Crisis: Danger & Opportunity

Posted on March 22, 2020

chinese symbol

This blog post is submitted anonymously. The author is a psychologist who works in local government.  ELGL publishes anonymous posts when asked, because we know our members have stories to share but not always the opportunity to share them.

Did you know that the Chinese word for crisis can be translated as both danger and opportunity?

If you are looking for a psychologist amidst this chaos or a fellow public servant who is going to help you feel less anxious, then I’m not the psychologist or colleague for you. 

Today, I was the last person to arrive at work, with everyone here going about business as usual, having already expressed surprise at my level of concern about the global pandemic.

I arrived wearing a mask and gloves to an office where business was being conducted as usual. Me, a mental health professional, my mind reeling with thoughts like, “They’re going to think I’m crazy,” and “Maybe I am crazy, maybe this is unnecessary,” and “I hope they don’t fire me.” 

And then I thought (because I have a renewed obsession with Brene Brown right now), *this* is what vulnerability and courage look like. Me in a mask and gloves, with a grocery bag containing Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer at my side, because I believe it is my moral duty to do what I can to flatten the curve. If they’re gonna make me come in, then I’m gonna come in armed against this virus. 

So far, no one has talked to me. 

Like many of you, I have had a difficult time staying off social media lately. I find myself glued to the screen, reading article after article that has anything to do with COVID-19. Does it fuel my anxiety? You bet it does. So why do I do it? 

Most of what we do as humans is about pushing away negative experiences, and for me, feeling out of control is very aversive and anxiety-provoking. So, by reading article after article, I give myself the illusion of control over the situation. My problem-solving mind is engaged, and even though it may not be solving any problems, the panic center of my brain is dampened while my frontal lobes take over.

Admittedly, I would be better off spending less time scrolling through Facebook (I’m a Gen Xer so forgive me for not being on Twitter or Instagram) and more time in contact with the present moment.

I will go home today, to my spouse and my dogs that I love, where we have plenty of food and toilet paper for now. I have books to read, puzzles to solve, and subscriptions to Netflix and Amazon Prime. Nothing in my immediate present will be threatening. Ideally, I would spend all my time in that present, savoring the sweet moments with family – of both the two-legged and four-legged variety – and dedicating time to creative pursuits like writing or painting. 

But I am only human, and I can only contact the present moment for so long before my mind starts to worry and catastrophize. And each time it does, maybe thousands of times per day, I recommit to being present. 

My sister sent me a picture today of some anxiety management guidelines posted by the Center for Optimal Brain Investigation. At first glance, the guidelines seemed harmless enough, something that’s not always the case in my opinion (more on that shortly). But then, at the bottom, I noticed the sentence, “Think before you post or speak – will this create calm or chaos?”

That really got my mind going. 

A good friend of mine was posting articles about COVID-19 all week last week, and I initially thought she was over-reacting. As time passed, however, I began to absorb the science-based facts, which are that this virus is both more contagious AND more lethal than any we have seen in at least 100 years, and that countries and communities who enact strict containment measures see lower mortality rates.

Mathematics tells us that if we don’t act now (or rather, a week or two ago), our healthcare system will be overwhelmed, and doctors will have to make choices about who gets care and who doesn’t, who lives and who dies, based on insufficient resources to handle a pandemic of these proportions. 

Because of my friend’s posts, I prepared myself. I stocked up on food. I didn’t hoard, I just made sure we had enough for at least two weeks. I stocked up on dog food as well and refilled all of mine and my pet’s medications. 

Her posts did not create calm. They created anxiety. 

So now, I am posting things that I hope will create anxiety. 

You might ask, “What about calm? Isn’t calm important?”

My answer is, does it have to be either-or? 

In the face of COVID-19, it’s not about choosing either calm OR chaos, calm OR anxiety. It’s about cultivating calm in the presence of chaos. It’s a both-and situation.

I believe that we need a little chaos, a little anxiety, especially right now. We need to be shaken up, particularly those of us who still have not accepted the gravity of the current global pandemic and the implications of not doing our part to slow down the spread of this virus. We need to remember that anxiety and fear are gifts. 

As human beings, we are not scientifically programmed to always be happy. We are scientifically programmed to do whatever it takes to live another day, and fear and anxiety can help us do that. What happens to folks who don’t fear rattlesnakes? They are more likely to get bitten. Fear in the face of COVID-19 is our ally. Why would we want to make it go away? Fear will motivate the actions necessary to protect ourselves and our fellow humans. 

So yeah, I want people to be afraid. 

Lest you think I am too extreme, I should admit here that I’ve lived with anxiety for a very long time. My mind often tells me that it (anxiety) sucks, and there are many times when I’m not willing to experience it, and when that unwillingness does get in the way of me living my best life.

When that happens, I take note and re-commit, over and over. I’ve done it thousands of times. So, when people say, “Anxiety sucks,” I get it. I get the power of avoidance and denial. It makes us feel better in the short-term, but it has long-term costs. We need only look at the state of affairs in Europe right now to show us what those long-term costs might be in this situation. I hope it’s not too late. 

I will close with this.

I am reminded that the Chinese word for crisis can be translated as both danger and opportunity. May we open our eyes to both. 

Close window