It’s interesting to see how different people respond differently to a situation like this. Over the course of the two months we’ve been living with the outbreak here in China, each member of my family responded differently.
My wife has been relatively unfazed and upbeat, cleaning and re-cleaning the house and going to climb the local mountain with friends (all while maintaining the proper distance). My teenage daughter wrapped herself in a cocoon of keeping up with online schoolwork, chatting with friends on WeChat, and watching and rewatching The Office (comfort tv for her). My six-year-old has been in heaven. Getting to stay in his pajamas while doing his online schoolwork? Spending more time with family? Getting to play a lot of Minecraft? It’s a dream come true for the little guy.
And me? I’ve been spending quite a bit of time with my old friend, anxiety.
So, I know that this post will be hitting each of you in a different place. Some of you are handling it well, some of you have good days and bad days, some of you are not are not handling it well at all.
Looking back, I know I have not handled it well. So I’m talking to you as a person who frequently was unable to do the things I’m suggesting, but now wish that I had.
First of all, understand that it’s okay.
It’s okay if you are feeling anxiety or stress or an ongoing sense of panic. You’re sailing uncharted waters, with sharks off your bow, and storm clouds on the horizon. The fact that you are anxious is coming to you direct from your lizard brain, and your lizard brain wants to protect your lizard body at all costs. It’s okay.
You just need to get aquatinted with your anxiety.
We have a children’s book called Anh’s Anger, about a boy who gets irrationally angry at his grandfather, who tells him to go to his room and sit with his anger. The boy goes to his room and his anger manifests itself as a wild looking creature. Over the course of the book, the boy comes to terms with his anger, which grows smaller and smaller and finally disappears as the boy comes to accept it.
So be okay with your anxiety. Come to terms with it. Accept it. Understand what’s going on with your body and why it’s responding with anxiety. Knowledge is power, right? To this end, I would highly encourage you to listen to The Happiness Lab podcast (https://www.happinesslab.fm/), which explores the science behind well-being.
But give yourself room to be anxious.
Second, and closely connected to the first, soak yourself in grace.
Grace for those staying home with you, grace for yourself, grace for everyone.
There have been times over the past two months that I wanted to toss each member of my family out of the window, and it was usually for something really minor and inconsequential. Spending so much time in a house together when you’re not used to spending that much time together in these uncertain times can lead to irrationality and short tempers. So be intentional about giving each other a break.
But again, this is about you dealing with your anxiety, so give yourself a break.
For example, forgive yourself if you indulge from time to time. You’re in uncharted waters, and if something will bring you a little comfort, give yourself a break. Just don’t learn to depend on that thing.
Because there’s a good chance you’re going to be tempted to depend on poor choices to help get you through this time. Comfort foods, comfort routines, comfort adult beverages, comfort smokes… be aware of what you’re doing, and ask yourself if these choices are helping your anxiety go away or just numbing it for a while, leaving it to come back even stronger.
I say this knowing how poorly I’ve fared in the poor choice department. I’m not going to go into all the skeletons I’ve installed in my closets these last two months, but I will confess this. Prior to the outbreak, I had been working really hard to avoid certain foods as a way to lose weight and work on my blood pressure. I don’t know how many times during this thing I’ve been at the store, seem an item I really shouldn’t be eating, and said to myself, “Hey! I deserve this! I stayed in China during the outbreak!”
Just be aware that “the you when this thing is over” will want to be proud of the way “the you experiencing this thing” handled it. Eating a whole bag of tortilla chips in one sitting (which I have done) will not make the future you proud.
But, give yourself a break if you do. Move on. Nothing to see here.
Third, be intentional on the way you spend time with your anxiety.
When I was trying to come to terms with my anxiety last fall, a good friend recommended meditation. As a Christian, I’d grown up knowing about prayer, but meditation? It’s not something most Christians do, although it is mentioned in Scripture several times.
For me, it came down to breathing. Sitting in a quiet place and breathing. My least anxious moments of the day are when I’m doing this, and sometimes it can last for an hour or more (that’s the thing – we have time these days, don’t we?). If you are a Christian you can incorporate reading scripture and prayer into this practice, and it can really be helpful physiologically and spiritually.
I had an interesting experience last night. I had been unusually anxious for the latter half of the day, and when I went to bed, anxiety went to bed with me. Anxiety kept waking me up over the course of the night. I would sleep for an hour or two and then wake up being anxious about everything going on, and anxiety wouldn’t let me go back to sleep.
I breathed. I prayed.
I prayed a simple prayer over and over until anxiety and I both finally drifted off back to sleep: “Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Lord Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over and over. This simple practice was all I needed to loosen anxiety’s hold on me.
Fourth, take care of yourself.
What can you to do improve the mood of the place where you are isolating? For me, it’s lighting. I’m a lamp guy, and so we have lamps set strategically all over the house. Also, candles. I have a candle burning by my work station constantly, and the flickering flame brings me quiet joy.
But not just inside, get outside (all while practicing responsible social distancing, of course)! Go for walks. Ride your bike. Don’t just hunker down in your house with your lamps and candles as if there were a giant rampaging dinosaur destroying the city outside or the zombie apocalypse had happened and they’re trying to figure out how to eat your brains. The good thing about this virus is that you can go out! Take advantage of what exercise, fresh air, and sunlight can do to help keep anxiety manageable. It’s also good for boosting your immune system, which ain’t a bad thing to do these days.
Fifth, stick with facts.
Don’t allow yourself to go down rabbit holes of conspiracy or conjecture or sensationalism. Understand the science behind what is happening with this virus, making sure you’re getting that science from reliable sources. Understand the reality of this situation in your community and how you can best respond to your specific context and situation. Understand what you can do to be proactive in not getting the virus and not accidentally passing it on to a host of others. Stay home. Social distance. Flatten the curve.
You can still go to the store and shop, but understand the precautions you need to take when you do.
Knowledge is power, and it’s amazing what good knowledge can do to help fight irrational (or even rational) anxiety.
I would also recommend “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–and Why Things Are Better Than You Think” by Hans Rosling. I read this book when the outbreak first began, and it really helped me get a grip on the anxiety I was feeling at that tense time. About where you are now, as a matter of fact.
Ya’ll, we are going through something unprecedented, something that our grandchildren will read about in their history books. Anxiety has every right to come for a visit.
But you have the right to tell anxiety when it’s time to go.
I hope this post has helped some of you do that a little bit better.
PS – I am no anxiety expert, and so I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this subject.
Also, I know that some people have clinical depression and anxiety, and simply lighting a few candles and taking a jog won’t do the job. But still, I think some of these ideas could help. I hope they do!