Are you feeling fearful about the Coronavirus? The outbreak is now a global pandemic. More than a thousand people have been infected in the U.S. with 38 dead. At this point, testing capacity is woefully lacking and there’s no known cure for it. So, yeah, it’s Ok to feel scared. Fear is a natural response to threats like this.

Fear is not the enemy here. The function of fear is to protect us. It’s our brain’s way of telling us to keep vigilant and take actions to prevent and protect us against threats. What’s not helpful is when our fear escalates to more dysfunctional emotions, such as nervousness, anxiety, desperation, and panic. Think grocery wars over toilet paper (Yes! True fact you can witness here). There are other downsides to uncontrolled fear that I elaborate on below. If you tend to lean toward panic, head over to this section right away: 3 Reasons to Stop Panicking!

What’s also (if not more) dangerous is the absence of fear. For example, maybe you’re focusing on the fact that 80% of the people who get Coronavirus have minor symptoms, or that you’re young and have a strong immune system. You may not be afraid at all, which can lead to complacency. When complacent individuals carry the virus themselves and ignore their minor symptoms, they’re going about their lives as usual and spreading the disease to others who may in fact be more vulnerable. Our complacency can accelerate the spread of this disease, ultimately burdening the healthcare system and making it impossible to treat every patient in a timely manner.

If you’ve been complacent so far, no judgment. Go on to read the section on the dangers of complacency and take time to consider the consequences of your (in)actions. The suggestions under Be Mindful might also be helpful.

3 Reasons to Stop Panicking

As humans we’re wired for survival. In the face of a threat, we have an automatic stress response—fight-flight-freeze. You might recognize this reaction in yourself when you’re watching the news or listening to NPR describing the growing pandemic. You can feel the stress in your body—your heartrate increases, your muscles tighten, or your breathing becomes shallow. To the extent our brain is motivating us to meet the challenge, this kind of stress, termed “eustress,” is good for us. But when we lack information and there’s uncertainty—like we’re encountering with Coronavirus—the brain can spin stories of dread leading to anxiety and panic. Enduring extended periods of stress is not helpful. Here’s why.

Stress Reduces Effectiveness of The Immune System

When we’re stressed for long periods of time, the immune system’s ability to defend against foreign substances is compromised. That’s because chronic stress can elevate inflammation and hinder the body’s antibody response that is necessary to fight off viruses. Besides, when we’re stressed, we might resort to unhealthy coping behaviors that also reduce our overall ability to battle infections. You can read this articleabout how stress can tax your body, including your digestive system and heart. 

Stress Impacts Our Ability to Think Clearly

As hunter-gatherers, our stress response—fight-flight-freeze—saved our lives. As soon as our ancestors heard a rustling in the bushes, they didn’t need to stop and think, they went into fight or flight mode. In today’s world, since we don’t need to fight or flee from a tiger, this evolutionary response makes us do stupid things, like fight over toilet paper. We’re not thinking, we’re automatically reacting. There’s physical evidence to show that stress shrinks neurons in the Prefrontal Cortex—the brain region responsible for problem-solving, adapting to challenges, and emotional regulation.

Stress Can Bring Out the Worst in Us

When our buttons are pushed, we not only become selfish and defensive, we also lose sight of our moral compass. Think about all the people stealing masks so they feel safe going out to shop, when the people who really need them—like healthcare providers—have to go without masks because of the shortages. Stress can make us mean and lack empathy for people who don’t belong in our inner circle.

A Facebook post (shared 1.9 million times) by Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an infectious disease expert, highlights the worst that Coronavirus is bringing out in people:

What I am scared about is the loss of reason and wave of fear that has induced the masses of society into a spellbinding spiral of panic, stockpiling obscene quantities of anything that could fill a bomb shelter adequately in a post-apocalyptic world.

I am scared of the N95 masks that are stolen from hospitals and urgent care clinics where they are actually needed for front line healthcare providers and instead are being donned in airports, malls, and coffee lounges, perpetuating even more fear and suspicion of others.

