Yesterday Pennsylvania’s governor, Tom Wolf, announced several “guidance” measures for Montogomery County, including the closures of all schools, child care centers, and all non-essential retail facilities for two weeks. When I heard the news, I envisioned a Rocky training montage.
In the next two weeks, I hope to stay positive–for myself, my family, and my community–by spending time with the people I love, exercising in new ways, reading new books, cooking new recipes, and writing.
Also, to combat the moral panic of the coronavirus (for myself and, perhaps, others) I plan to post “one good thing” each day.
Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, I have surprised myself with my resiliency to anxiety. Only a few years ago, starting after Trump’s election, I lived in near-constant anger, fear, and anxiety. For the first time in my life, I experienced panic attacks.
I attributed my anxiety to the chaos of our life at home with two small children, which felt like an assault on my nervous system. I eventually realized something far more insidious at the core of my anxiety. I realized this during the Kavanaugh trial, in September 2018, on a Friday evening, on the day Jeff Flake made his momentous decision, delaying Kavanaugh’s nomination–for a week or so.
I had been listening to the coverage for most of the morning, ignoring the habits that make my Fridays (my day off) feel so important: reading and writing. Instead of engaging the creative part of my brain, I had obsessively cleaned while watching/listening to the coverage on my CNN app.
That night at dinner, I compulsively checked my phone even as I spoke to Karen about the hearing. The children, tired after a long day at school, vied for our attention.
At one point, I heard Ella speaking, as if from a distance. “Daddy?” she said. “Daddy?”
Looking at her, I realized I had completely ignored whatever she had said, and with the clarity of an insight I understood: I was wasting my life. Over the course of the following weeks, I decided to back away from the relentless Kavanaugh coverage. To do so, I limited my exposure to social media. I deleted all social media apps from my phone. I stopped turning on NPR first thing in the morning.
Despite my recent resiliency, I still modulate my media consumption. This strategy may be the single most important part of my wellness regime: I never watch the news and I rarely listen to the news.
I only occasionally read the news, about one to two articles per day: enough to know what I need to know.
In recent days, I have comforted myself with the well-known statistics about the percentage of coronavirus cases that prove to be mild, as well as the seemingly low death rates for those below 80. Yes, I have been disturbed by the administration’s slow response, as well as the consistent onslaught of negative news about mass contagion and economic ruin.
It wasn’t until this morning, though, that I felt truly anxious. I made the dreadful decision to read an article in the Times about two young Chinese women, both infected with the virus. One survived. One died. After reading, it took several hours to regain my equilibrium.
I had to remind myself again: I must modulate my media exposure. Just turn it off.
Changing a habit is hard. As Jerome Groopman notes in a New Yorker article about habits: “A large majority of us lack the self-control required to succeed in life.”
However, we can “hack” our habits by “finding ways to take will-power out of the equation.”
Groopman quotes a researcher who suggests creating friction–essentially making our bad habits more inconvenient. This is presumably one reason why my media detox initially worked so well for me: I deleted the apps.
However, Groopman’s article also describes another effective approach to changing habits: replace one habit with another and include rewards for the change.
Instead of consuming media, I try to read about wellness, denim, or JAWS. I try to talk to my children and my wife. Instead of listening or watching the news, I listen to music. I sing. I don’t mean to sound trite, but I believe this is a good response to the current situation: Just sing.
Singing (or humming) stimulates the vagus nerve, which is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Why not replace a stressful stimulus with an enjoyable, and altogether more human act?