What COVID-19 Can Teach Us About Reducing Stress and Being Well

All of a sudden, we are reminded of the incredible fragility of our planet, our lives, our economy, our jobs, our savings. Perhaps we forgot that everything is at the mercy of things way beyond our control and can be taken away at a moment’s notice. While this might sound pessimistic and scary, let me explain how this reminder could be our greatest doorway into lasting happiness.

For sure, everything is unknown right now- and as humans, most of us hate the unknown. It’s biological. The unknown could provide a threat to our security and we are programmed to avoid it. We love to feel like we have things under control and that we have created predictability out of this completely unpredictable universe. For sure, I do! So much of what we focus our energy on is designed to create the illusion of control, that we are on top of things, that we know what’s going to happen next. We saved the right amount for our kids’ college, sent them to the right schools, got them vaccinated, planned our retirement and went to all our own preventative care visits. We exercised, ate right, put money in our 401K, went to church and were for the most part really good people. Last year I could have told you with relative certainty what I would be doing in 5 years or 10, as well as what my businesses and my kids would be doing, what we would weigh and how much money we would all have.  Like most of us, I spent most of my time living in a trance. A trance of delusion, believing that the way things are now will be the way they will continue to be and that my plans for the future would actually happen.

But here’s the truth- everything is and always has been unknown and out of our control. Sure, we can have an effect on many things with our individual choices, but on a broader level, nothing is really under our control. Sometimes it takes a disaster like a flood, cancer, a war or a pandemic to shake us out of our trance and wake us up. Most of us (including me) initially react to disasters by frantically trying to regain control. We want to DO something. We are convinced that this is wrong and needs to be fixed and that we need to do whatever possible to put things back to how they were before. Exactly like they were before because that was how we had planned it, and changing those plans is something we are going to fight against with all our might. It feels scary, it feels threatening… and in fact, it IS threatening, to our idea that things should be some other way.

Most of us are stuck in our story about the way things SHOULD be. The problem with our “should be” stories (and I have hundreds of them) is that they create enormous suffering when things don’t go the way we decided they SHOULD go. The constant feeling of push and pull- wanting things to be this way (craving or clinging) and not wanting them to be that way (aversion)- is one of the best definitions of stress that I know. It’s the small gaps in wanting things to be different that feel like happiness. Maybe read that last sentence a few times. I think it’s one of the most important things I ever learned.

What if we could intentionally cultivate this feeling of not wanting things to be different, of accepting reality as it is and letting go of trying to fix or change things? Would it be possible to be happier, more content and less stressed? The answer is absolutely YES! I can tell you this with certainty because I have experienced it myself, sometimes just for short moments and sometimes for several days in a row, and I have seen others become happier and less stressed this way as well. I am not asking you to believe in anything, but just to try it for yourself and see if it works.

I am not meaning to make light of this pandemic which is still in its early stages in Houston, and for sure a lot of people will suffer and are already suffering. A lot of people will lose their jobs, their sense of financial security, their belongings and even their lives. This is suffering on a grand scale. But for the great majority of us, right in this NOW moment, we are actually fine. If I can take away my wishing for the past to still be here and for this future not to come, and stay in the present moment, I am completely and deeply OK. In my particular case, the weather is nice, I have food to eat, a roof over my head and family members and friends with whom I am deeply connected. The chair I am sitting on is comfortable. My clothes are soft. This reminds me of a well-known meditation offered by Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn called “I don’t have a toothache.” Some people are not so lucky, but I venture to guess that if you are reading this, you likely have a few things to be grateful for.

One fact that I have discovered is that very little suffering (or stress) exists in the present moment (or perhaps none, depending on how small we make a ‘moment’). Stress exists in our minds and results from the push and pull of wanting and pushing away. If you think about the way the word “stress” is used in physics, it literally refers to pushing or pulling on something. The dictionary definition is “pressure or tension exerted on a material object.” If you think about that push and pull like a pendulum, right in the middle of those wide swings is a space where there is no wanting things to be different, and everything is perfectly OK as it is. No stress. Happiness. Peace.

