Sitting down to write this, the first thing I typed on my blank screen was the title, Staying Sane During Coronavirus, but I nixed it – not aspirational enough. So I changed the title to force myself to approach this topic with a “thrive” mindset, as opposed to merely a “survive” mindset. One problem: I’m not sure I know how to get from here to there. But, if you’re willing to indulge me muddling through this thought exercise, I think it’s worthwhile for all of us to ponder.
Spoiler alert: today’s post has nothing to do with Endocrinology, my field of expertise. But, as you may recall, I have previously delved into the realm of psychology, over time apparently getting more comfortable writing about matters for which I don’t hold an advanced degree. I’m sure that my PsyD readers – I know there are at least a few of you – are cringing, so I apologize for stepping on your toes. You are welcome to call me out in the Comments or even submit a guest post if you think I’m talking rubbish!
What I Can Control vs What I Can’t
Let’s be clear: this is an incredibly stressful time. I’m worried about getting sick. I’m worried about infecting my immediate family members. I’m worried about my parents, who live too far away for me to come running in a worst case scenario. I’m worried about my friends, coworkers, small business owners, the economy, stay-at-home orders…the list seems infinite some days. But if I allow myself to walk around in a constant state of distress about what’s happening to me/my family/the world, I will not sleep, remain sane, nor thrive. When the obsessive thoughts inevitably gnaw at me, I find it extremely helpful to divide them into two categories: what I can control vs what I can’t control.
Thousands of people are dying? Can’t control, move on. The economy is taking a tremendous beating? Can’t control, move on. My freedom to move about is increasingly restricted? Can’t control, move on. There’s a gaggle of teenagers over there, horsing around and potentially passing virus among them, only to bring it home to their parents and grandparents, leading to possible death, as well as infection of the healthcare workers who try to save the older folks’ lives? Well, one could argue that I should march over and give those knuckleheads a talking-to, but I filed this one under “can’t control,” as I haven’t yet wrapped my brain around self-deputizing as the social distance police. Perhaps my mindset will change as this crisis progresses.
The point is, it is easier to quickly accept whatever painful event is occurring and figure out how to make the best of it, if I recognize it as out of my control. In other words, I can skip wasting my mental energy on perseverating about what is happening, and I can focus more on how I’m going to turn it into a win.
With that in mind, I have found several levers to pull that are helping me let go of things I can’t control. Some of these levers are activities that leave me feeling refreshed. While that is probably a whole lot of obvious, the less obvious levers have been avoiding or suppressing things that activate my brain in ways that are counterproductive. I view this dichotomy as feeding my soul and starving my brain.
I’ve been doing more exercise now than ever. Running – especially when the sun is shining – is a meditative and highly therapeutic endeavor for me. I can listen to an engaging podcast and get completely wrapped up in it, or I can listen to a meandering podcast and allow my brain to daydream, making interesting connections based on the subject of the podcast. If I need to turn my hyperactive brain off and shunt more energy to my muscles, I’ll crank up the music (I still maintain there’s nothing better than AC/DC for providing a drum beat that practically pistons my legs for me).
I do body-weight resistance training and high-intensity interval training. I’ve been experimenting with Dr. Naiman’s 15-minute workouts, taking each exercise to “triple-failure.” I take long walks with my spouse. I play sports with my kid. I take walks during lunch at work. If I have computer work to do at home, I take my laptop outside whenever possible. The point is, the combination of nature and physical activity feeds my soul, so I’m gorging during this time.
In the interest of symmetry, let’s talk about something I’m avoiding. My Google news feed consists almost entirely of coronavirus updates and doomsday scenarios. It doesn’t matter if I click the “Entertainment” tab – it’ll just tell me which movie stars have tested positive and which shows have postponed the start of filming (I am disappointed, though, that Clare’s season of The Bachelorette will be delayed). Therefore, I have mostly stopped reading the news. I have enough contact with other humans who do read it that I’ll hear about anything really important. I firmly believe that people underestimate the negative psychological impact of this constant barrage of coronavirus coverage. As long as one isn’t using my “head in the sand” approach as cover for spring breaking on a crowded beach in Florida, I think it’s fine to get news highlights from others.
If you want to try this strategy but still crave something meaty to consume on your phone at all times, check out Longform, a site that curates the best articles from numerous genres as well as time periods. My sibling turned me on to Longform about a year ago, and it has kept me occupied for many hours these past few weeks. Here’s what I’m currently reading; the only thing I love more than reality TV is a behind-the-scenes exposé of reality TV! Dr. M, if you’re reading this, wipe that judgmental smirk off your face – like you don’t have your own pathology.
Two things I’ve learned about meditation over the years: it’s easy to not do it often enough when life is peachy, which then makes it hard to get in the zone when life is going to pot. For those who meditate, you know the benefits. For those who have no idea what meditation looks like but are interested, here’s my advice: download a meditation app (I use Insight Timer, but there are plenty of others) and start experimenting with different styles to see what resonates for you.
I tend to gravitate toward guided meditations that include background music. The background music seems to help distract my brain from going off in multiple directions, allowing me to (mostly) follow the teacher’s guidance. Oftentimes, my monkey mind dominates a meditation session, so I just try my best to not judge myself too harshly; even 1-2 minutes in the zone can be helpful. Sometimes, when I’ve got foggy brain from a night of bad sleep, I’ll lay down in the afternoon and listen to a “binaural beats” style of background music to zone out and refresh. I don’t actually fall asleep, and it doesn’t always work. But when it is successful, it has the same effect as a power nap.
