What to Do When Fear of the Pandemic Washes In

by | Mar 15, 2020 | Anxiety, Intrusive Thoughts | 26 comments

Even as the human world of working, doing, achieving, and traveling slows down, in the natural world the birds are still singing, the trees are still blooming, the water is still flowing, our cats are still purring and our dogs are still wagging their tails, the earth is still spinning on its axis, the stars and moon are still lighting up the night sky, and humans are still smiling, weeping, singing, and supporting each other, just as we’ve done since the beginning. 

On Monday I had written an entirely different blog post for this week, but by Thursday evening the world had changed so radically that the first one didn’t make sense anymore. So I woke up yesterday morning and wrote this. I hope it brings you some guidance and comfort as we walk through this unprecedented challenge together.

When I received the email on Thursday evening announcing that the first case of Coronavirus had been confirmed in Boulder County and schools were shutting down, a wave of fear surged through my body. The announcement was a shock to my system, and I know I wasn’t alone in my response. There was something about the school closures that made all of this real. Within a 24-hour period we went from going about our normal lives, driving our sons to their classes, going grocery shopping, and seeing clients on regular Thursday to the entire country coming to a near halt by Thursday evening. I went to sleep that night feeling shaken.

But by Friday morning, as I walked through a very crowded Natural Grocers smiling at each person I passed and many of them smiling back, a wave of calm rose up in me – for I was reminded that despite this shocking and unprecedented crisis we’re living through, the world still goes on. Later in the day, as I stood out at the creek and watched the snow falling in great miraculous flakes, as I listened to the water flowing and the birds singing, I felt into the other reality of our stay on this planet: the non-human one that continues along unfazed by this particular human experience.

It reminded me of these lines in the great poem by Mary Oliver, which you can see her reading here:

Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

Even as I lie in bed and write this in my journal, my cat sits on my lap intently cleaning her belly. I gaze out the window breathing into the light dusting of snow from last night’s fall. I see a neighbor bundled up walking her dog, just as I see every morning. Soon I will read my spiritual books and sit under my tallit (prayer shawl), meditating and saying prayers. I will open to whatever experience needs attention: grief, calm, spaciousness, insight, fear and love.

Like so many of us, I have a list of people I am holding in my heart as we endure this global challenge: my beloved husband, who is a lifelong asthma sufferer; my family members and neighbors who are well over sixty and not in perfect health; my friends who are worrying about the financial impact of this crisis; and of course you, my readers, clients and highly sensitive audience who struggle with anxiety in general and health anxiety in particular. I feel into your fear and I hold it alongside my own. I open my heart to the vulnerability of being human that is always part of our reality but has been brought into stark focus these last few days. I think of the words of Rabbi Moss from Sydney, Australia (thank you to the reader who sent this to me), who responded to this question:

This coronavirus thing has really thrown me. I feel like I’ve lost all sense of certainty. No one knows what will happen next. How do we stay sane when we don’t know what’s lurking around the corner?

With these sage words:

It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our illusion of certainty. We never had it to begin with. This could be majorly unsettling, or amazingly liberating.

Or both. It’s unsettling because we’re human. And it can be liberating when we turn to the practices that anchor us in the sea of uncertainty that defines our daily lives. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to rest into uncertainty. In fact, I would say it’s the most difficult of all tasks as humans. When we can arrive there, we find peace. The rest of the time we need more tangible practices that can help us shift from fear and panic to acceptance and calm.

Here are my suggestions for working with right-proportioned fear (by which I mean fear that is in proportion to what’s happening in the here-and-now):

 

1. When you feel the fear come in, name it and validate it.

This might look like putting a hand on your heart and saying, “This is fear (naming), and of course you’re scared (validating). The entire world is scared. It’s okay to feel scared right now. I’m with you. I’ve got you. I’m here.”

2. Notice what triggered the fear.

Did you read a fear-infused email? Did you have a conversation with someone who runs on fear? When you notice what triggers your fear, you can take steps to set necessary boundaries to protect your mental space.

3. Take a few moments to be fully with the fear.

I recommend practicing Tonglen, which is the simple practice of breathing into the fear and breathing out the opposite (love, hope, light, healing, comfort). Send your breath directly into the fear, imagining your breath as the most loving hands in the world. Then send out love. The second step of Tonglen, which is vitally important and powerful, is to breathe in the fear of everyone who is feeling exactly what you’re feeling right now (which is probably in the millions, if not billions), and breathe out love, healing, light. When we connect to the greater humanity, which is part of what’s being asked of us, we feel less alone and more peaceful inside.