So if you are thinking this all sounds like nonsense because we are in a pandemic- this is NOT OK, I might get sick or die, I might lose my job and my house, I might starve or have to change my whole lifestyle… this is REAL. How could ANYONE suggest that this is a time to try to find peace or happiness? My suggestion is that this is EXACTLY the time to try to find peace and happiness and to start to realize at last that happiness is not the result of external circumstances. I promise you; it really isn’t. Sure, certain circumstances make it easier to access peace and happiness, but ultimately, happiness is an inside job. It is the result of deep trust, faith and knowing that whatever happens, we will be OK. It’s the result of remembering all the difficult and challenging things that we have come through before, and all of the things our ancestors before us survived in order to give us life. We, humans, are resilient, resourceful and unbelievably strong, and we will come through this, and things will be different, and maybe that is even perfectly and deeply OK. I know that might feel hard to read, but whether you believe it or not, what will happen will happen, and the only difference you can make is how to respond.

Like all of us, I have watched this pandemic unfold for the past few weeks and months and have been observing my reactions and responses, some wise and some not so wise. I have observed the reactions that didn’t help at all and caused more suffering (like being in complete denial, drinking too much, panicking and imagining worst-case-scenarios, or arguing with my husband). And I have observed with some surprise how I have started to let those go and move into a space of peacefulness and acceptance. (At least right now- I reserve the right to drink and panic again tomorrow.) From this different space of what feels like a wise and compassionate response, I can see how this minimizes suffering, both for myself and those around me. This is how I want to show up in this situation- as a wise and compassionate force of love and rationality. It’s only from here that I can help anyone. And it’s only from here that I can be absolutely certain that I am already OK and will continue to be OK as long as I stay in the present. Right now, it’s OK.  Breathe. Accept. Repeat.

How do I want to show up? Each moment I have a choice. And each moment I can start over. What a relief to give up the fight. Now, I am not suggesting for a moment that we give up the fight against the spread of COVID-19 or give up doing everything we can to alleviate the suffering of others. It’s the fighting against wishing it wasn’t happening that I am suggesting giving up. It’s happening. Save your energy. We will need every ounce of our energy to show up in wisdom and compassion to be as helpful as possible in this crisis. Quoting Thich Nhat Hanh again, one calm person in a boat can create a calming energy that will prevent the boat from capsizing. If everyone is panicking, we all drown. This is coming from a man who escaped Vietnam in one of many, many boats that didn’t all stay afloat.

This is not about sticking our head in the sand and saying that everything is hunky-dory and the world will be a better place so let’s all just be happy. That attitude is the opposite of acceptance. It is stuffing down all the very real emotions of fear, anger, and grief that most of us have at times. Acceptance is about letting EVERYTHING in, allowing everything to belong, and letting emotions to be present and eventually pass. Emotions are literally “energy in motion” which we often block instead of allowing to pass through. I like to think of my emotions passing through my body and out an open window in the back of my head after they have given me the information that they wanted me to have.

So how do we feel peace and a sense of being OK in the middle of a crisis? Let me share with you what has worked for me and has been taught to me by many people much wiser than I am. If it works for you, great. If it doesn’t, that’s OK too.  But maybe give this a try if you don’t already have a practice that works. We have had all the time in the world to do this some other time, to put this kind of practice off until later…but I think the universe is calling us to use this opportunity to do this now. There is no other time. What better opportunity will you ever have to finally commit to going all-in on living a loving and peaceful life? It’s like the universe is hitting us upside the head and giving us one last wakeup call. We have a choice- wake up or bury ourselves in more and more layers of delusion and denial. What will you choose?

If you want to give waking up a try, here are some tips that have worked for me. It’s called a practice because it takes lots and lots of repetitions and may become a part of your everyday way of being. Like learning how to play the piano, we can’t expect to sit down and play like Mozart. Just start where you are, and keep going, every day.

