How not to freak out in a global pandemic

leadership May 03, 2020

Written by Ed Cook

As we go further into the COVID-19 pandemic, the prevalence of low-level anxiety is increasing.  The end is uncertain.  We may have much further to go.  Although many have a low probability of danger from the virus, the very existence of a global pandemic coupled with consistent news stories and press conferences that describe terrible scenes of overwhelmed hospitals and exhausted medical staff all fuel the anxiety that seems to be within us all.  On top of all of this, the economy has slowed and tens of millions are out of work, furloughed, or dealing with reduced hours.  I’ve had two significant experiences with persistent low-level anxiety.  What I learned from those experiences is helping me now as I deal with my own anxiety as well as helping my loved one’s anxiety.

Finding Inner Calm
In 2018, I was diagnosed with oral cancer.  I did not smoke.  I exercised.  I was in good health.  It was a shock.  The initial few months were consumed with tests and discussions with doctors about treatment.  We landed on surgery first.  I was concerned but not overwhelmed.  I had either enough confidence or could live in denial (or maybe both) so that the stress didn’t get to me.  Then, when the first surgery wasn’t fully successful and I needed a second, the anxiety started to settle in.  Insidious and persistent anxiety.   Mostly I was able to push the anxiety away, but it never fully left.  After the second surgery which was much more invasive leaving a hole in the roof of my mouth that required a prosthetic device called an obturator to cover the hole so I could eat and talk, the low-level anxiety began to build.  A few weeks later I began radiation treatment.  


I had no idea how difficult radiation would be.  Although the application of the radiation itself is rather brief, just minutes, the process is claustrophobic.  For head and neck radiation, a form-fitting mask is used.  In my case I would lay on my back, the mask would be placed over my face, neck, and shoulders, and then clipped into the table so that I could not move.  Having served in the military, I was used to experiences that made me uncomfortable, even afraid, but this was different.  Immobilized while a massive machine orbited around my head and irradiating me was terrifying.


To cope I reached back into my past and found prayer.  I have not been a regular churchgoer for decades, but having grown up Catholic I had many prayers memorized.  One of those is the Rosary.  As the machine would start, my heart rate would go up and the anxiety along with it.  I would begin to recite the rosary in my head.  My relationship with God has been personal and mostly private.  I don’t know that it deepened with this experience.  I was scared and was looking for solace.  Prayer helped to calm my mind and calm the anxiety.  My advice for all of us in this “after” time is to:

Find the inner conversation that helps to calm you

This does not have to prayer per se.  It could be reciting a poem or a mantra or a song.  But it has to have meaning.  The key is to wrap your mind around that meaning in order to focus it on what strengthens you and not the anxiety that weakens you.  

Finding Outer Calm
In 2007, I was mobilized from the Navy Reserves and sent to Baghdad.  I was shocked.  I had spent 10 years on active duty as a Naval Aviator landing planes on aircraft carriers and another 9  years in reserve units that were supposed to be at the top of the list for mobilization.  Yet, it never happened.  Now, I was working for the Naval Historical Center in the Washington DC Naval Yard, literally recording interviews to go into the archive for historians to use decades from now.  I was planning on retiring soon!


Nevertheless, I was mobilized landing on the staff of Gen Petreaus in the heart of the Green Zone.  For the first few months rocket and mortar attacks were frequent, if not daily several times a week.  When the siren first goes off and the voice comes up over the loudspeaker “DUCK AND COVER!!” my heart would race as I would run to the nearest shelter or dive under my desk.  But after a couple of weeks of that, I (and every other newbie) stopped reacting.  It became part of the background but still with a general sense of anxiety.  There were not significant numbers of injuries and deaths around the Green Zone but they did occur with enough frequency that I was never completely comfortable outside of a sturdy building.  There was safety in many of the buildings but not all.  We were much more exposed outside. If we were outside and the siren would go off, we would always scramble for shelter.


Trying to work in an environment where people are trying to kill you but you can’t do anything to fight back can be debilitating.  Fortunately, those in the military excel at dark humor.  This was the outlet that we used to deal with the low-level anxiety that would otherwise have ground us down day by day.  What was key in this coping mechanism was not so much the humor itself but the camaraderie it creates.  Going through a difficult circumstance with other people is significantly easier to take.  It provides a shared community to vent in a way that is acceptable to the group.  It also provides a way to gauge the danger and therefore calibrate the anxiety.  My advice to you gentle reader is to:

Find the outer conversation that helps to calm you

Applying this to the current pandemic
Note that for both of these suggestions, whether inner or outer, I’m suggesting conversation.  The word conversation means to literally “turn with” as in we are pointed in the same direction.  This is important and not just boring semantics.  With a group, the interaction has to be an exchange that brings you together.  So not just you venting so that you feel better, but you conversing so that you feel better.  For an inner conversation, this is you connecting to some higher truth, whatever that means for you.  For me it was prayer but for you, it can be whatever helps you to connect.  What’s important is the change of viewpoint that moves away from the low-level anxiety and toward a better possibility.  You can’t manage the pandemic so that it goes away, but you can manage your reaction to it.

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