The coronavirus pandemic has thrown us all into unprecedented territory. There are waves of information about the necessity for not only frequently sanitizing our hands and everything we touch, but equally important, social distancing. Which brings us to an extraordinarily altered lifestyle, with emotional challenges.

By nature, we tend toward different emotional responses to difficulty. Some people tend to become more anxious, sad, frustrated, angry and confused. Others are more upbeat, and look for the silver lining during challenging times. As we are complex beings, we often have combinations of these tendencies.

To stay physically and emotionally healthy, we need to look more deeply into our natural leanings, to find the best balance possible. We cannot be in denial (a common defense) about this virus, and need to lessen our anxiety as much as possible so that we can help ourselves and one another.

Denial arises naturally from many sources. It’s important at this time to recognize what is fueling one’s decision to not take social distancing more seriously.

Is it because you’re an extrovert and need more contact? Are you lonely? What uncomfortable thoughts or feelings come up for you when you have long periods of time without more direct human contact? It’s important to pay attention to what’s underneath denial, or it will persist.

Anxiety is within us now, even if it’s not our natural default position.

Being proactive is always helpful. What can we do to bolster our immune system? What are the actions we can take to minimize risk to ourselves and others, such as hand washing, attention to cleaning surfaces, and creating social distance? Reminding ourselves every day of the simple pleasures and what we’re grateful for is important. Staying responsibly informed without binging on news media will keep us more balanced.

We need to pace ourselves because this will most likely continue longer than we hope. Resist the impulse to self-medicate, eating more or less than what is healthy, increasing alcohol consumption, or any addiction you might struggle with. It will only make things worse, not better.

Consider this crisis as an excellent time to change some of the behaviors you’ve wanted to alter. So much is changing around us. Let’s use this challenging time as an impetus to grow in the directions we aspire to.

Anxiety can be particularly intense for those with food insecurity, and those who are scared about the financial impact of lost wages and resources. These are realistic anxieties based on the harsh realities of our present situation. We need to not only offer help, but ask for help, which can be more difficult.

There is a Buddhist teaching about the two arrows of suffering: The first arrow is what happens to us, that which is not in our control (the coronavirus and subsequent changes we need to make as a result). The second arrow is how we increase our suffering through our response to the first arrow (increased anxiety, upset, frustration, being in denial). The first arrow is non-negotiable; we can reduce the suffering of the second arrow.

As I walk around my beautiful Newburyport community, I’m appreciating how many others are also outside, walking through Maudslay, Moseley, Plum Island, along the downtown streets and boardwalk. As we maintain our distance, we are feeling the interconnection of our shared experience.

Most of us are feeling the social isolation and we need each other more. We can have more contact with those we care about via text and Skype. Listen to music more, read books, catch up on those projects that have been waiting. Breathe fully.

This is a time to dig deeper and feel our inner strength.

Nancy Cahan is a licensed clinical psychologist in Newburyport. She can be reached at nancycahan@gmail.com.

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