Your Thoughts and Coronavirus

In a Native American mythological story, a 13-year-old boy is getting ready to embark on an important journey called a vision quest. A vision quest is both a test and a rite of passage, in which the boy must demonstrate that he is ready to be inducted as a man into the tribe. He will take this journey alone and bring with him few weapons and supply. If he survives this test, he is inducted as man. Understandably, the boy feels a mix of emotions as he gets ready to leave, so he requests a meeting with the chief. The boy tells the chief:

“It is as if there are two wolves inside my head. One wolf tells me that I am not ready and will not return alive. The wolf shows me clear images of devils and monsters that I will never be able to win in a fight. At other times, another wolf tells me that I am ready, that I am brave, and that I will have the strength and the courage to fight whatever comes in my way. When this wolf speaks, I see myself with the courage of a man. I would like to know – which wolf will win?” The chief looks the boy in the eye and says, “whichever one you feed, will win.”

I am reminded of this story now more than ever, in the midst of the Coronavirus fast spread across the world. I notice the evil wolf inside my head, with thoughts of death, lack of supplies, and a long list of other unfortunate events, into a kinder picture, one in which I feel a deeper capacity to stay here, right now, with what is real. When I feed my darker thoughts, what follows is a chain reaction. It feels like I am paralyzed, quite literally stuck to my chair, and my capacity to take action and make good decisions is out of reach. I see the swirling negative thoughts rolling in my head like a broken record that you just simply cannot stop. If this happens before I go to sleep, or in the middle of the night, I cannot bring myself to rest. My heart races faster, and I feel panic. 

This chain reaction is the body’s natural response to threat. It is the fight-or-flight state that takes charge when we are in danger. Today we know through neuroscience that emotional, psychological, and social threats have the same and at times even greater physiological impact as a physical threat, such as a lion chasing us! Therefore, when I choose to feed the evil wolf in my head, I am creating an actual physiological experience of threat in my body. Under a threat state we have greatly reduced capacity to collaborate, innovate, and take positive action. The deeper we go into the darkness of our thoughts, the more frozen and stuck we become. 

I call this the imaginative fear because it involves me creating pictures of a future that hasn’t happened yet. But just like the mind can create these darker scenarios, it has an equal capacity to create a more positive future. (Just a side note that – while I am a yogi and love positivity, this is not about that). The intent is not to ignore or sugarcoat reality. The point is to switch what we expect will happen such that we can take the necessary positive actions, right now.

Only when we remain attentive to reality, while mentally creating a picture of success (or positive outcome) can we replace this highly emotional fight or flight state. Achieving that, means that we now have greater access to activate our rational / logical mind, with greater chances of finding useful and positive solutions to our challenges. 

So, how do we feed the kinder wolf?

First, we need to stop the cycle of the thoughts that are causing a state of threat, and we do that by TAKING A DEEP BREATH. Yes! Of all the tools we have to calm ourselves down, nothing beats the power of the breath. When we hold our breath, we create and reinforce the threat state. Try it out. See what happens when you hold your breath for a while. Your heart starts racing and your body goes into a mild panic state. Now, let that go and take a DEEP BREATH. 

Next, try matching the counts of inhale and exhale. Use a count of five to start – count to five in your head as you inhale, and count to five in your head as you exhale. In the military, in times of distress, they use a similar breathing technique, which they call ‘square breathing’. In square breathing you match inhales and exhales and you add a pause at the top of the inhale and at the bottom of the exhale:

  • Count to five as you inhale
  • Hold for five
  • Count to five as you exhale
  • Hold for five
  • Start again.

Once the body has come back to a state of calmness, you can flip the light on, as one of my mentors would say, and switch the thoughts in your head. As you go down the imaginative lane choose positive outcomes instead of worst-case scenarios. From that state, come back to the now and choose three positive actions you will take today to take care of yourself, your loved ones, and business. 

For example:

  1. Boost yours and your family’s immune system: avoiding cross contamination by direct or indirect contact is our first, and most important line of defense. The second, is building a strong immune system. Food choices, sleep, and movement are some of these choices you can make.
  2. Reinvent your family routine: with school and work closures we will all need to figure out new ways of working these coming weeks. It can be an opportunity for the family to come together and create a new plan. Try a version of this plan, and then re-adjust. Be less strict about the boundaries in these first few days. ALL of us are dealing with this situation together, so if your 4-year old walks into a video conference meeting, rest assured that anyone who is on Planet Earth right now is aware of your situation and will send you a compassionate smile of understanding. We get to do the same for others as well.
  3. Form a home tribe: consider forming a neighborhood group to help and support one another. Forming these connections is key to reduce the overall feeling of isolation we are bound to experience these next few weeks.

Be kind to yourself. These are indeed very difficult times, and we are experiencing an overwhelming amount of uncertainty and change. Find ways to be with yourself, present to all the emotions that are true to you, now. The more you allow these emotions to pass through you, the greater your chances of finding ways to cope.