I am scared that our hospitals will be overwhelmed with anyone who thinks they ” probably don’t have it but may as well get checked out no matter what because you just never know…” and those with heart failure, emphysema, pneumonia and strokes will pay the price for overfilled ER waiting rooms with only so many doctors and nurses to assess… But mostly, I’m scared about what message we are telling our kids when faced with a threat. Instead of reason, rationality, open-mindedness and altruism, we are telling them to panic, be fearful, suspicious, reactionary and self-interested.

Perhaps, you don’t identify with any of the people freaking out. Read on to see if you’re being complacent. 

The Dangers of Complacency

Maybe you don’t see yourself as being complacent. You just like to take a balanced approach to life’s problems (and I tend to be one of those people). Your thinking may be something like this, “I’d like to take precautions to not spread the virus while also living my own life.” Here’s the thing. In a crisis such as this, it’s going to be really hard to live your life as usual without endangering yourself and/or others.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had this to say: “If we are complacent and don’t do really aggressive containment and mitigation, the number could go way up and be involved in many, many millions.”

And here’s an urgent message from Mattia Ferraresi, an Italian journalist:

So here’s my warning for the United States: It didn’t have to come to this.

We of course couldn’t stop the emergence of a previously unknown and deadly virus. But we could have mitigated the situation we are now in, in which people who could have been saved are dying. I, and too many others, could have taken a simple yet morally loaded action: We could have stayed home.

What has happened in Italy shows that less-than-urgent appeals to the public by the government to slightly change habits regarding social interactions aren’t enough when the terrible outcomes they are designed to prevent are not yet apparent; when they become evident, it’s generally too late to act. I and many other Italians just didn’t see the need to change our routines for a threat we could not see.

Before the outbreak hit my country, I thought I was acting rationally because I screened and processed a lot of information about the epidemic. But my being well-informed didn’t make me any more rational. I lacked what you might call “moral knowledge” of the problem. I knew about the virus, but the issue was not affecting me in a significant, personal way. It took the terrible ethical dilemma that doctors face in Lombardy to wake me up.

So if you’re thinking that the closing of your school, university, or office is vacation time so you can buy that $25 ticket and fly to Florida, please skip to the section on a Mindful Response to Coronavirus.

I get that some people are too busy, working multiple jobs to make ends meet or taking care of their families and others don’t have access to information. But if you’re reading this, those reasons are probably not relevant to you. And your complacency could be endangering you, others more vulnerable than you, and our entire healthcare system.

To summarize, here’s a quote from John Oliver’s recent show about Coronavirus (which I also recommend watching):

“it’s really about trying to strike a sensible balance. Basically, if you’re drinking bleach to protect yourself right now, you should probably calm the fuck down. If you’re, say, licking subway poles because you’re certain nothing can hurt you, maybe don’t do that. You want to stay somewhere between those extremes. Don’t be complacent, and don’t be a fucking idiot.”

How to Calm the F### Down and Not Be Complacent? Be Mindful.

We’re hardwired to react. Many of our reactive behaviors are driven by unconscious beliefs shaped by our past experiences. We can’t change what we can’t see. And even if we can see what we want to change, simply thinking we’re going to change them is not going to change them.

Enter mindfulness.

Defined as the ability to see things clearly without letting our emotions hijack our experience, mindfulness offers many benefits such as helping us reduce stress and even improve our immune system. However, it can be particularly useful in meeting the virus crisis in a balanced way. We don’t have to be trapped in the extremes of reactivity. Mindfulness can help us see our reactions with compassion, disrupt our default behaviors, and take actions that keep ourselves safe while also finding fulfillment in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

Let’s look at the three-step-process to deal with Coronavirus in a balanced way.  Each of these steps works in tandem with the others in a circular fashion.

  1. Know Your Mind: Calm Down and Notice

Right now, as you’re reading this take a few breaths and exhale slowly…

What are you noticing? Is your body leaning forward, is there a tendency to rush in the mind, how is your heartrate?

