In the Inferno of Dante Aligieri’s Divine Comedy, Dante and his guide approach the gates of hell and hear the anguished screams of the uncommitted and note an inscription on the gates, ending with the famous phrase “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate,” most frequently translated as “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
As therapists, one of our primary tasks is to help our clients live in the moment. It is said that non-chemical depression is a symptom of being stuck in a painful past; non-chemical anxiety, on the other hand, is a pre-occupation with fear about the future. In therapy, when people worry excessively about the future we call this ‘future-fear,’ ‘catastrophizing’ or ‘future-tripping.’ We try to help clients (and remind ourselves) to stay in the moment where most of the time we’re safe and nothing bad is happening to us.
All of our feelings are valid and the more in touch we are with them, the healthier and safer we are in our lives. But we can’t live happy, functional lives if we are driven by our emotions. Emotions can’t work that way. When we feel sad, for example, we’re compelled to look at why we’re feeling that way and then to use our logical minds to try to resolve the issue that is producing that emotion.
If you take a moment to reflect, you will likely see that the people in your life who struggle the most are those who tend to be driven by their emotions. On the other hand, people also tend to struggle when they completely suppress their feelings. We need to be able to use our emotions to signal our logical minds that something is happening that we need to deal with. These two parts of ourselves must work together in order to function well.
The only emotion that concerns me is fear. Fear is powerful and necessary for our survival. In fact, fear saves lives. When we are scared, our bodies dump adrenaline and cortisol into our systems so that we can think more quickly, escape if need be, fight if we must, and save ourselves. This mechanism is meant to be temporary and when we stay in a state of fear for long periods of time it is damaging to our physical and mental health. In his wonderful book The Gift of Fear, Gavin DeBecker tells us that the “seven key abilities most beneficial for human beings [are] the ability to motivate ourselves, to persist against frustration, to delay gratification, to regulate moods, to hope, to empathize, and to control impulse.” When we are in a constant state of fear, these seven essential skills are compromised.
I’m writing this blog in a hurry because we’re being told that this week and next will be the worst weeks and that the death toll is expected to spike. I want people to see this blog now, while their fear may be most severe.
I participate in a number of professional groups where therapists from all over the world discuss clinical issues. Over the past few months I’ve seen endless conversations in which therapists are catastrophizing about the Coronavirus. Not all therapists are doing this, but too many are.
The position of most therapists seems to be that we are looking at potentially millions of American deaths and 18 months of lock-down followed by a crushed economy that will take a decade to recover. I don’t believe that will be the case. I’m willing to be wrong and as a testament to humility I’ll leave this blog up if it turns out that I am wrong and millions of Americans do die, the economy doesn’t promptly recover, and the sky figuratively falls.
We should all refuse to live in constant, debilitating fear. Rather, we must embrace hope while remaining vigilant against those things that may threaten us. We now have over eight billion people living on the planet. We’ve suffered plagues, wars, natural disasters, famine, and genocide and yet we continue to thrive as a species. I’m aware that Coronavirus is a highly contagious illness that can be brutal to the elderly and those of us with compromised immune systems. We can’t bury our heads in the sand and pretend it will go away. But allowing our fears to consume us is emotionally and physically unhealthy and counterproductive.
My husband was a Marine and has often told me how they were trained to ‘work the problem.’ Regardless of the nature of the challenge, they were encouraged to take one step at a time, evaluate the impact of that step, then take another step based on the outcome of the prior step, and to repeat that process until the problem was solved. When we are focused on ‘working the problem’ by applying logic to incrementally improve the situation, we reduce fear.
This strategy acknowledges our legitimate feelings of fear—we allow ourselves to feel the fear and use that fear to inform us that we are in potential danger – while giving us control over our safety and security.
The Coronvirus is something over which we have limited control. Still, we can ‘work the problem’ together as a nation, as communities, within families, and individually. Working the problem in this current situation means addressing three main issues:
- Taking action to ‘flatten the curve’ while preserving our local and national economies
- Managing our feelings and practicing good self-care so that we’re able to think clearly and reduce our susceptibility to fear-mongering
- Using all resources at our disposal to defeat the virus
Right now we are taking steps to self-isolate and practice social distancing. This is something we can do as individuals and it’s something over which we have a high degree of control if we are not essential workers. We can also make the jobs of essential workers easier by consciously limiting our outings (like going to the store because we’re going legitimately stir-crazy in the house).
