Finding Peace in the Uncertainty
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
I’ve always been the kind of person who looks for a positive outcome in challenging circumstances. I’m sure I will manage to ferret out some positives with my family’s self-imposed quarantine in the midst of the Coronavirus outbreak. I have already thought of a few, like the quality family time at home, our children’s opportunity to work on their relationship (as they are forced together for much longer stretches of time), and practicing conservation as certain grocery store aisles dry up as the result of our panic shopping. This is not to say that I am not at times overtaken by worries and anxiety in the midst of this outbreak. I certainly get stricken with these afflictions too. However, such afflictions have also been my gift. I have an involved relationship with anxiety. We are old pals. We met when I was 24 years old when I survived a life-threatening event. Anxiety decided to stay with me after that. I do think anxiety is par for the course of getting older, but I was certainly lambasted with it at a critical time of development. A time where vulnerability naturally starts to settle in with the final stages of executive brain development and with the individuation from primary family.
What I have learned over the years is that anxiety is a necessary component of being alive and if I embrace this inevitability, I can make space for anxiety as opposed to running away or snuffing it out. I tried the later approaches for a good while but they didn’t work. Instead, I learned to sit with anxiety. As in the Buddha’s example, I invited my anxiety to tea. Instead of running away from anxiety I decided to turn towards it, to understand it and to breathe… through every nuanced physical and mental manifestation of anxiety, as it coursed through my body and mind. The more I sat with anxiety, the more patience settled in and the more capacious I felt, leaving room for my whole experience, not just the experience I wanted to be having, but for all that had arisen. I embrace anxiety now; I know it is part of living. I don’t try to overpower it or deny it. I breathe into it and say, “Ahh here you are again old friend. I know you well. Let’s sit together and be still for a while. I will make space for you. I will be patient with you. As I sit with openness, I turn towards you and observe the ways you speak through me. Thank you for trying to keep me safe. I feel protected, I feel loved, I feel free.”
What I’ve also learned about anxiety along the way is that in challenging times it is not a good idea to make predictions about the future. These tend to be fear-mongering thoughts that fester and latch onto visions of worst-case scenario outcomes. One thing I know is that anxiety begets anxiety. So why do we do this? There is a purpose to this pattern of negative thinking. It’s the mind’s attempt to try and be ready for every possible scenario. When we feel helpless, we look for ways to regain control, to re-establish our equilibrium and feel a sense of safety. Hence, the panic shopping amidst the Coronavirus outbreak. However, these agitating predictions only generate more anxiety and the far-reaching, foreshadowing doom expands outward evermore, exacerbating our sense of helplessness. As in the words of Mark Twain “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” (There are different versions of this quote out there but I like this one regardless of its authenticity of lack thereof.) The only thing we can be sure of is this moment right here. When we try to plan for all that might happen, we miss the opportunity to seize this precise moment and act with clarity and resoluteness. I liken living in the moment to when I used to compete as a sprinter. There was nothing but that final stretch of 75 meters ahead of me. Nothing else. No room for doubt or uncertainty. Just explosive, steadfast, concentration on what was right in front of me. It was liberating to be so present. When I meditate, I can feel this same sense of clarity even when I am anxious. The anxiety turns into something else: fuel. And I love it. I learn from it. I embrace it.
Another important point about anxiety is that it’s infectious. We are herd animals and we pay close attention to others’ actions and sentiments because we are trying to suss out potential threats. As I sat in the waiting room of my kid’s toddler class chatting with other moms, feeling uneasy about continuing to expose myself and my child to others amidst this very new and unknown illness, I closely watched their reactions. To myself, I say “well they are all here, they haven’t changed their routines and let Coronavirus stop them.” But I still feel uneasy and not sure these are risks worth taking. This is how we use people to help ascertain the situation and on which we base our own behavioral response even when it may not be in our best interest. Our very survival depends on our ability to fit into the herd and not be left behind. I question how much social media has perpetuated panic shopping. As people post pictures of empty grocery store shelves our self-preservation drive kicks up another notch, screaming “buy, buy, buy.” You are missing out. The herd has eaten and left none for you.”
