When Dealing with a Plague, Try Radical Acceptance

Did you ever think you’d be living through a plague? That’s the question I’ve been asking all my patients lately. It may sound basic but there’s a method to my madness. Not only does the question acknowledge our shared experience of weirdness, it also puts Covid-19 into perspective. “Pandemic” sounds a bit too clinical but “plague” provides the proper impact. Plague feels more like a blow to the head which kind of sums up where we are.

That may sound silly, like I’m parsing words when we all know what’s going on, but it’s important for us to understand where we are. And we’ve been underestimating how Covid-19 is affecting us. We’ve been so focused on the number of cases, models of infection, social distancing and (ideally) staying at home that people forget that living through a plague is also about feelings. Sure, we’re aware that the constant drum of information and isolation brings a host of negative outcomes, like depression, conflict, and boredom (just to name a few), but they’re easy to spot. It’s the larger emotions – the ones we’re dancing around – that are really a punch in the gut.

First up is grief. Throughout this whole period, we’ve all lost someone or something. The loss can be enormous, like the death of a loved one or the absence of economic security, or it can be something smaller, like a missed vacation or celebration. All those losses matter and should be worked through. But we also need to recognize that the biggest loss –the one we’re all grieving – is the disruption of our normal lives, the division between The Before and The After.

The Before is when we did things we never even thought about but now seem unattainable (to smart people anyway), like giving older family members a hug, eating in a crowded restaurant, attending a packed concert or shaking hands. The Before is when life was normal. The After is when the world turned upside down, when every person became a possible infection and going to the hospital is something to avoid at all costs. Unless you work there. For frontline healthcare professionals, The After is being traumatized and daily confronting their own mortality and limitations. We’re going to be paying for that for decades. But the most chilling part of The After, the aspect that haunts us the most, is wondering when we’ll be getting The Before back or if we ever will.

Which leads to uncertainty. The human brain doesn’t do so well with uncertainty. It’s why we fear death. It’s why “May you live in changing times” is an ancient Chinese curse. Humans like knowing what to expect and this plague is denying us the privilege. We have no idea what Covid-19 is going to do and whether we’ll be able to find a vaccine. We have to guess what the future is going to look like which means we have no idea how to plan. This not knowing creates a constant state of tension that flavors everything we do.

And then there’s the loss of social connection, something most of us took completely for granted. One of the worst things about this plague is that it’s keeping us from being close to other people. Other plagues, terrible diseases like AIDS and Ebola, at least let you get close to people as long as you’re not sharing blood or bodily fluids. Covid-19 isn’t like that. Just breathing the same air can lead to infection and many people show no signs of being sick. We have no idea who has it and who doesn’t, making everyone, including you, a potential threat. It’s difficult to distrust everyone you see – to refuse to let anyone close no matter how well you know them – because, while nice, good intentions aren’t worth a damn. And that knowledge wears on your psyche.

Humans are social animals; we need connection with others in order to survive and thrive (seriously, there’s tons of research on this). It’s why babies who don’t get held tend to die and why solitary confinement is considered cruel and unusual. We need to not only to be around others but also be touched by them. But this plague, this scourge which has turned out to be epic in scope, is denying us that which is most meaningful and it hurts.

On top of everything else going on in our country, we’re all struggling with grief, anxiety and the absence of critical bonds. No one can feel normal when living through a plague and it shows. We’re all on edge. But there are some silver linings.

For one thing, we can take this time to practice radical acceptance. This involves accepting ourselves, other people and life on life’s terms. Radical acceptance means that while we cannot change the situation, we can minimize our suffering and the first step is recognizing that the situation exists. We’re living through a plague and it affects every single one of us to our core. It sucks. Here are some other actions you can take:

  • Relax: Relaxation is a hallmark of acceptance while tension is associated with resistance. You can’t be tense and relaxed at the same time, so do things to consciously relax your body. Hold your open hands palms-up in your lap, try a gentle half-smile or learn Progressive Muscle Relaxation.
  • Take control: Recognize what you can and can’t control, then focus on what you can. Make your bed in the morning or spend 15 minutes a day cleaning up. Exercise. Limit news and social media intake. Do things you enjoy.
  • Examine expectations: Realize what you expect from yourself and others, then ask if it’s reasonable. Most people are demanding too much of themselves. Keep expectations low, especially when it comes to Covid-19. If you’re wrong and things get better quickly, it’ll be a nice surprise.
  • Meditate: Practice watching your breath which will ground you to the present moment. Learn to let thoughts flow through your head without engaging with them.
  • Be present-focused: Our past is making us sad and our future is making us afraid, so concentrate on the moment and make it the best you can.
  • Choose your attitude: How we think and behave is up to us, not other people. Let your brain decide how you’re going to feel, then inform your heart. We can still believe that life is worth living, even the painful moments.

This plague also has given us an opportunity to see what is and isn’t working for us. Our social safety net is in shreds and it’s never been clearer that we need it in order to function as a community. It’s evident that our hectic lives, rampant capitalism and poor leadership have led us down the wrong path. We’ve been so busy running and fighting each other that we haven’t appreciated that which makes life worth living: our fabulous environment, our communities, and our loved ones. We need to pay more attention to them.

None of us thought we’d be living through a plague. That was for people in olden times or those in far-flung places. But here we are. Yes, it’s terrible and tragic (especially since the scope of it was unnecessary) but not only can we get through it, we can use it to our advantage. There’s no growth without pain. Since the pain is already here, let’s use it to make the necessary changes. In so doing, maybe we can both save ourselves and make life better for us all.

Share Your Thoughts