If you notice that normal, right-proportioned fear has escalated into panic and become intrusive, which means that catastrophic, worst-case scenario thoughts or images have taken over, try one or more of the following:

 

1. Name the thoughts as intrusive and ask, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”

Intrusive thoughts are protectors from vulnerable emotions. If you can soften into the tears embedded inside the thought, the thought will quiet down. If you’re new to my work, you can learn more about intrusive thoughts here.

2. Move your body.

One of the fastest and most effective ways to dance with fear is literally to dance with fear: Get up and get active. Put on music and dance. Get outside if you can. If you can’t go outside right not, open a window and look up into the sky while still moving your body is some way. .

3. Reach out for support and connection.

Make a call, FaceTime with a friend, connect with your partner, be present with your kids, lie down with your pet.

4. Redirect fear to a prayer, poem, or mantra. 

Gather up the fear and send it into a soothing one-line mantra like:

This too shall pass.

All shall be well, and all shall be well, and manner of thing shall be well (Julian of Norwich). 

“You have generations of ancestors behind you cheering you on saying, “Yes, we lived through tough times, too.” (Jack Kornfield on this podcast).

Or turn to a longer prayer or poem that is or can become a totem for you. With extra time on your hands, this is an excellent opportunity to memorize a poem or prayer. My go-to is Psalm 27, which you can listen to below, but I know that the God piece might not work for some of you. Find a poem that does. Find a prayer that soothes and grounds you and reminds you that you are being held in the hands of something bigger than you. Working toward memorization puts your brain to good use otherwise it will gravitate to the its default setting, which is fear. We have to work consciously with our thoughts more than ever now.

5. Continue or re-establish healthy rituals.

Healthy rituals will help you find a foothold of normalcy amidst the uncertainty and groundlessness. When my family sat down to Shabbat dinner on Friday night just as we have every night since our son was born, I could feel a layer of tension dissolve. The light of the candles, the traditional food, and the prayers are all the same even when the world around us is more different than we’ve ever known it. Linking into normalcy and the long chain of rituals that your ancestors have been enacting for centuries can be profoundly comforting at all times, but especially during times like these.

6. Give

Giving is a highly effective way to shift out of the spin cycle of intrusive fear. Give however you can. Call a friend and check in. Give to a local community food bank (even a few dollars helps). Send prayers. Send an email or text to someone who might need to know that someone is thinking about them. Offer support on a forum. Offer to pick up groceries for someone who is immune compromised. Crises tend to bring out the best in humans. Be that person and notice the reduction of your own anxiety.

Final Note:

I will be offering a free webinar on Monday March 16th at 6:15pm ET on how to work with fear and panic during times of heightened global anxiety. If you would like to join me, you can sign up here. If you can’t make the live event, you’ll receive an email with the recording after the event.

As always, I’m sending so much love and many blessings to all of you. If there was every a time when our shared humanity and interconnectedness has been brought into focus, it’s now. This virus is teaching us that we are one family and we’re being asked to do our part in protecting each other: the young protecting the old, the strong protecting the weak, countries reaching out across borders to help. Despite what it might look like sometimes, at the core humans are good, kind, generous, and deeply caring about the common good. It’s times like these where this becomes more evident. May we stay healthy and may a new consciousness of oneness and partnership rise from these challenges times.

Psalm 27 (Translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; Music by Allegory Music)

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26 Comments

  1. In the midst of my at times paralyzing fear, I tried to find meaning in what is happening, and I thought about how this might be an invitation to stop and pause and turn inward in a culture that is all about moving and doing, running, producing, and so on. Framing it in this context, I felt so much calmer; of course I’m taking my emotions day by day.

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  2. Thank you so much Sheryl! I have been eagerly waiting to hear from you. I knew you would have wise words for us. Love and Light

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  3. Dear Sheryl, thank you for your wise words, once again. This virus has a merit: it is showing us how closely tied together we are, and how dependant on one another. I’m portuguese, and the country is paralised. The schools were shut down this last friday, and, as a middle school teacher, I took the last portion of my last lesson on that day to reflect on what all of this means for mankind, and how it is our global responsability to take care of one another. May we all face the future with hope, resilience and wiseness. Keep safe. Susana.

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  4. I have desperately tried to switch the news off, not talk about the current panic and news , and try to maintain a calm composure, I’m as scared as the next. It may seem that I am being dismissive, but it’s my way of coping. I have a job which means I’ll be facing it head on, so there’s no real hiding for me. Your words have helped to calm me. I look forward to your talk.

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  5. Thank you so much!!! This has been one of the most helpful things I’ve read during this time. I am newly pregnant – that, of course, comes with its own anxieties but in the midst of this scare, my anxiety seems to have spun to a whole new level, and in that time, I have felt so selfish. Thank you again for your help and reminding us to give. Sending love to the whole community

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    • I’m with you pregnant one!! I’m 27 weeks and was feeling really good mentally, and this has thrown me for a loop. Hour by hour over here!

