Let me preface this article by stating that I am in no way downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19. I've read all the articles circulating about, I understand the #flattenthecurve concept, and I am fully in support of public health safety precautions, such as social distancing, washing your hands, coughing/sneezing into elbows and staying home when sick. I am actually home right now with what I would consider the most mild "sickness" I've ever stayed home with - a very slight sore throat. I am not undermining this advice, nor downplaying the fact that this virus could potentially take out a lot of people and overwhelm medical systems. I'm fully on board with the measures that need to be taken to contain this.
At the same time, as a non-practicing registered nurse (I left the field about ten years ago), a yoga teacher, and wellness practitioner, I have a pretty solid grasp on the biochemistry of stress and how it impacts us. The absolute panic and fear mongering going on is extreme and if you are drinking that kool-aid, you are probably damaging your health and community more substantially than COVID-19.
You see, the hormones of stress work in such a way that they literally dampen the immune system, as all of your energy and resources are being directed at survival instead of wellness. The biochemistry of stress changes your genetic expression - so on the cellular level long-term physiological stress is causing a down-regulation in genes that are responsible for suppressing tumour growth, promoting cell renewal and fortifying the immune system. And in this sustained state of stress you are making yourself more susceptible to the very thing you are trying to fight, and more (like cancer).
In the words of Bruce Lipton, who holds a PhD in microbiology and is considered one of the pioneers in the field of epigenetic,
"As presented in The Biology of Belief, stress is responsible for up to 90% of illness, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. When an individual is in stress, the release of stress hormones (e.g., cortisol) shuts down the immune system to conserve the body’s energy for running away from the perceived stressor, that proverbial “saber-toothed tiger.” Stress hormones are so effective at compromising the immune system, that physicians therapeutically provide recipients of organ transplants with stress hormones to prevent their immune system from rejecting the foreign implant.
The conclusion is clear: The fear of the coronavirus is more deadly than the virus itself!"
Beyond the implications of how stress impacts your immune response, stress also causes changes in our psychology. As Dr. Joe Dispenza explains, we move from a divergent focus, where our awareness is expanded beyond our own selfish needs and desires, to a convergent focus where we start to scan the environment for threats and we behave in self-serving ways, looking out only for the wellbeing of ourselves and those in our inner circle. This is where panic sets in and people start hoarding things and acting in irrational ways. The irony of this is that our actions start to undermine the greater society's ability to respond effectively to the crisis. The people who need masks can't get them, the ones who need the soap and hand sanitizer can't access these resources because someone else has a year supply stashed away in a cupboard. In a state of chronic stress, your ability to think critically is reduced, and you can even reach a point where you are literally incapable of perceiving anything that is not directly related to your immediate survival. So you may start to ignore those people around you who need support, or you may choose to go to the store to stock up on a year's worth of essentials even though you are sick and should be at home. You may end up choosing to take actions that perpetuate the problem because the chemistry of stress has you so self-absorbed and fearful you can't think clearly.
So what can you do?
Conscious relaxation practices are key. In a society that emphasizes hyperactivity and competition, relaxation is not often prioritized, and it is deeply misunderstood. Conscious rest is NOT kicking it poolside with an umbrella drink while we gossip about other people and post instagram photos of our feet. Conscious relaxation is a process by which you regain control of your inner world and your response to your environment. It will take all of your attention and can even be quite uncomfortable at first. If it's not something you're used to practicing, it's going to feel awkward, fake, and little forced at first. Do it anyway, it's the only way to rise above the animalistic programming of our brains that make us default into fear and competition so easily.
What are some practices that can help?
Feel into and Move your body
When you are feeling stuck in a state of fear, despair, or panic, notice your body. How are you holding yourself and carrying yourself? What is your breath like? Start by actually feeling into your body. If that is too obscure of a concept to bring into practice, take Eckhart Tolle's recommendation: "with the eyes closed and the body in stillness, how do you know your body is still there? You have to feel it." And when you start to feel into your body, really draw your awareness into the places where your body connects to the Earth beneath you. With your exhales, allow your body to drop more heavily into the support of the Earth. This process of feeling your body in space and grounding down to the support beneath you will support the recalibration of your nervous system; moving you out of spinal sympathetic (fight or flight mode) and dorsal vagal tone (freeze, hopelessness, depression) and it will bring you back into ventral vagal tone (rest & digest system), according to Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory.
