Since this all began just less than a month ago, I had been planning to write a “How to Survive a Pandemic” article. But with all the changes that were happening, school closures, migrating my clients to Telehealth, canceling travel plans, I just couldn’t find the time. Luckily, as it turns out, I wasn’t the only writer with survival on my mind, and I’m sure you’ve read plenty by now on how to cope with this health crisis.
Now that some time has passed, I’m finding myself less motivated to contribute yet another survival guide to dealing with crisis. It’s important to me that we all survive this, of course. Survival is essential. But it’s not enough. Not only do I want to survive, I want to thrive. I don’t just want to weather the storm, I want to be transformed by it. And the rules for survival are not the same as the rules for thriving.
The rules for survival are essentially protective. They exist to keep you alive and safe. Wash your damn hands! Don’t touch your face. Stay the fuck home. I don’t have to repeat any of this, do I? When it comes to coping with anxiety, the advice might be to limit your news consumption and increase self care practices, like watching videos of baby goats. Yes! Do all that, please. You need to survive before you can thrive.
The rules for thriving are different though. Allow me to propose a grim example: thinking about death. Let’s face it, people are dying out there. Not just the high risk populations either. So it makes sense that you might think this could be it, either for yourself or someone you love. That shit is scary! Nobody wants to think these kinds of thoughts.
If you apply the rules of survival to thoughts of death, you might try to distract yourself from the scary thoughts by blaring happy music and singing along at the top of your lungs to drown them out. You might try to tell yourself that you’re not vulnerable or high risk, and you’re social distancing like a champ, so it’s not possible. The strategy for survival is to move away from the thoughts. “If I don’t think these scary thoughts, then I won’t feel anxious.”
On the other hand, if your aim is to thrive, you move toward it. Why? Why would I invite more anxiety? You’re not. The anxiety is already there. The thoughts themselves are not the problem and they are not the cause of your anxiety. The problem is the rule that we shouldn’t have these thoughts, or that they are dangerous. Thoughts are simply information. What you do with that information or how you relate to that information is all that matters.
So if you decide not to run away from these existential thoughts, what happens? If a monster is chasing you and you stop running, can it keep chasing you? Anxiety is in the running. So if you stop, you change the relationship of runner/chaser. Then what? Will the thoughts devour me? Will they tear me apart? I challenge you to find out for yourself.
You mind says, “I might die.” Yes. You might. You will, actually. So what does that mean? What does it mean that your life is transitory and fragile? What now? What do you do with that information? If you cannot deny it or fight it, how does this inform how you live your life? What is important to you? Isn’t that all that really matters? Thriving in times of crisis means that instead of moving away from what you fear, you embrace it in order to grow from it.
“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
What treasure awaits if you allow yourself to sit with fear or discomfort? Death is nothing new. Neither is survival. But if you’re willing to stay in your feelings and your perspective changes, or your priorities shift, or you discover something essential to who you are, that is revolutionary. Thriving is the willingness to be transformed, to live more fully and with a greater sense of meaning.
Anxiety serves a purpose. In and of itself, it’s not “bad.” Anxiety prepares us. It puts us on alert. It positions us to take action. In a crisis, don’t we need to be prepared, alert, and ready to respond? That is exactly what anxiety is suppose to do. It’s a feature, not a bug. To thrive in crisis, we must use that anxiety to shift into action.
Thriving in crisis means that we are mobilized to take action. Anxiety begins to dissipate once you are engaging meaningfully in the moment. Like a key in an ignition, once the engine has started, you no longer need to keep turning the key. But if action is not taken, anxiety builds and is counter productive.
If you apply the rules for survival to anxiety, you might end up making it much worse. Our survival instinct is what makes one struggle when they fall into quicksand. You’ve seen the movies. What happens when you struggle in quicksand? That is your survival instinct working against you.
If you want to get out of quicksand alive you have to do something different than what your survival instincts tell you to do. Instead, you must relax your body, stretch out like you would if you wanted to float on water (counterintuitively making even more contact with the quicksand), and eventually, the quicksand will elevate your body to its surface.
It’s the same with anxiety. To thrive in anxiety you can’t struggle against it. You’ll need to relax and open up to it. Make space for it and allow it to inform you and do its job, which is to prepare you to take meaningful action.
It’s going to be different for all of you. Meaning and values are uniquely your own. As for myself, I wish to thrive during this pandemic, and so I’ve committed to taking the following actions:
It’s a short list. It’s not that nothing else matters, but these are the things I can fully commit to prioritizing above all else. My recommendation is to narrow your priorities to the few things that really matter the most to you, and do them to the best of your ability. That is how we will thrive during these times. Not only will you get through this alive, you’ll come out even better than when it started. Thriving implies growth. How will we be transformed? What will we become?
Oro Valley Psychotherapy
10311 N Renard Pl
Oro Valley, AZ 85737