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    • Congratulations, Stef! Pregnancy is a great time to slow down and shut off from the world, so maybe the timing of the virus can work to your advantage! I leaned on Sheryl’s work heavily during my pregnancy and still do as a new mom. Always something to be anxious about it seems, but Sheryl reminds me how to find the ground beneath my feet again!

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  6. Thank you for a very practical list of actions I can take, immediately, to calm this anxiety that was starting to overwhelm me!! ?

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  7. Sheryl. I love you. This is just what I needed to read and be reminded of today. This past week has been the turning point in Australia too. The world feels very different. So much of what you wrote resonates, but the two pieces that brought tears were your opening about the natural world continuing on unaltered by all of this, and Jack Kornfield’s line about our ancestors whispering that they have been through it too. This exact context is unprecedented, but fear, disease, panic and the many ways humanity responds are as old as the hills. Thank you so much for bringing me back to myself. With love and reverence for all that is good in the world, Clara

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    • Yes, “but fear, disease, panic and the many ways humanity responds are as old as the hills.” I love you, too ;). xoxoxo

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  8. Thank you

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  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

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  10. Can’t wait for the webinar, Sheryl! Thank you so much for being our guide during these unprecedented times!

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  11. I was really hoping you’d write about this today and of course, you did. Thank you so much. It’s so helpful. X

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  12. Thank you for this Sheryl. I have found that limiting my news consumption has helped my anxiety as has thinking about the bigger purpose here as mentioned to slow down and support one another. I was eagerly waiting for your post and it’s been so helpful. I look forward to your webinar. Thank you for your guidance in these uncertain times- it’s so grounding.

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  13. I echo what Stef said – this has been one of the most helpful things I’ve read, as well. Thank you so much. I will archive this and came back to it often.
    Also, reading that you use a “prayer shawl” jumped out at me. Something about that appeals to me. I think I need to get one!
    Once again, from my heart to yours, thank you for your words!

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  14. Thank you for putting beautiful words to the polarities I’ve been experiencing! You’ve helped me gain insight and feel more connected.

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  15. Thank you, all, for your beautiful comments. I’m looking forward to connecting tonight on the Webinar.

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  16. I love this: “It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our illusion of certainty. We never had it to begin with.” Those with chronic anxiety feel this uncertainty day-to-day, so it’s interesting to see this fear of uncertainty on such a global scale. In a way, it sheds light on our shared humanity – that *everyone* struggles with uncertainty, the fear of death, and loss of control. It is liberating, indeed, to take what safety precautions you can and fall back into that loss of control, letting faith shelter you in calm until the storm passes.

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  17. Thank you for such compassionate yet practical advice ❤ I don’t want by any means to make light of such a serious topic but I had a little giggle at the title of this post which I’m sure was an unintended pun “…..when the fear of pandemic WASHES in” ?Indeed, washing our hands extra thoroughly is a very practical way to do our bit during such testing times, thanks again xx

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  18. My partner just sent me this poem. It speaks so perfectly to our current situation. I just had to share…

    Pandemic

    What if you thought of it
    as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
    the most sacred of times?
    Cease from travel.
    Cease from buying and selling.
    Give up, just for now,
    on trying to make the world
    different than it is.
    Sing. Pray. Touch only those
    to whom you commit your life.
    Center down.

    And when your body has become still,
    reach out with your heart.
    Know that we are connected
    in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
    (You could hardly deny it now.)
    Know that our lives
    are in one another’s hands.
    (Surely, that has come clear.)
    Do not reach out your hands.
    Reach out your heart.
    Reach out your words.
    Reach out all the tendrils
    of compassion that move, invisibly,
    where we cannot touch.

    Promise this world your love–
    for better or for worse,
    in sickness and in health,
    so long as we all shall live.

    –Lynn Ungar 11 March 2020

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    • Yes someone sent this to me a few days ago and it filled me with so much warmth. Thank you for sharing it here! Sending so much love to all of you.

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  19. Sheryl, thank you for these soothing and much needed post ❤️ However, I got a bit triggered by you finding comfort in a crowded market the next day. No, life should not continue as usual, because it puts the most vulnerable ones in danger and puts unsustainable pressure on the health care system and our much needed medical staff. Let’s stay home as much possible. It saves lives. Love

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    • That was our last time out in the world as we needed some food items before self-isolating for the next few weeks. We’re home now and strongly recommending that others do the same.

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      • Glad to hear that ❤️ Take good care of yourself.

        Reply
  20. Thank you. And thank you everyone for their beautiful comments.

    Reply

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