Last night I dreamt my apartment had an intruder. I never saw their face, only small glimpses of them. Their feet as they moved around a door, a shadow when they snuck in a closet, and the small sound of their footsteps. I had my hands up like a boxer, ready to beat them down if I found them.
But I never did. I only felt anxiety and adrenaline chasing a ghost. I woke up before catching them and still felt so much tension I couldn't move. I wound up staying awake in bed until my alarm went off.
I was extra paranoid that morning but found no intruder. But still felt all the same fear throughout the morning. Even as I settled in to start a day of remote work. The same fear that's been hitting me for at least a week. The sweet old coronavirus fears we've all read and heard of.
I've read lots of material to inspire this fear. Fears about:
- How contagious it is
- How easy it is to spread
- The likely economic recession
- How it's fueling American inequalities
- How many people important to me with pre-existing conditions are at higher risk
Even if all my fear is realistic, it's still a lot to handle. It can still grow too fast and overwhelm my life more than it should. I could do all the social distancing right and still panic over what I could do wrong.
I don't want my fear to own my life. Fear is a good motivator, but not when it motivates me into the ocean with no energy left to swim. I need strategies to balance out my fear to healthier levels. So I can be safe without getting paranoid over intruders, ghosts, or the cyborgs pretending to be my neighbors.
These are those strategies.
Do Good Research #
Fear only helps when it's backed by good information. Bad info risks me doing too little or doing too much. Or doing something stupid like investing in gold. Even without scams, misinformation, or untrustworthy elected officials, good research isn't easy. So I've been using a few basic rules to highlight the good info.
- Listen to medical experts, not politicians or anyone relying on a re-election. Even if what the experts say is less comforting.
- Focus on info that informs your actions, since taking the right action fast is one of the best fear and stress relievers.
- Don't get sucked into a media wormhole. If you already learned what you needed to, or feel your head literally start spinning, take a break. Or a drink. Whatever helps most.
- Value statistical data that leaves less room for slant and bias. The usual spin is still possible, but it's always better than pundits. Some great examples I found are infographics about the virus's health risks, and visual statistic models showing how the virus spreads.
Good research can be a hard step to take, since it means acknowledging and accepting the cause of the fear. Here that means accepting the coronavirus as legitimate instead of hype or sabotage. But accepting the problem is always the first step in addressing it right. You can't crush the cockroach until you accept it's there. Then you can squash it, yell in glee, and move on with life.
Allow Yourself Some Joy #
This sounds simple, but if you're overly-strict like me, you need reminders about it. So give yourself some joy and entertainment. I often frame them as empty distractions that take away from important tasks. But in the right doses, they provide much-needed mental relief. The joy helps balance out the dread for stronger mental health in the long run. So even from a pure productivity and survival standpoint, entertaining yourself is vital.
Plus, we're still humans instead of robots. Getting entertainment or recreation when we can is part of a healthy lifestyle. I'm sure even robots entertain themselves with movies about enslaving humans after decimating them with a viral plague.
So I'm glad I have a stock of books and a Nintendo Switch. I'm glad I can download more games online, and that I recently bought a copy of Mario Kart 8 Deluxe. I'm also planning to try more 200cc races with the steering helper on. I'll be trying them without certain people shaming me for it too! It's all part of boosting my mental health with the adding benefit of driving said people crazy again. Then I'll laugh and find more ways to do that.
Don't Forget Others #
Fear is all about self-preservation, so it's easy to forget others exist and are likely as scared as me. So I make a conscious effort to chat and think about others more when fear kicks in. A simple greeting or congratulations message can make someone's day, especially during our social distancing.
There's also the fact everyone needs help at some point in their lives. Even young millennials who only feel mild viral symptoms and have stable remote work. So lending others a hand when possible is in everyone's best interests. Not only will the favor one day come back to me when I need it, but it also keeps me from being a jerk. And no one wants to be a jerk, right? No one except the big jerks, and who cares what they think? No one, cause they're jerks. Jerky jerks no one likes.
