By Michael Caduto
In early 2019, when news of the spreading coronavirus was beginning to circulate, few people beyond the global community of epidemiologists suspected that we were in for such a long haul. Most of us wishfully hoped that COVID-19 would, in a year or so, take its place in history alongside previous pandemics like the 1918-1919 H1N1 virus epidemic (AKA: Spanish Flu). Two years later we’re still caught in a long COVID winter, waiting for that inflection point to arrive.
Meanwhile, our attempts to adapt to a constantly changing world, and the information flooding in with each wave of the news cycle, is centered on the struggle between our survival instincts and our more resilient and adaptive rational behaviors. The threats presented by the coronavirus—both real and perceived—are regularly triggering the kinds of fight-or-flight instincts that arise in the survival brain, which is located near the top of the spinal cord. After some 24 months of dealing with the survival brain’s responses to the medical, social, economic, environmental and political challenges that we’ve faced during the coronavirus, many people are experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety and all manner of coping behaviors, most of which are neither healthy nor helpful for actually, well…coping.
At the same time, the higher-functioning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex—which is located behind the eyes and forehead—is constantly trying to digest the news we’re receiving each day. This part of our brain helps us to absorb new information and react accordingly, based on what has worked constructively in our previous experience. But this rational neural footing is not able to find traction when forced to navigate the constantly shifting sand of the pandemic news cycle, with its evolving viral variants and changeable medical guidelines. As a result, many of us have become caught in a negative feedback loop of anxiety caused by our brain’s inability to chart a predictable path forward in the midst of long-term COVID uncertainty. As neuroscientist Judson Brewer points out in his excellent book Unwinding Anxiety, when fear and uncertainty overwhelm our brains, our rational thinking starts to break down and irrational compensating behaviors take over. (Sound familiar? Chocolate, anyone?)
According to Brewer, when we focus mindfully on this dynamic between our survival instincts and our higher-level rational thinking, we become more aware of what is causing our anxieties and we are then in a better place to step back from impulsive behaviors and choose to make wise choices. We can detach from reactive thoughts and actions and instead chart a path forward that is rational, healthy and even calming.
Taking this road to rationality will better enable us to endure and take good care of ourselves and those we love. There is a reason that airplane passengers are directed to put on their own oxygen masks first, before assisting others: We need to see to our own needs in order to be available to take care of others. It is important to step back from the viral frenzy (pun intended) and tend to the fundamentals of good health care during these times: eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and seeking emotional support by all means safe and available (interpersonal and digital).
Counting the days has not been fruitful. We can, instead, focus on counting our blessings. By relying on well-informed, methodical precautions and planning we will emerge on the other side of this health crisis with new lessons to carry forward. And perhaps the best way of all to cope with our own anxieties is to reach outside of ourselves and do something good for those in need, and for the health of the planet. Our salvation lies in appreciating what we have, in keeping faith that better days are yet to come and in deriving satisfaction from the acts of helping others.
Many people are weathering the pandemic by appreciating winter and anticipating the small beauties that await, like the early-spring blossoms of bloodroot, which are just a few months away. Photo: Michael J. Caduto