As a society, we are faced with levels of uncertainty that are unprecedented for our times. This tension and fear doesn’t discriminate and permeates every corner of the globe.
People might compare the magnitude of this pandemic to events like 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, but that misses a key element. The disasters we have lived through in our lifetimes up until now were, of course, tragic and devastating in their own ways, but they were generally finite.
These were discrete events that resulted in immediate suffering, followed by a longer period of protracted suffering and recovery. The threat came and went, and we were left to deal with the aftermath. Almost immediately in a natural disaster or terrorist attack, we are allowed to recoup, rebuild, and recover.
In the wake of 9/11, America came together with a renewed sense of unity and fortification, but most importantly, a sense that something had passed. We feel safe when we know a threat has come and gone, or has at least has been mitigated.
Now, however, the threat is lingering, and the comfort sought from a sense of safety feels forbidden.
As a society, we face an invisible foe that is upending the many patterns of life we typically find comfort and normality in. The duration of this disruption is unclear and, in some ways, possibly permanent.
To make matters more confusing to the psyche, the threat itself is not clear. What causes one person who is healthy and in their 30s to have a mild case but another of the same age and health to fight for their life on a ventilator? Can you be asymptomatic and pass it to those who are vulnerable? For how long? These are questions that we simply do not have answers to.
These unknown threats to our health and the corresponding unknown timeline results in a mental flailing for a mooring line of safety that is currently out of reach for most. Without a buoy to hold onto, we spin into a state of anxiety and fear.
The worry we feel for our health, and the health of those we care about is compounded by a very real economic threat as well. Like the threat to our health, the economic threat is both global and personal and shrouded in uncertainty.
A large majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck and have no financial safety net. The tragedy unfolding is that this loss of income is not met with a loss of expenses. Late utilities and bills might be forgiven for a short time, but this corporate mercy won’t last. Many of us might start to feel a real threat to providing basic sustenance for the first time. The only thing to then hold onto is a blind hope that this won’t last long.
At the intersection of finance and health is the reality that many will be laid off and hence lose employer-backed health insurance. Without any income to now pay for private insurance, many will remain uninsured. If they require advanced care, which, of course, is more likely with the lingering viral threat, the bill could be devastating.
When faced with a grim situation we can’t figure out how to cohesively assimilate into our lives, many of us will cope by committing to various manifestations of avoidance. This avoidance might display itself across a wide spectrum. Simple avoidance of all media and general denial of what’s happening are on one side. The emergence of conspiracy theories to reshape the narrative into something that can be digested would be on this spectrum as well. Unfortunately, at the extreme end of this avoidance is a need to completely escape by taking one’s own life.
The picture slowly forming on the canvas appears at this moment to be dire, but, if there is any solace is articulating these threats, it is that we are drawing out an enemy into the light. The adversary that we can know in the fog of the unknown is within us. The threats we face are unknown in magnitude, and the anxious state they provoke can be conscious or subconscious.
Being anxious about not being able to pay your bills or worrying about your developing stuffy nose are clear and well-formed emotions. Likely, however, the deeper threat is the manifestation of our fear that flows beneath the surface: the increasing irritability, the worsening back pain, trouble sleeping, or upset stomach. These are undercurrents that without acknowledgment stand to fester and erode our most basic sense of cohesion and functioning.
The status quo as we have come to know it is gone. The future is unknown, and eventually, a new sense of normal will emerge, but until then, the world is scary. It’s OK to be afraid; it’s okay to be nervous, to cry, to mourn and grieve for your own losses, no matter how small they seem, and to grieve for the loss of the comfortable normality we knew.
The gremlins that toil in the machinery of our minds are creatures of the dark. When illuminated, they crumble, and we can recalibrate. This illumination is found in the practice of awareness and, ultimately, acceptance.
When we start to become more aware of all the pieces that shape our various experiences, the grip of anxiety begins to release. This work is a practice in recognition. Accepting and giving recognition to all the melodies that make up the harmony of our experience is elemental in achieving stillness in our undercurrents.
We are too quick to assign value to our thoughts and emotions, pushing away what we have been trained to think is “negative” and only focusing on the positive. We are, however, better versions of ourselves when we embrace with open arms all the inputs we receive in our conscious experience without judging their perceived value to us. Fear is disarmed when met with the embrace of awareness. Then, just maybe, the world becomes a little less scary.
Justin Sterett is a correctional physician and a flight surgeon.
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