Lately, whenever I check my phone, log onto my computer, or watch TV, I am inundated with information about COVID-19. My reactions and emotions have been all over the board, ranging from shock and frustration to feeling completely overwhelmed by the impact this will have on my family and students. I am not going to write about the details of COVID-19, they are changing so quickly that anything I write today will likely be different by the time I post. However, there are a couple of things I have tried to keep in mind during this ever-evolving chaotic time.
The first, is to breathe. I had a conversation with my students, before the school was closed, about breathing. I asked, “Anybody have any ideas why I am asking you to remember to breathe?” To which a middle school boy rolled his eyes and sarcastically replied, “So we don’t die?” Much to his annoyance, I enthusiastically shouted, “Yes!” Then I went into a quick (simplified) refresher on breathing and the brain. Our brains are designed to keep us safe. The amygdala, a region in our brain, houses our fight/flight/freeze response. When our body interprets that we are in danger, it sends extra blood to the amygdala to ensure that safety is our number one priority. Essentially, our amygdala lights up. The good news about this is that it keeps us safe. The bad news is that when our amygdala is activated in this way, we are not getting the full amount of blood to our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for our decision making and higher functioning thought processes. This causes the prefrontal cortex to struggle to do its job well. So, in this time of COVID-19, there is so much fear that has accompanied the coverage of this disease, that many of us are walking around with activated amygdalas. This makes it physically difficult, if not impossible, to think clearly. Reality is, if a lot of us are not thinking clearly in this time of crisis, it will make things worse. So, what do we need to do? Calm down our amygdala. How do we do that? Breathe! So you see, breathing does, in fact, keep us alive.
I recommend simply closing your eyes and breathing in for five slow seconds, holding your breath for five slow seconds and breathing out for five seconds. I find doing this just a few times, literally taking less than a minute to complete, makes a significant difference in my clarity of thought. My other favorite way to focus on breathing is called square breathing, which is essentially doing the same thing but with your eyes open and looking at a square. Find any square or rectangle (examples: window, door, table, or tv), and follow your eyes around the edges of the square, breathe in (looking across), hold your breath (looking down), breathe out (looking across), hold your breath (looking up), doing each for five seconds. I find that the motion of visually following lines while I breathe allows me to focus on my breath, rather than having my mind wander.
Now that your amygdala is calm, I want everyone to hear clearly what I am going to say next. Fear lies. Sometimes I picture fear like a monster that is blocking the view of everything that is logical,true, and happy. Of course, the monster is always shouting loud enough that I can’t hear anything other than the lies it is saying. With COVID-19, I picture this lie monster shouting that everything is bad, every decision I make is wrong, and that there is no way to keep my family safe. This is simply not true. Because, fear lies.
I try every day (some days with minimal success) to not let fear drive my decision making. This applies now more than ever as information is being shared across every form of news and social media platform. We are in control of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. And if we let fearful thoughts take control, our feelings and actions will follow suit. For example, Thinking “everything is terrible and we are all going to get sick,” produces feelings of fear and sadness, which brings about actions like scaring others and irrational hoarding. Alternately, thinking, “What is true? I am staying home to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to protect my family, friends, and neighbors,” this produces a feeling of calm and in control, which leads to the actions of taking helpful precautions to protect ourselves and others. This is, of course, easier to write than it is to live. But I have found that focusing on truth and being aware of the impact of my thoughts on my feelings and actions makes a difference. Fear should not get to control this (or any) situation.
Fred Rogers famously said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” This is the last thing I want to leave you with today. The helpers are everywhere. The first day that my school was closed, in collaboration with our school resource officer, I was able to ensure that every student in my program who had the need received a food box. Since then, there have been restaurants, businesses, and churches that have opened their doors to pass out free lunches. Within days of school being closed, our school district opened several of the schools during the lunch hour to pass out “to-go lunches” that kids can bring home. This is just one example of a need that has been met with creative and generous responses as the impact of COVID-related closures begin to take effect.
It’s important to remember that with each need, there is an opportunity to provide support. And we can all provide help and support. Sometimes that support is as simple as making a phone call and reminding each other we are not alone. While coloring today, my son asked to make a card for his teacher. He wrote by himself in his pre-K, massive letters (only asking for help with some spelling) “I miss you. I love you teacher. God loves us.” This letter went in the mail the next day. Because sharing food, sharing phone calls and texts, writing letters, and sharing love, that is how we slay the fear monster.
Together we will get through this. Together we will breathe. Together we will live in love and not fear, looking for the helpers, being the helpers, and sharing the message of hope with each other.
Author: Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.