Anxiety bubbles up like a spring that trickles through the mind. Fed by tributaries of dread and helplessness, it becomes a fearsome river, draining strength and happiness.
This foul sickness drained me. The virus left me weakened and fatigued, but I’m determined to get back into shape. I enjoy trail running and, to social distance, I’ve been taking my strides off-trail recently. Galloping through untamed wilderness is a beautiful distraction from the crisis at hand. Initially, I was concerned about tripping, but was surprised by how easily my feet pick through rocks and sagebrush, my body adjusting to maintain balance. I realized that an ancient hardwiring exists in my brain, rarely used on this planet of sidewalks and pavement. With the mind subconsciously calculating each step, our ancestors chased wooly mammoths and runaway toddlers.
We are prehistoric people living in a modern world. If a day represents all of human history, cars and lightbulbs have existed for one minute, smart phones for three seconds. In some ways, our brains haven’t caught up yet.
Once upon a time, Joe Caveman was just kicking it, grinning as he fantasized about Jill Cavewoman. Suddenly a flicker caught his eye: the tail of a saber-tooth in the tall grass. Aack! As the stealthy predator crept closer, Joe had a fairly urgent choice to make: flight or fight?
His brain stomped the gas pedal and high-octane adrenaline flooded his veins, increasing his heart rate and blood pressure, firing nerves and shunting hot blood to his muscles. At a superhuman clip, Joe ducked from view and sprinted to the safety of his tribe. As the adrenaline drained and his body returned to normal, he relaxed, entertaining Jill with tales of his epic battle with the tiger.
The fight-or-flight response is meant to be temporary but can misfire when confronted with new dangers like this awful blight. The relentless barrage of bad news and frightening images can hijack our primal mind, leaving us in a state of perpetual apprehension. We may become fearful and irrational, finding blame instead of solutions. Prolonged heightened alert is profoundly unhealthy for both our bodies and our minds.
And here’s the kicker: A chronic fight-or-flight response depresses our immunity. There are five types of white blood cells—some fight bacteria, others parasites and tumors. Stress decreases one type: the lymphocytes, the cells that combat viral infections. Think about that for a moment.
Besides fear and anxiety, this microscopic intruder brought a variety of stressors. This is a lonely existence for all of us. I miss seeing friends, hugging people. I long to visit my parents and extended family in Boise. Speaking with patients’ family members, I can only see their eyes above crinkled masks. Sometimes the unsettled ache in those eyes stays with me long after I’ve left the hospital. At random times, a wave of unexpected sadness will wash over me. This whole thing is brutal, inhumane.
But it’s OK to hurt. It’s OK to mourn, to be scared. It’s OK to not be OK. However, we shouldn’t allow negative emotions to control us. Fear is enhanced when we feel helpless. But we are not helpless; there are many things we can do to escape this tar pit of unhealthy fear and live healthily.
Exercise at least 30 minutes a day. Get enough sleep. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Take zinc, thiamine and Vitamin C. Talk on the phone and video chat with loved ones.
We should make efforts to control our thoughts, as thoughts create emotions. Pray or meditate. Watch less news and more comedy. Be grateful and count your blessings, because they are plentiful.
Take care of yourself and each other. We can’t let this awful disease rob us of our happiness, of our sanity. Our community was struck with a surprise attack but we rallied with determination, character and intelligence. We will conquer this scourge and emerge stronger on the other side.