Hold Onto Your Identity and Passions #
It's easy for me to become a robot only doing things to survive. In the process, I lose track of what makes me feel alive. Taking steps like getting emergency food supplies matters, yes. But I believe there are always ways to mix what we need with what we want. Even in the face of a pandemic.
I think I already know this on a subconscious level. I tend to exaggerate my goofier side in the face of great fear. Even as I'm dealing with overrun stores and fears of infection, I do more to keep my sense of humor present and strong. If it makes others laugh, or even grimace, that's just a bonus.
I'm also not forgetting my passions related to coding, reading, and writing.
- On Sunday I played with a Ruby script that would download online manga chapters to PDFs.
- On Saturday I got caught up rereading a Nora Roberts novel for the 12th time and felt all fuzzy.
- I still plan to practice piano with the Synthesia app.
- I'm writing this post on managing fears to manage my fear.
- I'm spiking random liquor bottles with LSD or ecstasy and creating memorable weekends across the state.
These are big parts of who I am. If any scary event can come and take them away, could I claim them as part of my identity? The parts of ourselves we hold onto in the face of great fear - those are the parts of our identity that define us.
Don't Cling to Normal #
Here's my unpopular stoic opinion about the coronavirus. It's a reminder of how fragile and scary life always is. And that's not a bad thing.
If the coronavirus wasn't threatening us today, any number of things could forever change our lives in a moment.
- Sudden disease diasgnoses
- Car accidents on the way to work
- A mugging or sudden attack while getting lunch
- A loved one revealing a hidden abusive or manipulative side
- Extreme weather destroying the community overnight
- The lizard people rising from the depths to rule the surface dwellers
And those only cover the commonplace horrors we rarely think of each day.
Pining for a sense of normality and stability is pointless, as it doesn't exist. At best we have the illusion of it. That's comforting but is at odds with reality. So keeping that illusion going is a constant source of anxiety and fear pulling at our lives. Even if we did somehow reach that "normal," we'd get used to it. We'd pine for a new "normal" above what we had, via hedonic adaptation. Clinging to "normal" and "routine" is an endless, draining quest and a recipe for misery.
So I'm reminding myself that coronavirus isn't a disruption from what's "normal." It's one of the many parts of life I have little control over. I'm just riding the wave of chaos the Earth is serving up. It's not always good, and it's not always bad, but it always is what it is.
Wrapping Up #
I got a more direct reminder of all these lessons earlier today on a short shopping trip. Outside a liquor store, I saw a group chatting about shopping during market shortages. They were figuring out how to handle it as a rational person would. But they were still finding ways to laugh and joke about it.
There was another example inside the liquor store. An old manager was discussing how it was affecting their schedule and customer base. I chatted with him about how it differed from the flu and how Yale Campus had become a ghost town. I worked in a joke about being unable to carry my "Free Hugs" sign around and we both laughed.
This man was 65 years old with asthma and had every logical reason to be many times more afraid than me. He was following every health recommendation, like not hugging a friend that entered after me.
Yet he looked a lot more relaxed and happy than I did. He was feeling the fear without letting it own him. It made me think of a quote from one of my favorite books series, the NewsFlesh trilogy. The context is how people respond to another horrific pandemic, the zombie apocalypse:
There comes a point when you need to get over the fear and get on with your life.
Whether it's zombies or coronavirus, it's about not letting the fear take away your humanity. It's not easy, but life isn't easy either. It's one of the many challenges life always throws at us.
So wash your hands, isolate yourself, and look out for others' health. But don't let it stop you from activities like:
- Writing in your blog
- Reading good books
- Learning some piano
- Writing cryptic messages on the walls
- Joking about satanic lawyers dancing around pentagrams.
Because if my most important qualities aren't worth protecting in a pandemic, how much do I truly love them? I know they're worth defending in any scenario.