We are amidst the third month of the coronavirus pandemic, heading for month #4. Our sheltering in place efforts have helped flatten the curve in the US and elsewhere, and most of us are fortunate not to have been overrun with the surge of new cases we anticipated only a few weeks ago. Although some shops and restaurants are being cautiously re-opened, a great deal of uncertainty remains and important questions will be answered only with the passage of time. When will we see the decline of the spread of this deadly virus even as our beaches, parks, and other public areas become accessible? When might we be back at work? Can we keep our families safe? When can we safely spend time with our family and friends without wearing masks or staying 6 feet apart? Will there be another wave of disease spread once this one is under control? What about the economy — will it recover swiftly in the coming months, or will we experience a lasting depression? There is so much suffering around us — even though we may have avoided infection, we cannot help but be adversely affected by the pandemic.
Uncertainty brings stress. While acute stress may be adaptive in selected cases, such as running away from a predator or rescuing a child from the swimming pool, chronic stress is essentially always maladaptive. Stress causes elevations in the hormones adrenaline, cortisol, and glucagon, resulting in increases in heart rate, blood pressure, stress on our heart, and blood sugar. Decreases in estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone cause fatigue, mood swings, headaches, and weight gain. Our sleep is compromised. Our energy is sapped and we may be unable or unmotivated to exercise. Our nutrition suffers as we reach for fatty “comfort foods” or refined foods high in sugar for relief. We experience anxiety, a nagging ache in our chest that intensifies when we see the rapidly rising number of Covid-related deaths in the US and elsewhere. We see evidence of human suffering around the globe and feel powerless to help alleviate it.
The suffering we associate with the pandemic may veil the underlying suffering that seems always to linger. The remedy we seek in our objective experience fails us. We suffer from a lack of fundamental understanding of ourselves — that the peace and love for which we search are, in fact, our true nature. This innate peace and understanding are veiled by our objective experience, leading us to believe that we are a separate entity — that we appear, live as an isolated being or ego, and one day disappear. The knowledge of “I am” is limited by our objective experience, or the “ego” or “separate self.”
For all of us who are experiencing these ideations and symptoms, these are normal responses to chronic stress. You are not alone by any means.
Might there be a silver lining to this pandemic? There are hopeful signs. Many of us are connecting with family and friends with whom we may not have spoken for some time. We appreciate the magic of the internet, thanks to which we can virtually join with others around the world. We may be physically isolated but do not have to be socially and emotionally alone. We feel compassion for others who are severely affected here in the US and around the globe, irrespective of ethnicity, nationality, or political beliefs. The virus knows no geographic borders, and neither does our compassion. We may find ourselves being unusually “present” with our loved ones, working together to try to make the best of a difficult situation. For many of us these experiences bring a sense of well-being in the midst of tragic circumstances.
One is the importance of Gratitude — we are appreciative of the company of those with us at home and, for at least some of us, at work. We embrace connecting via the internet and telephone. We recognize how much worse things could be. It is worth remembering the influenza pandemic of 1918. Information, food, and clean water were scarce. People were isolated — there was no internet and no Facetime or Skype, and the health care system was completely overwhelmed. The most basic supplies were not available, including medicine, material for masks, and even coffins. Global suffering was unimaginable. Fifty million people died around the world. We have it so much better now, 100 years later. There is much for which to be grateful.
Second, it is clear that beyond isolating ourselves and wearing masks there is little most of us can do to change our circumstances. Many of us find ourselves (mostly) accepting the conditions we face. We understand that we did not cause this pandemic and we cannot cure it. We do what we can to stay as safe and well informed as possible, but we are otherwise forced to adapt and allow what happens to unfold. We can open our hearts and let the pain we experience to come closer and closer until there is no separation. As Rupert Spira would encourage us to ask ourselves, “Can I live with this feeling forever?” When the answer is “yes”, we are practicing Acceptance. The opposite of acceptance is resistance. Deep suffering, the kind of suffering that we know we cannot ignore, about which there is nothing we can do, may bring us to the present moment, the only moment we truly experience. Deep suffering may lead us to let go of all resistance and simply accept that which is.
Third, we may discover that we do have some control over our thoughts — panicking and catastrophizing accomplish little, so let’s be as positive as possible. I am pleasantly surprised to observe how many of my friends and colleagues are taking the opportunity to practice Intention — purposefully guiding their thought processes in a pragmatic and optimistic direction. Hunkering down and having the pace of life slow down can facilitate this. Even the simple daily practice of thinking of 3 good things that we experienced during our day as we prepare for getting into bed at night improves our sleep and makes us happier. We can direct our thought processes through intention.
Fourth, we can and should let go of the usual judgments of others and ourselves. We are all doing the best we can during this stressful time. We are all in this together. It seems trivial and even ridiculous to judge the way in which others are coping or behaving. Let’s treat ourselves the same way we treat our dearest friends and loved ones — with understanding and Non-judgment. Krishnamurti said, “I don’t mind what happens.” The beauty of this simple phrase resonates now as ever.
The silver lining may be that we find ourselves practicing Gratitude, Acceptance, Intention, and Non-judgment. These are the essential components of resilience and happiness. They define the acronym, GAIN, which is the thesis of my book. One day the pandemic will be behind us. I am hopeful that we do not forget these positive ways of being once this comes to pass.
About the Author: Greg Hammer, MD
A pediatric intensive care physician and pediatric anesthesiologist, Dr. Hammer is the author of GAIN Without Pain: The Happiness Handbook for Health Care Professionals. A popular guest lecturer, he frequently speaks around the world in order to share his philosophy with physicians and other medical professionals.
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