Over the last month – and specifically in the last couple weeks – Coronavirus has completely uprooted everyday life in the United States. Cities are locking down, putting into question the livelihoods of small businesses and millions of Americans. The stock market is crashing, people are getting sick, people are dying, and everyone is being encouraged to stay indoors unless it is essential to leave their home for something. People are worried, and justifiably so.
I have my own reasons to be worried. My parents are both in their late 60s and have underlying health conditions. My grandmother is 90 years and lives in an elderly living center, but is on complete lockdown. Meals are brought to her room and she is not allowed to leave nor allow any visitors from outside to see her. This is a very challenging time for her. My brother’s boyfriend is immuno-compromised and would not fare well if he were to get sick. This is just the situation in my immediate family. My concerns grow even more when we get into my relationships, friendships, co-workers, and so on.
To a lesser extent, I recently started investing in the market. I was starting to feel comfortable enough taking that kind of risk over the last couple of years. In a matter of three weeks, I have watched helplessly as a large percentage of what I have earned in my entire life has seemingly completely evaporated.
In my work life, I have watched as some of my customers are struggling to keep up as stock prices are plummeting. The travel and hospitality industry is hurting particularly badly and I worry about the financial futures of people I have enjoyed working with.
And I guess just on a day-to-day note, the things I like to do every day are shut down and I have left New York City indefinitely as a result.
For someone who has had anxiety for most of my life, I have found myself remarkably still and calm during this difficult time. It is not that I do not care; I care very much, and I want everything to be OK. My way of life has changed dramatically over the last few weeks and I am a creature of routine. But I think the reason I am doing OK is because I know I have no control over this and because all of this is forcing me to be grounded. Let me explain.
By my very nature, I have a hard time sitting still and staying focused. I often harp on mistakes I made in the past, and whenever I am doing something, I am trying to check something off my list so I can get on to the next thing. Hell, sometimes even as I am doing a thing, I am thinking of the next thing, or not being totally present by checking my phone or gazing off into the distance.
My anxiety is a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because I am remarkably organized and on top of things. I remember every person I meet, every conversation we had, and so on and so forth. I am disciplined about my passions when I put my energy into them.
But the downside to all of this is that I am oftentimes not locked into a single moment. I am thinking about what I wish I had done in the past or what I hope to do in the future rather than just enjoying being present in the moment I have. It is no coincidence that I am a meditator who has read all sorts of things about how being present allows us to cede control and relax. The reality is, there are many things outside of our control. If we can learn to accept that, we can be at peace with the present moment rather than trying to fix a completely uncertain future.
In this moment, there are things I can control and things I cannot control. I can control things like giving good advice to the people I care about to help protect them. But I cannot control if they will heed that advice. I can control exercising good habits to prevent myself from getting sick. However, I cannot control that I might still get sick. I can control that I have the ability to go for a run every day. I cannot control the reality that my favorite gym is closed and I cannot get into the routine I typically enjoy.
When thinking about what is and is not in my control, one thing is clear: worrying about the things I cannot control is unproductive. It does not help me to worry about those things. Worrying will not change whether or not my father decides to go into his office one day against his better judgment; it will not change that I might get sick despite taking precautions; it will not make the gym magically re-open tomorrow. In fact, all my potential worrying does is weaken my immune system, making it all the more likely that one of the aforementioned concerns (getting sick) could become a reality.
When things are bad in the world, one can feel guilty even trying to be positive or looking for the silver lining. This is a grave mistake. Sitting around watching CNN debate whether or not Trump is a racist for calling it the “Chinese virus” while Sanjay Gupta rattles off depressing statistics is not helping anyone get through their day. It is just helping them fill time, because they do not know what to do with themselves besides worry and then tell their friends how worried they are.
There is a silver lining, and that silver lining is mindfulness.
For an anxious person, I have found myself strangely calm through all of this because all of the noise of my everyday life has come to a grinding halt.
All of the books I have been meaning to read, I am getting to read now.
Every day, after work, I go outside and go for a run by the beach. I appreciate the opportunity to go outside, see my surroundings, smell the air, and even see people six feet away from me because, well, you kind of just appreciate these things more after being inside all day.
My mom, dad, brother, brother’s boyfriend, and my grandmother all did a FaceTime last night. I don’t think we had ever taken the time to do a group FaceTime before. I don’t think I had ever FaceTimed any of my relatives before to be honest. And yet in this moment of fear where the world seemingly stops, we had an opportunity to all talk to each other for the first time in who knows how long. And with an appreciation to do so that we had never had before. I’m sorry, but if you cannot see the beauty in that, then you are missing the point, and maybe you deserve the Trump racist debate and more time with Dr. Gupta.
I have the time to think about what food I want to get for myself and what I want to cook for myself and to actually put time into making and enjoying my own meals rather than just resorting to ordering food online. All of the events and work travel in my life for the foreseeable future are canceled. For the first time, I am not cramming everything together trying to make it work while looking at the next thing to cross off my list. I can enjoy just doing whatever I am doing and not worrying about needing to be anywhere any time soon.
My days are pretty straightforward. When I get up, the first thing I do is meditate for twenty minutes. I set the tone early that I am going to be present. After I have my coffee and breakfast, I get into checking my email and taking care of small errands. I then focus on my work and enjoying interaction with my co-workers. After my work day is over, I spend an hour or so going for a run. Sometimes I will even purposefully pause my run and enjoy walking and observing nature. I then spend my time reading, writing, making dinner, and if I am lucky, maybe catching an episode or two of a TV show I want to watch. It is not so bad.
Here is what I try not to do. I try not to be watching news networks and panicking about what is going on outside of the realm of my control within the confines of the house I am in. I try not to scroll through Twitter all day. I have already left New York City indefinitely as this pandemic occurs around us. There is not much more I can do to protect myself or others from harm, so there is no point in dwelling on it. I try not to engage in too much gossip and instead try to offer words of encouragement to the people in my life who need it. But most of all, I try not to look backwards and kick myself for not leaving sooner, or to look ahead and what my next move is going to be. I can only control the now.
I learned my meditation from Ben Turshen several years ago. Now is a better time than ever for those who are looking for ways to cope in uncertain times to think about meditation. Ben is currently offering some free group meditations, but if there was ever a time to just sign up for his course (which can be virtual), I would highly recommend it. Personally, I have been receiving many refunds from gyms, events, and other places of business affected by Coronavirus, and I am sure this is the case for many others. Do not use funds as an excuse not to invest in yourself when you were willing to spend those funds on a concert not long ago.
I also happen to be finishing up on reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris, the ABC News anchor who had a panic attack live on the air. The book has resonated with me because Dan used meditation to overcome his anxiety and become, as he says, “10% Happier.” This book resonates with me right now because it showed me that I am not alone for having this critical voice in my head that airs all of its concerns and grievances on seemingly a constant basis. The important learning is that this internal narrator we have is kind of an asshole. And the more that we can learn to tell ourselves that our thoughts are just thoughts, the more we can prevent thoughts from becoming real things.
All of the above might sound easier said than done, and I get that. Our situations are all fluid. My situation could become terribly worse very quickly. If and when that happens, I don’t know how I will react. All I know is that I will have to tell myself “What can I do right here and right now to make this situation better?” And if the answer is nothing, I will have to try my best not to beat myself up over it.
There is a saying that life is 10% about what happens to you and 90% about how you react. There is good reason for all of us to be concerned and to help out in any way that we can. But spending that 90% in anxiety is a terrible way to live. Happiness can be a decision. Choose to react positively – be present in whatever practice it may be: meditation, walking, running, a conversation with a family member. You might be surprised what you get out of it.