We can help our local communities, for example, by ordering from our favorite local restaurants. I recently learned that many delivery services charge restaurants a significant percentage to deliver—a cost we don’t see but that the restaurant feels. Because of this I encourage people to order online and pick up their own food, if possible. Restaurants are set up to provide this service while maintaining social distancing (curbside pick-up etc.). Doing so provides the additional benefit of giving us an excuse to get out of our houses to see that the world is still turning. Those who can afford to do so can also help struggling local businesses by pre-paying for services that we regularly use such as hair styling, massages, housekeeping, landscaping, etc.
On a personal level, managing our feelings and practicing good self-care doesn’t just mean doing things that make us feel better in the moment. Good self-care means taking such good care of ourselves, in general, that we only occasionally need to come up with ways to feel better when we struggle. Self-care is a way of living. For those of us who are stuck at home this is a good time to develop good self-care practices which will help us now and continue to be helpful after the pandemic has passed. These include:
- Consistently and intentionally searching out good news about developments around the virus.
- Consistently and intentionally, to the degree possible, avoiding all people, institutions, and environments that contribute to a feeling of powerlessness and fear.
For me, this means that I start each day researching. I’m looking for new developments in treatments, vaccines, and signs that indicate that the curve is flattening. I avoid all mainstream media. In fact, if I see a negative headline, I exit out. This is not ‘putting my head in the sand.’ This is me acknowledging that journalism stays alive by peddling fear. If the news is boring, we tune out. The media knows this and they know that if we’re scared, we’ll keep tuning in hoping for relief, be re-traumatized, and in our fear, check back in again.
There is a lot of promising, comforting news out there if you look for it. If you would like access to some of the positive and uplifting information I’ve found, please email me at RondaGallawa AT gmail.com and I will send you what I’ve found.
Again, individually, we can establish new, healthy routines like increasing intimacy with our partners, watching less television, spending more time exercising, engaging more with loved ones, learning how to cook healthy meals (or perhaps unhealthy ones), reading, taking up hobbies, reaching out to old friends from whom we’ve grown apart, noticing and acknowledging small acts of kindness from others and intentionally extending small acts of kindness to others. In fact, research shows that when we extend kindness to others, we feel better about ourselves.
As a country, we are currently working the problem. Working the problem doesn’t necessarily mean we will always have total success. Talking about how we failed three months ago is not working the problem but instead just adds to our feelings of powerlessness. Working the problem means that each day we look at where we are, and based on that assessment deciding what to do next.
The following are examples of how we, as a nation, are applying this strategy:
- The private sector is stepping up to help make or develop much needed PPE, ventilators, medications, and other medical resources.
- Federal, state and local governments and government agencies are sharing information, coordinating the distribution of supplies and other resources.
- Countless doctors, scientists and researchers around the world are working tirelessly to develop treatments, many of which look promising.
Those of us who are not involved in these big picture problem solving endeavors have no choice but to trust the collective power of our private sector and government to help us through this time.
I understand that we are living in a politically divided time. It feels as though we are more polarized than ever. You may find it difficult or impossible to trust the Trump administration and if that’s the case, the idea that our fate ‘lies in his hands’ may exacerbate your fear or anxiety. You needn’t be afraid. Your fate does not rely on one person. It relies on the contributions, dedication, and passions of thousands of people in government and the private sector and the strength and spirit of all Americans.
My intention is that this blog gives you hope. I am full of hope that this pandemic will be behind us soon and that we will come out of it stronger, more resilient, more patient, more compassionate, and more loving toward ourselves and one another.
In his first inaugural address, Franklin Roosevelt famously spoke to these same questions of fear, hope and resilience that I’ve tried to address in this blog. While he was referring to the Great Depression, his words are equally applicable to our present challenge:
This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.