happy person. My heart could open to the flow of life after all. Happiness is possible.

1) Sam Harris, Sam’s Mushroom Trip. March 22, 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yKGddvmU0fA&t=

© 2020 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.