How not to lose your mind over the Coronavirus outbreak


Are you losing your mind yet about the Coronavirus outbreak? Spinning out on fear and anxiety and the dread of the looming unknown?

I feel you.

Heck, I’m a yoga and meditation teacher and Vice President of a mindfulness training company, and I’ve still been washing my hands 47 times an hour, freaking out when my kid pushes an elevator button, opening doors with fistfuls of tissues, and spending sleepless nights caught up in worry about what’s unfolding.

My family and I live in Basel, Switzerland, three hours from Northern Italy, on the fringes of one of the largest coronavirus outbreaks outside of China. Basel is a multicultural city of 30% expats, many of whom work in the pharma and banking industries, regularly flying all over the world, and the Milan-Basel corridor is a popular one. Most of Switzerland’s coronavirus cases can be traced to Milan, including a Basel childcare worker who was exposed to over 60 children before being diagnosed.

Last week Fasnacht, Basel’s massive annual Carnival celebration, was cancelled when the Swiss government proactively banned all national gatherings of 1000 people or more until March 15th. Across the border in Mulhouse is one of France's worst outbreaks. The Alsatian schools have closed for the next two weeks.

My son attends one of the local international schools, which are also full of children from all over the world, many of whom have parents coming and going from China, Singapore, and Italy. Fellow parents are resigned to the increasingly-likely reality that school will be closed for several weeks after the Fasnacht break.

Every day I wake up and check the news to see how cases have expanded. I am just as guilty of hovering anxiously over my iPhone late at night reading the latest articles as someone who’s never meditated a day in her life.

My mind runs:

What if we all get sick? Did we buy enough toilet paper? Damn, I should have picked up hand sanitizer before they all ran out. Did we wash our hands enough? How do I put my job on pause to home school for several weeks? What about the elderly? Most importantly, will my family survive this?”

Coronavirus anxiety transcends national borders. It’s as universal an experience right now as the frantic CostCo run or a city of empty sanitizer shelves. The difference for me right now is that 18 years of yoga and meditation practice have cultivated the skillset to know I’m not that anxiety; to not get stuck in the breathless, racing pandemic fear.

Mindfulness is so much less about sitting blissfully on a meditation cushion and so much more about learning to manage all the completely human feelings that arise. It’s a process of making friends with yourself and your completely human tendency to worry and overanalyze; learning to find peace in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.

The nature of meditation practice is that it is eminently reasonable. It functions to lasso the spinning mind and bring it back to what IS, right here, right now.

Last week I reached out to my Pennsylvania-based colleague, Dr. Christine E. Kiesinger, for further advice on staying calm in the midst of chaos. She's a longtime communications professor, an emotional intelligence consultant, and a wellness educator of three decades.

Kiesinger wrote,
I was at our local grocery store this afternoon, and saw a woman on the floor rifling through cans of soup on the bottom shelf. I found this odd — and almost accidentally hit her with my cart. When she stood up, I realized that she was my medical doctor.
I said, ‘Hey, how are you?’
Her response: ‘I feel insane.’
She was wide-eyed and sweating, in TOTAL stress response.
She said: ‘My husband and I talked and we are stocking up. We feel this could get bad.’
I had no idea what she was referring to until I saw her cart full of cereal bars, cans of soup and tuna.
I admit to feeling a bit shaken after seeing her in this state as I had been, up to that point, fairly disconnected from the latest news on the virus. My first thought was: ‘This is my medical doctor. Does she know something I don't?’
I thought about this all day. And realized I needed to plan to meet the possible stress and chaos of this myself going forward.
Whether you’re a meditation newbie or a longtime practitioner: Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, be it terror, dread or anxiety. Don’t push the feelings down. They’re going to come back up somewhere, sometime, no matter what.

Here are a few more tips for mindfully managing your coronavirus anxiety:

1. Accept what is. Start by saying to yourself, “Ok, this is how things are now.” As your mind wanders, come back to this moment, where for now, everything’s actually ok.

2. Notice your mind wandering to worry or fear, and then gently bring it back, just as you would a new puppy bounding around your backyard. As revered Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron advises, ask yourself: can I be with this? So much of this practice is just learning to sit with uncertainty.

3. Offer yourself compassion. Be extra gentle. You’re human. It’s normal to fret, especially when that worry is aggravated by a concerned global media.

4. Get into your body. Take a brisk walk in the cold winter air. Do yoga. Go for a run. Exercise is a fantastic way to channel all that pent-up anxiety. Moving your body will help you get out of your head — and if it’s outdoors, even better.

5. Make friends with the worst-case scenario. One of two things will happen in the weeks to come: you and your loved ones will get the coronavirus, or you won’t. And when/if one of those things happens, you will go from there, doing the next right thing. Spiraling out about potential futures will not make the illness easier to manage. It’ll just drive you crazy.

6. Do what is in your control. Follow CDC and WHO guidelines. Wash your hands — and often. Stock up on food and medicine in the event of quarantine or delayed supply lines. Avoid touching your face. Stay away from large crowds. Know you have done everything you can. And then let go.

7. Make a plan. Kiesinger advises, “When your mind is triggered into drama, trauma, and catastrophic thinking, catch yourself there, and make a plan. It might look like this:
Recognize that you are freaking out right now about something you don't entirely understand and cannot change or control. 
Remind yourself that there are lots of other people out there in a similar state of panic and overwhelm, and you are not alone. 
Be incredibly kind. No self-criticism or shame about freaking out. This is a version of what compassion expert Kristin Neff calls the "self-compassion break" for critical/crisis times. 
Remind yourself that we rarely, if ever, make good, clear decisions when flooded with fear and stress hormones."
8. Prioritize your practice. Make time for it, more than ever. It will center and ground you.

9. Manage your energy. That might mean stepping away from folks who are freaking out, or signing off of social media for a few hours to give your mind a break. Kiesinger advises, “Be aware when getting into conversations with others who are in hysterics mode. Stay conscious of how this frantic energy affects you and how a more calming energy (embodied by you) might be of use to you and others."

10. Remember that mindfulness practices can feel so good when all is well. But they’re also most valuable when the world’s on fire.

Hold firm to the reminder that underneath all the fear and anxiety, your natural state is like clear blue sky: calm, vast, and spacious. These troublesome storms rolling in are like weather systems that come and go.

The Coronavirus outbreak might be a helluva severe thunderstorm, but it, like everything else, will ultimately pass. If nothing else, let that give you comfort.

Rachel Meyer is an American writer and yoga teacher based in Switzerland. She serves as Vice President of studio BE, a wellness company which offers mindfulness training for the 21st-century workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International, Parents, HuffPost, and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.

Feature photo via nappy.co

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