  1. Sit down somewhere quiet with no distractions and simply observe your breath. Try taking 3 really deep breaths as you start to literally slow down your nervous system, then simply count or observe your breath for a few minutes. Notice how your nervous system starts to feel calmer.
  1. Thoughts will start to appear in your mind, this is the mind doing what a mind does and is totally normal. Imagine your thoughts are clouds passing through the sky. Observe them as if you are a third party- don’t jump into the thought and start running with it. Or when that inevitably happens, notice that you became lost in thought and gently and lightly come back to your breath. You didn’t do it wrong, you did what every single other human does. Welcome to having a human mind!
  1. From this more relaxed state, can you identify what you are feeling right now?  Is anger, fear, joy or sadness here? Or something else? Notice where you feel it in your body. Perhaps your chest is tight, you feel pressure in your throat, or tears forming behind your eyes. Perhaps you feel light and joyful and have a tingling feeling in your belly. Whatever it is, can you allow it to be there? Perhaps put your hand on the spot where you feel it the most, and simply allow it to be as it is. It helps me to name it. Fear. Anger. Scared. Furious. Terrified. Sad. The key for me is that I am feeling the emotion in my body, not thinking about it in my head.

If this turns into a bunch more thinking, let the thoughts pass like clouds, as an observer, and gently return to the body by focusing back on the breath. You might cycle through steps 1-3 for as long as you want to. I notice that it is a constant process of forgetting what I am doing and remembering. Getting lost in trance and coming back home. There is no way to do this badly. The way you do it is just right. There is no emotion that doesn’t belong. It’s ok to be scared angry, sad, joyful, or whatever is coming up. Everything belongs. You are perfectly fine exactly as you are and don’t need to feel any other way. And if you allow your emotions to be present and move through, they will pass. They are not you. They are just visiting. Gently let them come, and let them go.

  1. Once you have identified and felt your feelings for a while, as an observer, notice what the quality of your thoughts are right now. Are you telling a story about the future or the past? Are you worrying about a series of “what-if’s?” Can you identify that your mind is doing what minds do, which is making up a story out of bits and pieces of information in order to try to keep you safe?
  1. If you can recognize that your normal human mind is simply making up stories like we all do, can you imagine for a moment that your particular story may not be true? Taking it one step further, can you imagine that the OPPOSITE of your story might even be just as true? After all, in a situation like this where no one has any idea what is going to happen, how could your story be true?
  1. If you notice that your stories are taking you back out of your body and into spinning thoughts, return to step 2. 
  1. Can you hold your stories lightly, and not be quite so attached to them being right? Can you step back a little from the stories and be the observer. Who is the observer? This is pure awareness. Awareness is watching your thoughts. You are not your thoughts. You are pure awareness. 

You can call this process whatever you want, and while I call it meditation, others call it contemplative prayer, introspection or developing self-awareness and insight. Don’t let the word put you off; just know that it works for me and a lot of other people. And maybe you need something that works right now too.

Here are some other tips for reducing stress and anxiety and to stay well. I already talked about what I personally believe is the most important one, but most of us don’t have the luxury to meditate all day!  As a side note, scientists have proven that meditation reduces stress hormones that harm your immune system, and that meditation is one of the most important things that we can do to stay immunologically well. It’s probably no surprise, but daily exercise, play (having fun), good sleep, a healthy diet, and human connection are also super important to maximize our immune and mental health. Having sex, with yourself or a partner, is also proven to reduce stress and improve your immune response. Sex releases oxytocin which is connecting and relaxing!

So how can you use this time to add some play to your day, focus on eating better, getting in some movement (and sex) every day and making genuine connections while we are socially isolated? Perhaps you have some unplanned time off and some more time with your family, or some new opportunities to join online friend groups, support groups or women’s circles? If not now, then when? Here is a small challenge that might help push you out of your comfort zone to a new way of being!

  1. Connect with one old friend that you haven’t talked to in a while, and commit to speaking at least once a week.
  1. Notice one “numbing” activity that you drift to when you are stressed that inevitably isn’t helpful and commit to giving it up or minimizing it for 30 days (drinking too much, binge-watching TV, watching the news, being on social media, shopping online, surfing the internet, watching porn, yelling at the kids… we all have a few)
  1. As long as we are allowed to, commit to spending at least 20 minutes a day outside doing some kind of physical movement or exercise.
  1. Find something that is just fun, with no particular goal, and commit to doing it for at least 20 minutes a day for 30 days. Maybe it is dancing, singing, playing board games, knitting, painting or gardening. And of course, don’t forget about the sex!

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, find something, anything, to be grateful for. I promise you there’s something. Right now, I can honestly tell you that I am grateful for COVID-19. This invisible virus reminded me to wake up, that life is precious, and that my happiness in my own hands. Thank you, COVID-19.