• Kalia Ward, MD

Embracing Life in the Face of COVID-19

Fear of the unknown is a natural part of the human experience, a consequence of having an awareness of our own mortality. The inevitable transience of our existence and the mystery surrounding what comes next can easily give rise to feelings of helplessness, fear and desperation. To escape such feelings, we "forget" about death, forcing it out of our immediate awareness along with all the other ideas and memories we can't bear to think about. Not by choice, but as part of an automatic and necessary function of the mind, a self-protective mechanism that allows us to continue participating in life. Unfortunately, this convenient ability to "forget" about death comes with a cost. The price we pay is the fact that we remain subject to the influence of those unbearable feelings. The effect of these unseen forces within the mind is a loss of control over our behavior and our lives, an evolutionary regression that favors our more primitive qualities. We blindly stumble through major life decisions, only questioning ourselves in retrospect, upon realization that a choice we have made was actually not in our best interest.

The fear of death compels us to do whatever it takes to hold on to the things that bring us pleasure or security. Our view of reality is further obscured by reminders of this inescapable truth. We begin to see danger around every corner; our fellow human beings become enemies who threaten our security. We do irrational things that in some way allow us to continue believing in the fantasy of immortality. It's why the bread, milk, and toilet paper disappear so quickly off the shelves of every grocery store with any warning of a blizzard or a hurricane. Given this latest threat to our health and survival, we can now add hand sanitizer and disinfectant spray to that list of “necessities.” The fear whispers to us, "Buy it all, before someone else does," and we listen without stopping to question the source of this command. We waste time driving in rush hour traffic from one shop to the next, becoming angered by the long lines and inadequate staffing of the check-out area once we finally get our hands on whatever “necessity” it is that began such a dreadful evening, only to return home and realize it wasn’t such a necessity after all. Then we torture ourselves and one another by sharing gossip over dinner and calling it "current events," when really all that is happening is an amplification of the shared anxiety surrounding the topic of discussion. Collectively obsessing over the things that frighten us is a way of building our own prisons, a way of dying before death has arrived.

In order to avoid becoming one of the living dead, we must make conscious efforts to embrace life in every moment we can. Here are a few simple ways to stay fully present and alive in the face of danger:

1. Stop checking the news!! Try to limit yourself to 5 minutes a day (or less if you can) of access to current events. Fill your mind with something else “new.” Learn a proverb in a new language, experiment with a new recipe for dinner, the possibilities are endless.

2. Avoid technology as much as possible. Replace any electronic-based leisure activity with something REAL. Read a book that has actual pages to turn, using natural light when you can. Write a letter by hand and mail it to a loved one, in lieu of email.

3. Surround yourself with LIFE. Get outdoors and visit a quiet park or beach if you can. If you can’t leave home and don’t have easy access to nature, find a way to bring nature indoors. Make a terrarium, re-pot a houseplant, get your hands dirty! Open your windows and let the air circulate through your home. Collect all of your houseplants and sit with them, filling your lungs with the oxygen they offer you, allowing them to breathe from you in return.

4. Nourish your body with adequate sleep, daily exercise and a well-balanced diet, consisting of primarily whole (unprocessed) foods. Be kind to yourself (and your family) by allowing some kind of “unhealthy” snack or dessert every day (in moderation, of course). A handful of gummy bears is healthier than obsessing over appearances and setting strict dietary limitations out of fear.

5. Do something creative and/or spontaneous EVERY SINGLE DAY. Write a poem, make a mandala, join in some kind of arts & crafts activity with the kids (ideally something messy with minimal structure). Share your creations with one another.

6. Practice gratitude. Focus your thoughts on anything and everything that brings more love and joy into your life. Don’t worry about writing them down or keeping a journal unless it pleases you. As you go through your day, take notice of everything that brings a smile to your face or makes you laugh uncontrollably. Notice the things that make your life easier, the people who show you kindness and remind you of your own intrinsic value.

7. Practice letting go. Try adding one item to a donation box every day. An old jacket, a duplicate kitchen utensil, a picture frame, anything. The best objects are those that you find most difficult to part with. For example, those birthday gifts that you never ended up using but have always felt too guilty to get rid of. Giving them to someone in need will quickly free you of that guilt. If you’re up for even more of a challenge, try letting go of your need for control, at least once a day. Spend an hour allowing your children to be the boss of you, without protest! Give up the battle over the choice of movie or restaurant for the night. Just SURRENDER and allow yourself to lose, keeping in mind that you are gaining something far more valuable: patience, presence, and peace.

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Kalia Ward MD  |  Awakened Psychiatry, LLC   |  Charlottesville, Virginia, USA

© 2019 by Kalia Ward, MD. Created using Wix.com

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