Moving your body can be as simple as expanding your breath - you may want to try the simple practice of a 4-7-8 breath count: inhaling through the nose for a count of 4, possibly retaining the breath for a count of 7, and exhaling for a count of 8. If holding the breath causes a feeling of anxiety, shorten or drop the breath retention. If the 4:8 ratio of inhales to exhales is too long and feels like a struggle, shorten it, keeping the exhale twice as long as the inhale. You could also try a humming exhale, which naturally lengthens the exhale and has the bonus of stimulating feel good chemicals to be released in the brain. Anytime you lengthen the exhale in relation to the inhale, you are literally sending a message to the brain via the Vagus Nerve that says, "I am safe. It's ok to rest, digest, heal, create and repair. I am not in immediate danger. I can relax and I choose to move into the physiology that supports my wellbeing."
And if possible, get your body moving for at least 20 minutes a day. It might be the perfect time to try out some online yoga, fitness or qi gong videos. Take a walk in fresh air if you don't have reason to self-quarantine. As you move your body, you will shift your energy and your emotional state.
Focus and language
What you focus on you will feel. If you focus on the helplessness of the situation, you will feel helpless. If you focus on the actions you can take to support the health of the global community, you will feel empowered. Dr. Stephen Covey calls this 'focusing on your circle of influence," and even suggests that as you focus on what you CAN do, your circle of influence will expand. If you focus on the things beyond your control (your circle of concern), you will quickly become reactive, and the biochemistry of fear will dictate your thoughts, behaviours and feelings.
Language is one of the simplest ways to shift your focus. Start asking new questions, like:
"How can I support myself, my family and my community in this situation?"
"What are the real risks here, and how can I minimize them?"
"In what ways am I making the situation worse? Are there actions I'm taking that might be undermining my ability to stay well, and the collective ability to kick this virus?"
"Are the thoughts that I am entertaining even true?"
"How much time should I spend on Facebook?"
And PRAYER is a fantastic way to redirect your language and focus. Guys, for real, can we kick it old school, kneel down, press our palms together and reconnect to the Divine? Connect to a Higher Power, whatever that means to you. Open to something bigger than your news feed. Turn to the Divine instead of endless media doom articles. At some point, you've got all the information that is helpful, and the rest just becomes noise that reaffirms your state of fear. This is an opportunity to grow your faith, open your heart and deepen your connection to the power of love and the power of the Creator. Bonus - there are literally NO negative side effects to praying, so even if it's not normally your jam, get curious and give it a try.
Mantra is also incredibly potent at helping you transcend the monkey mind chatter that keeps you trapped in limited ways of thinking and perceiving. It does not have to be a sanskrit chant to a Hindu God - do not let that belief hold you back from trying it. It can just be affirmations that are meaningful to you, that are said with intensity and conviction over and over and over. Something as simple as "trust and faith," could be your mantra. You may want try doubling down and reciting your unique mantra during your walk or yoga practice.
And finally, hold a Vision of a better world. A healthier world. A more altruistic world. Because as you hold this vision you will start to move towards it. This is how the great people in history achieved the impossible. They were defined by a Vision of the future and they devoted their thoughts, words and actions in service of bringing that vision to life. Think Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi - they were defined by a vision, NOT by circumstance.
Keep thinking of others.
Keep washing your hands.
Take a sick day at the slightest niggling of an illness (I'm really enjoying mine today).
Choose to luxuriate in the slower pace, and the process of turning inwards that this crisis is thrusting upon us.
Envision the kind of person you want to show up as in this crisis, and move towards that state of being. We need the best version of you, NOW. Commit to rise.