Do you feel unsettled if you go to bed without your phone charging on your nightstand? I get it. But I recently started leaving my phone downstairs overnight, so I don’t even have the option to pick it up in the middle of the night when I awake with racing thoughts. Not only that, but I’ve started using “do not disturb” more often, batching my replies to email and texts, as I’ve got people coming at me from every direction. Sure, many of them are friends and family, but I have found that constantly checking and replying to messages is exacerbating the state of hypervigilance in which I already exist.
I specifically want to call out two shows that have helped me reframe my outlook during this stressful period: Tim Ferriss’ recent interview with meditation teacher/guru Jack Kornfield, and any episode of The Daily Stoic.
If you’re woo-averse, as I am, much of Tim’s interview with Jack may be a bit too far out there. In that case, I’d recommend starting it at 50:35 to hear Jack talk for eight minutes on how to manage anxieties and fears about the uncontrollable nature of what’s happening now. Even when he meanders off into the woo-o-sphere, there’s just something about Jack’s manner that comforts me. If you’ve never heard Jack speak, imagine Mr. Rogers talking to a group of adults instead of children, and that’s pretty close. Anyway, if you find value in what you hear, then I also highly recommend giving his 2018 interview with Tim a listen.
As for The Daily Stoic, these are typically 2-3 minute episodes exploring how we can apply some facet of Stoic philosophy to our lives. Lately, the episodes have been particularly topical and a constant reminder of my need to practice a healthy, Stoic mindset.
If ever there was a time to get adequate quality and quantity of sleep, it’s now. For many of us, it can be frustratingly elusive, and the cause of a poor night’s sleep is often mysterious. The best I can do is avoid engaging in highly stimulating activities after dinner. That means my phone is switched to “do not disturb.” No high-stakes conversations with family. No work. Certainly no reading of the news. Just board games, escapist television, and reading a novel before bed.
Though I have been awake or in-and-out of sleep for what feels like 1-2 hours many nights, I’ve been in bed for 9-10 hours on nights I don’t need to get up early for work; I credit this with helping to keep me healthy. Mind you, I’m not saying sleep prevents infection with the coronavirus. But I can say that I have a history of susceptibility to viral illnesses whenever my sleep gets too poor for too many consecutive nights. Of course, I’m also washing my hands every time I touch anything, so that may also be keeping me healthy!
“Practicing gratitude” seems to be in vogue, and I’m normally not a trendy person. But I have consciously made this an active part of my life for at least a couple of years, and it helps. It’s a wonderful way to focus on the positive when the negative stuff seems all-consuming. Some people like to journal it, and I’ve done that – it works. Currently, I’m using it more as a counter-balance to obsessive thoughts or more distressing news thrown at me. When I notice that my brain is headed toward a bad place, I start practicing gratitude: I’m healthy, my family is healthy, we have a comfortable house with outdoor space to enjoy, we have enough food…you get the idea.
Thriving During Coronavirus
At the beginning of this post, I made a distinction between merely surviving and thriving. Most of what I’ve written about so far are coping skills that are helping me survive with my sanity intact. But am I thriving? The truth is, this isn’t a binary issue. I think there’s a spectrum of existence between surviving and thriving; at any given moment, I may be closer to one end than the other. When Admin at my medical group tosses out ideas like redeploying medical subspecialists to primary care – which I haven’t practiced for a couple of decades – I’m just thinking about how to survive in that situation1. On the other end of the spectrum, after an epic pickleball match with my kid in the afternoon sun on a weekday, followed by an “I love you dad, thanks for taking me out,” I feel like I’m thriving.
In order to thrive, I think the trick is to create an atmosphere – inside my head and inside my house – that fosters as many little wins as possible. When you live with others, however, the path to success can be strewn with obstacles. What do I mean by that? Well, think about the fact that everyone in my house is subject to the same external stressors – but they’re not necessarily going to process them identically – to each other or to me. Not only that, but their timelines for navigating the ups and downs may be different.
For example, if we get hit with some new government-mandated restriction that heaps even more strain on us, I might convince myself it’s out of my control and grieve the new loss of freedom fairly quickly. While I’m hard at work reframing things inside my head, my spouse and child will be processing things in their own time. If I am insensitive to that and try to hurry them along on my timeline, I can nearly guarantee they’ll feel like I’m not validating their sense of loss. And how do you think that will be received? I can tell you from recent experience related to a poorly timed remark of mine: not well. In the spirit of Otto Von Bismarck, who said “I prefer to learn from the mistakes of others, and avoid the cost of my own,” you’re welcome.
Validating my family’s feelings while squaring my own forward-looking approach may sound like a simple concept, but it is a remarkably difficult needle to thread. It’s not like I’m a modern-day Marcus Aurelius who embodies the principles of Stoicism. Living by Stoic principles is hard for me; I need to remind myself to practice them constantly. In the above scenario, it would be leagues easier if we could sit down as a family and immediately start brainstorming ideas for how to turn our restricted existence into a productive experience. But that does not necessarily match reality. The reality may be that one or more of us gets stuck for a while on how crappy we feel. One of those people may even be me! It’s hard enough to adopt a “let’s turn this into a win” mindset; try feeling creative and focused when the room is infused with grief, some of which is emanating from within. It ain’t easy.
Decide to Thrive
All that said, it really comes down to this: do I want to feel like I’m existing, or do I want to feel like I’m living? Yes to the latter, meh to the former. I’ve figured out how to stack the deck such that I have a slight edge over the House, but playing with perfect strategy is not a realistic expectation in a game this complicated. That means I’m going to win sometimes and lose often. I just hope that the magnitude of each win helps offset the losses.
In this case, I have to choose to be optimistic.
How are you managing your mental health and relationships during this time? What tips and tricks do you have for others? Comment below! As always, by using this site, you agree to abide by my Disclaimer.
- I’m also scared for any patient who sees me, expecting competent medical care.