My mind is usually a churning soup of anxiety, overplanning, and confusion, but the COVID-19 outbreak has put it in hyperdrive.
Does this runny nose mean I have the virus? What’s going to happen to my job? Are we headed towards another Great Depression? Will grocery stores have food on the shelves in a week? How am I going to manage spending two weeks or more by myself?
Under normal circumstances—and these are far from normal—I’d lean on resources such as therapy, close friends, and community. But those things will be more difficult to access in the coming weeks and months.
So—and it pains me to say this because capitalism is all about the individual, and capitalist ideology has almost certainly made this crisis worse in the U.S.—we must do what we can to care for ourselves right now.
On top of caring for our loved ones and demanding that the government bail out human beings and not just Wall Street, we must learn how to self-soothe, i.e., hold our emotional experience with care and compassion.
There are certain to be moments ahead that will overwhelm us emotionally, so I’ll share how I self-soothe in hopes that it helps you come up with your own process. My process is influenced by meditation teacher Tara Brach’s “RAIN” practice and the Internal Family Systems (IFS) work of the psychotherapist Richard Schwartz, if you want to dive in further.
Most of all, I’m keeping the routines that I can, particularly daily meditation, stretching, working out, and a healthy diet. As the world shifts beneath our feat, we need all the stability we can get to feel safe and secure.
The first step is to bring attention to what’s going on in the mind when emotions begin to swirl. When we’re lost in worrying thoughts, our mind is off in the future or the past, which only exacerbates our anxiety. We often imagine the worst possible outcome, i.e., catastrophize, adding unnecessary fuel to already fiery situation.
As Brach writes in her new book Radical Compassion, “When we are lost in the forest, we can create a clearing simply by pausing and turning from our clamoring thoughts to become aware of our moment-to-moment experience.”
You might be thinking that paying attention to the reality right now sounds like hell—and you’re sort of right. You might be thinking distraction is the way to go.
But the next step is to accept that you’re worried and afraid. Normally we try to hide from our emotions by denying them, distracting ourselves, trying to find solid answers with our mind. By denying them, we unconsciously judge ourselves for feeling the way that we do.
The spiritual teacher David Deida tells a story about a teacher of his feeling jealous at a party. Deida sees the teacher’s wife across the room enjoying a conversation with an attractive man and asks his teacher, “Aren’t you jealous?”
“Yes, but the fact that I’m jealous isn’t bothering me,” his teacher responds.
In other words, the teacher was aware of how he was relating to his jealousy. Instead of making his jealousy a problem, he was allowing it to just be. He could decide to intervene or discuss the situation with his wife after the party. Or he could decide not to. He was putting himself in a better position to respond rather than react to what was happening.
You might be thinking that allowing yourself to feel the pain of this moment sounds like hell—and you’re sort of right.
But the next step is to investigate what’s going on in the body. Emotions and anxious thoughts are often accompanied by tension in the stomach, shoulders, or elsewhere. For example, when I’m worried, my ab muscles clench like I’m trying to fit into jeans a size too small.
Just like with emotions, the practice is to allow the clench to be there rather than making it a problem. Slowly let go of the tension from the inside out. You might even ask, “How big can this feeling get?” as you allow it to expand throughout your body and dissolve.
Letting go of tension sometimes can reverse-engineer your mind into calming down. Research has shown that smiling during brief periods of stress may help reduce the body’s stress response, regardless of whether you actually feel happy or not.
But what we’re facing isn’t a brief period of stress. So, the final step in my self-soothing process is to bring care and compassion to myself. That sounds hippie dippie, but in my experience it’s the most powerful step towards becoming more courageous and emotionally resilient.
Here’s an example: when I’m feeling lonely, I imagine the part of me that’s lonely as a young boy who is looking for a friend. I invite this part to come sit beside me. More often than not, the loneliness dissipates along with the tension in my stomach that accompanied it.
Another way to care for yourself: imagine the part of you that’s afraid and anxious as a good friend. How would you be with this friend? Would you ignore them or give them your full attention and love? Likely, you’d do the latter.
The bottom line: these are unprecedented times. Don’t add fuel to the fire by catastrophizing or—worse—pretending that everything is great.
Instead, notice your emotions. Allow them to be there. Let go of any tension in your body. And most important, hold your emotional experience with compassion rather than judgement and criticism.
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