Three strategies for going out into the world despite pandemic anxiety
By Mary Ortwein
Albert Einstein was once asked, “What is the most important question?” His answer has fascinated me for decades. It was, “Is the universe a friendly place or not?”
No matter how we might normally answer that question or why we might ask it, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to live this past year and a half as if the universe is not a friendly place. We stayed home, masked up, washed our hands and asked ourselves again and again, “Is this trip to church, grocery, family, or a restaurant worth the risk?”
We have lived in the psychology of alarm. That means our body chemistry has put us into survival-of-the-fittest mode. This chemistry causes us to question the safety of even what we know to be safe. We feel unsure, hesitant, cautious — even when logic tells us to relax. We are like house cats, absolutely ready to chase a bird seen through a window, but scared to go out an open door.
As we now emerge from pandemic isolation, this chemistry of an unfriendly universe can make it hard for us to return to normal living. Our spirits may be willing, but our survival-minded flesh makes us weak. Here are some habit change strategies from psychology to encourage friendly re-engagement with the world around us.
- DECIDE WHAT YOU FEEL SAFE DOING, TODAY. Start to emerge from a safe place. Would you start by calling a friend you haven’t seen? Or taking a walk around your neighborhood in the early evening? Would you go to a daily Mass? Do you need to keep some hand sanitizer in your car? Whom might you visit or have visit you that you’ve missed and would feel safe with? When you start where you can squelch those “what if …” feelings, you can move back into a social stream with less fear and trembling. Start safe for sure, then move out.
- PRACTICE GRATITUDE AND GRATUITOUSNESS. Part of the difficulty with the chemistry of alarm is that it causes us to be self-absorbed. We have blinders to the needs and delights of those around us. Two pleasant-to-take antidotes for self-absorption are gratitude and gratuitousness. When we are grateful, we shut off the stress hormones in our brains. We just enjoy! What are 10 things you can be grateful for today? (I have the time and ability to read this. Dinner turned out tasty! I got that report done at work. I’ve had my first COVID-19 vaccine. Prayer this morning was good, etc.) Add a gratitude list to your daily prayer. Gratuitousness takes gratitude one step further. As Pope Francis describes it in the encyclical letter Fratelli Tutti, gratuitousness does things “because they are good in themselves, without concern for personal gain or recompense.” Francis adds that God “gives freely, to the point of helping even those who are unfaithful. … We received life freely; we paid nothing for it. Consequently, all of us are able to give without expecting anything in return.” What can you do that is simply reaching out to do good for someone or something? Bring a neighbor’s garbage can back to the house? Take some extra soup to a friend? Say a prayer for someone who is ill?
- ENVISION A FRIENDLY UNIVERSE. Researchers say we cannot do what we cannot imagine. What do you see when you see yourself acting and being in a universe which you again trust enough to be joyfully in the middle of it? Find it in a picture. Write it in a goal. Then walk into the dream to make it come true, step by step.
Mary Ortwein is a mental health counselor and parishioner at Good Shepherd in Frankfort.