But also, there’s this: Our hands are chapped from sanitizers and soap, our kids are home from school, our workplaces are shutting down, our in-person gatherings have been canceled, and our grocery-store shelves are nearly empty. In other words, our lives are affected in ways big and small, but at least we’re in this seemingly surreal situation together.
That was what I was getting at, anyway. Then someone tweeted back at me: “Not funny.”
It’s true; a global pandemic isn’t funny. But as we all take measures to protect our physical health, we also need to protect our emotional health. So what I responded with was this: “Everyone copes with horrible situations differently. For some, humor is a balm. It’s BOTH/AND: It’s horrible AND we can allow our souls to breathe.”
This kind of anxiety causes us to futurize and catastrophize, both of which take up a lot of emotional real estate. It’s a vicious cycle: The more we worry, the more we try to control our worry with something tangible, such as information. But clinging to our screens for the latest update has the opposite effect because it serves as fodder for more futurizing and catastrophizing. A daily update makes sense. But bingeing on up-to-the-minute news is like stress eating—it’s bloating our minds with unhealthy food that will make us feel sick.
A few years ago, a patient of mine who was going through cancer treatment told me that she’d come to a realization: She could think about her cancer all day, about the uncertainty of what might happen, or she could feel her fear at times but also be present in her life right now. She could watch Netflix with her husband and have a dance party with her young children and belt out a song in the shower in between her moments of understandable fear.
Today, she’s cancer-free—for now. She’s aware that the cancer could come back. Is that cough just reflux or something else? Is this fatigue at the end of the weekend due to three birthday parties, a soccer match, and a child’s piano recital, or a possible recurrence? It’s on her mind daily, the way COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is on most of our minds daily, but the anxiety no longer consumes her the way she imagined it would, because when she had cancer, she became a master at living in the mindset of both/and.
And, yes, we’re laughing about the fact that we can’t touch our face. Or about how we’re channeling our anxiety into a massive spring cleaning (both Marie Kondo–style and disinfectant-style). Or about how we can’t get the “Happy Birthday” song out of our head at night after singing it while washing our hands all day.
For me, in the past couple of days, COVID-19 has gone from a tragic news story to a real threat to people I know. A friend’s close friend was hospitalized with the virus. I’m not minimizing the seriousness of this pandemic, and I don’t have my head in the sand, but I’m taking good psychological care, and I recommend that all of us pay as much attention to protecting our emotional health as we do to guarding our physical health. A virus can invade our bodies, but we get to decide whether we let it invade our minds.
So let’s all let out a big exhale (10 feet away from other people) and remind ourselves to practice both/and as many times a day as we need to.