Return to the breath, your mind, and your body, several times a day to calm your mind and body. Do this especially when you’re noticing tension rising—like when you read news of more people getting infected in your city or you see the food disappearing from the shelves in your grocery store, and of course there’s the rising shortage of toilet paper…

You may also choose to practice a few minutes of meditation (see resources below) to clear you mind and see your thoughts and emotions related to what’s happening in and around you.

You can choose to calm your mind using other activities like going for a walk in nature, working out, painting, or whatever helps you calm down.

Once your mind is calm, check in to see what you’re noticing internally—acknowledge with kindness what’s happening in your body, how you are feeling, what kind of stories you’re telling yourself. Next turn your attention outwards, with an open mind and kindness—what are you seeing, reading, hearing?

  1. Disrupt Your Defaults: Examine Your Assumptions, Intentions, and Consequences

Once you’ve taken the steps to calm your mind and be present to your experience in a spacious way, it’s time to examine your assumptions.

Let’s say you’re in the grocery store seeing the person filling up their cart with hand sanitizers (which are also sold out in our grocery stores at this point). If your immediate impulse is to do the same, stop, breathe, and ask yourself:

Do I need more hand sanitizers?

If you answered yes, examine your assumptions and consequences:

What’s my reasoning for buying more? Each travel size bottle is good for about 20 uses. If we’re not going out as much, how many bottles do I really need? If I run out of them, can I use soap and water? What are the consequences of my buying 20 bottles? Who else might need them more than I do sitting at home?

There’s no right or wrong here, only consequences for you and the others impacted by your decisions.

After your meditations or amid decision making, it’s also good to check in with your intentions—what do you wish for yourself and your family, for the person hoarding sanitizers, and other people impacted by your choices?

It’s easy to be judgmental about others at this time. Try to see things from others’ perspectives and look for ways to keep your mind open and kind.

By examining our assumptions, intentions, and consequences, we are stepping away from reactive and mostly unconscious behaviors to gaining a broader perspective and the ability to make more informed choices.

  1. Take Action: Act in Ways that Benefit You and All Involved in the Long Run

Once you’ve calmed down and disrupted your default reactions, explore what’s most kind and beneficial for all involved. Instead of reacting in an extreme way—freaking out or being complacent—explore the possibilities for actions aligned with your intentions.

For example, I run mindfulness classes in my studio. I could take some measures—like provide hand sanitizers and clean the yoga mats—and continue my classes or I could cancel my classes and be worried about meeting my rental obligations. After calming my mind and checking in with my intentions, I saw that the safety of my people is most important at this time. Staying open to possibilities, I’ve come up with some ideas to continue teaching using online technology.

We may not be going out to social gatherings during this time and doing what we usually do in our busy lives. But we could pause and reflect on what we can do. What skillful actions can you take to care for your mind, your body, your loved ones, and your neighbors, without endangering yourself and others?

Maybe this is an opportunity to do the things you’ve been wanting to do, like read books, play games with your family members, organize your closets, or take up mindfulness.

On that note, please email me if you’d like to be notified about the online class to learn and practice mindfulness with me and other like-minded people. This is based on the book I am working on—Reset Your Mind: 8 Mindfulness Skills to Stop Filling and Start Fulfilling Your Life!

Useful Resources

Try fee guided meditations on my website. For a small donation get access to twenty mindfulness meditations online, or join the online program and community to learn how to systematically develop the skills to thrive in difficult times.

Another resource with free options is Insight Timer and check out Simple Habit (both of these feature my meditations along with many other teachers).

An excellent article cited above on complacency in Italy: A coronavirus cautionary tale from Italy: Don’t do what we did

An excellent article by Dr. Judson Brewer on mindfulness: A Brain Hack to Break the Coronavirus Anxiety Cycle

For tons of great information and advice on the Coronavirus, here’s a great resource. (Thanks to Dr. Michele Spirko)

If you’re a local leader, here’s a great resource by the ICMA to prepare your community