Lately, in the face of the coronavirus outbreak, I’ve been fielding calls from patients asking for help with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. People are worried about their health, their families, their jobs, and whether society will be able to get back on track. Trying to stay positive in the face of this unprecedented adversity is certainly not easy.
While I’m deeply sensitive to the distress being felt by the community, I’ve felt the need to remain upbeat when counseling my patients so that I don’t add to their concerns. To help my patients as well as myself, I’ve been trying to look at any positives that might be present in our current situation and seeking to put this challenge in perspective. I’ve been asking myself questions like, “How can I gain meaning or purpose from this pandemic? How can I maintain joy while isolated at home?” Questions like this help me shift my perspective.
Perspective is powerful, and can have both positive and negative effects on our well-being. For example, if my perspective were one of mass tragedy, unrecoverable loss, and a dystopian future, I would certainly be relegating myself to a dismal mood.
On the other hand, taking a glass half full approach to any situation, and finding personal meaning in it, can improve one’s mood, as well as energy and sleep. So I’ve been working hard to adopt a positive perspective. For example, since this pandemic has hit, I’ve been working mostly from home doing telemedicine visits, which has allowed me to spend more time with my family. Childhood does not last forever, so I’m choosing to see this extra time with my daughter as the blessing it is.
On a grander scale, we can look at this event as a chance to rise to a challenge, which allows us to grow and gain meaning in our lives. For instance, we can view this as an opportunity to engage our community and help others, such as through monetary donations or actions such as donating blood, cooking food for elderly neighbors, or sewing masks. This time of challenge can bring out the best in people, inspiring charity and generosity. Giving to others and being part of something greater than ourselves regularly leads to joy and fulfillment. In fact, there’s good evidence to show that embracing adversity and leaning in to help mitigate the impact leads to far greater happiness than avoiding it.
Also, when we act on the perspective that we can make a positive impact during this time, we are doing something. Part of the anxiety with COVID-19 is that we are at home just waiting to see if we or a loved one will get sick. By doing something for others, we are choosing to take action. This can give us a sense of control, which is really important when we may otherwise feel helpless. A charitable action can be as simple as calling someone who lives alone and may not feel connected, or offering to pick up groceries for a neighbor who is high risk and trying to stay home. Small actions can have big results for the community around you, and subsequently, your own mental well-being.
A few nights ago, my wife shuffled us all outside into the dark to see the stars. Even with an almost full moon, we could see stars that I have never seen in the DC suburbs. The air was more crisp and clean than I can remember. Without factories running and cars spewing exhaust, the air is clearer. Our local stream also looks cleaner, and someone spotted a beaver there for the first time in years. Some experts think that pollution levels will drop by over 5 percent worldwide due to this economic shutdown, which could bring us back to levels not seen since 2008. I choose to be grateful for this unusual opportunity to enjoy a cleaner environment and for special moments like seeing the stars with my family.
Finally, another perspective I can offer as a physician is that of hope. We have been here before, and we’ve overcome or adapted. Polio and smallpox ravaged humanity for centuries, and have now been essentially eradicated with vaccines. The bubonic plague once caused tremendous suffering and death in Europe but is now a very rare and curable condition. And we all endure a worldwide, pervasive infection every year – influenza – which caused a worse pandemic than COVID-19 a hundred years ago. Today, most people are aware of the flu, and act intelligently to prevent it, but it does not dictate our every action and human interaction, because we’ve adapted. My perspective is that we will adapt to COVID-19 as well.
My goal here is not to have you take my perspective, or tell you how to find meaning in this, but rather to show you that we have choices on how to view this time, and that these choices can impact our mental and physical well-being. I recognize that I have the good fortune of still having a job, my health, and my family around, which makes this mental exercise much less difficult for me than for many. But each of us, no matter our situation, has the power to choose our individual perspective, and the rewards can be greater for those dealing with hardship.
So if you’re having difficulty coping with the current stay-at-home edict, I challenge you to adopt different perspectives and related actions that improve your frame of mind. Create a list of your own positives and/or meaning that could come from this. Ask yourself what you can do to lessen the impact on others, and ask your friends and family to do the same. Think about what you still have, and what you are thankful for. Being grateful for what we have, rather than focusing on what we may have lost, can help us all get through this and be better, healthier individuals once we are on the other side of this.
Ken Zweig is an internal medicine physician.
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