As the Covid 19 pandemic cuts through America and the world (but mostly America) like a scythe through wheat, we are all faced with a wide spectrum of emotions. I am personally aware of feelings of disbelief, anger, frustration, confusion, and hopelessness. Seemingly contradictory I also experience feelings of fascination, relief and dare I say… hope and even joy. And of course the later is quickly followed by guilt. As a clinical psychologist working with patients from all walks of life and on all points of the political spectrum, I witness a similar array of feelings, though often elicited by differing factors and events.
Parents of children experience fear and confusion regarding the future of their children, how much social exposure to afford them, whether to home school, pressure to let kids out to play with kids whose parents may be less concerned about Covid. At the same time, parents may be relieved to not be shlepping children to a myriad sports, dance, school functions, rehearsals and all the rest that consume current household schedules. They may experience joy at having the family together and interacting more. They are overjoyed to not be running to stores and enjoying the lighter traffic and reduced noise and car exhaust. Sometimes my patients that are parents whisper such joy and relief as if they are in a confessional awaiting absolution for daring to experience joy and relief while so many suffer.
Many on both sides of the political spectrum feel anger and suspicion of those on opposing sides for their views of the nature of personal rights and responsibilities (egg., face masks), policies towards business closings, leadership decisions at the local, state and federal level, and seemingly alternate realities that each side experience that are unfathomable to the other. And the drubbing of news whether is Fox or MSNBC reinforces whichever views the camps hold and overwhelmed the viewers senses with renewed fuel to galvanize their hate and mistrust of the other.
And of course fear born of all the uncertainty of the of the pandemic and the ultimate toll it may take on our economy, employment, finances, lifestyle and contemplating the risk to ourselves and loved ones.
So this begs the question, what do we do with all these feelings? Often times we choose to distract ourselves and otherwise seek to control and avoid these feelings by burying ourselves in tv, movies, drugs, alcohol and so on. As a result off Covid sales of Netflix, heroin and alcohol have all skyrocketed. Many just become overaught by their myriad feelings and get lost in a miasma of worry and anxiety. They can compulsively watch the news reinforcing their fears. By distancing ourselves from all the understandable emotions arising from the pandemic, the emotions never get processed or ‘digested’ but remain a stuck energy which can serve to undermine our mental and physical well being.
Behavioral psychology and Buddhist practices and philosophies make for strange bedfellows in that they both encourage us to embrace our feelings and purposefully turn our attention into uncomfortable emotional experiences. We are are admonished to not try to control our emotional experience but view them with openess, and non -judgement. Just watch the thoughts and dramas that cross our mind, but without getting stuck in them. Try to label the feelings as they arise as specifically as possible. So rather than ay “I feel depressed”, or “this sucks”, perhaps one can identify feelings of sadness, helplessness and so on. Pay attention to where in the physical body sensations arise. This helps to anchor our attention. Often times, emotions will emanate from energy centers distributed along the midline of the body and may include the lower abdomen, stomach, solar plexus, heart/chest, throat and head. As one pays deep attention, these energies may begin to flow and circulate, rendering the energy into a dynamic force. Which is exactly the point since when we withdraw attention, these energies will likely stay stuck and thus can convert into physical and psychiatric symptoms.
There is no specific thing that needs to result for such a practice. Feelings may not just miraculously disappear. Rather, with some practice, a sort of transformation does invariably occur such that a feeling of calm acceptance and equanimity even in the midst of pain can take root. Suffering occurs as a direct result from our endeavor to direct and resist our experience. That is a critical point! As we abandon our control tactics, true presence can emerge and we can just be. Then a clear direction will emerge in a spontaneous fashion, not born out of blind reactivity but out of clear and unfettered vision free of aversion or attachment. Then Covid can be a teacher as are all challenges that life presents.
The above suggestions have deep empirical roots. Various findings from a veritable explosion of research from a variety of research institute such as National Institute of Health, have shown that mindfulness and exposure practices can help reduce stress and increase well-being, and help in the treatment of addiction, anxiety disorders, hypertension, depression, cancer, chronic pain, heart disease, stress, and many other mental and physiological problems.
Please feel free to leave questions, comments, personal experiences and points for discussion below!!