What about the fear-mongering media? They’ve been able to tap into our frenzied minds, constantly offering up new angles on the Coronavirus story often times without providing additional nor pertinent information. They just keep tapping our veins and we keep injecting the fear. With every injection, reinforcing the trail in our brains that says “worry, prepare, avoid.” Because essentially that is the purpose of anxiety. It is intended by its biological design to make us prepare for action. That action is to flee the scene or fight. When we are stuck in an anxious brain we are constantly preparing, thinking through all the ways that we can avoid disaster. Our minds are locking in on this potential threat and we can’t see beyond it. Like perhaps, another perspective. The media has capitalized on this. Media reports on all the new cases of the Coronavirus, and how this virus continues to permeate around the globe, and the deaths that ensue. All true of course but have they offered up any recovery stories? No. Do we see the faces and hear the voices of those who have had this illness and recovered from it. Not nearly enough. So what we are dealt, is the unknown and pending disaster. Just as the young mind will form shadows of monsters in the dark, so will the adult mind fill in doubt and uncertainty with ideas of doom. This is what the media capitalizes on.
Now instead of people simply supplying their homes for the recommended two weeks, they are preparing for the apocalypse. They are no longer preparing for Coronavirus quarantines. They are preemptively preparing for panic. You see the conundrum here? As I mentioned before, anxiety begets anxiety. That’s how it goes. There is the initially perceived threat (however real or imagined) but then comes the fear of anxiety. When anxiety doesn’t get dealt with effectively and affectively, we start running from the anxiety itself. Now, no longer wrestling with the initial threat we are wrestling with the anxiety. Guess what, anxiety always wins in this kind of match. The more you try to strong-arm it, the larger and mightier it grows. So first you prepare for two weeks of provisions and then three and then four and then, why not for the entire year. It goes on and on like this. As anxiety gets projected outward through mass channels like social media and news outlets, the entire herd gets overwhelmed, and our self-preservation instincts get stroked. Now we are primed for great acts of selfishness. Let’s get ahead of the herd here and ensure we come out on top.
Please understand, by no means am I suggesting that you shouldn’t prepare or be extremely cautious. With the first case of Coronavirus in California, I heeded the recommendations to supply our home for two weeks of potential quarantine. This seemed like a reasonable thing to do given the present state of China and Italy. Living in the greater NYC area with a husband who frequently travels domestically and internationally it seemed plausible that we might be spending a long stretch of time at home in the coming weeks. I also heeded those internal thoughts that told me maybe it was time to start pulling back on public exposure and I began changing mine and my family’s behavior, at first by just a little, but then by a lot. We were no longer concerned with what others were doing. We had to listen to what felt best for us, heeding our own sense of concern, checking in with our anxiety, and making decisions based on this useful information. Because I know how to work with my anxiety, because I understand its language, I can make it work for me to make wise and intuitive choices.
That being said, it’s also crucial that we spread positivity and support to one another, to help lift up our communities at this time. Before posting pictures or sentiments of shock value on social media think how you may be triggering our shared sense of panic and impending doom. As a member of our herd, set the example of responsible social behavior. Closely monitor and heed health and government officials’ admonishments. We are trying to get this virus under wraps. Remember there are many first responders, healthcare workers, teachers, and service workers, etc. who are having to put themselves in more compromising positions to keep you safe and fed. Take this threat real, use caution, do what is socially responsible, and try developing a relationship with your anxiety (it can guide you wisely). Remember to breathe, to stay in this moment that is right here. We can’t predict the future, try as we might. Help generate positivity and love in a time of uncertainty. We will all benefit from these efforts.
In this spirit, I offer you the following meditations:
Click here for the link.