One Expat's experience amid COVID-18

I keep trying to finish this post. I get to a good place, leave it to post the following day, only to wake up the following morning to a completely different world. The global anxiety is straight up palpable. Generally I don’t consider myself particularly anxious, but as one small member of the large human race collective, I can feel it. It’s like standing next to a large magnet. I don’t see anything, but I can sense the charge in the air around me. I feel my own heart rate thumping a little faster and notice my muscles holding on to more tension than normal.

This is a surreal situation to be in. A situation that many of us have neither experienced nor contemplated experiencing. Some sort of natural disaster or emergency localized to one area, okay, that’s within the realm of understanding. But a pandemic. A threat to the entire world. What is happening??

As a resident in a country that, as I’m writing this, has not yet been affected, has just had their first case, is only just now having multiple confirmed cases, I feel as if I’m watching a massive tidal wave approach. It’s already washed over communities in the distance, and I see it headed straight for us, but in what time frame? With what consequence? Relatively benign? Catastrophic? I watch friends and family across the world reel from the effects this virus has caused. Some are taking it more in stride than others, casually shrugging shoulders as if this was all one big fire drill. Others are posting from their hospital beds, pleading for the rest of the world to take the dire predictions seriously.

Multiple times this past week, I have been in a position of making decisions I don’t feel equipped nor emotionally ready to answer. Mostly, they revolve around the central question of do we stay/do we go. And, at multiple times this week, I have found myself completely paralyzed – mentally and physically. As a therapist, I have training in helping to guide someone towards a decision, and yet when I was in the hot seat, even knowing all the tricks, I couldn’t guide myself anywhere. I felt frozen. Any shift would be a vote for one course of action over another. I can make a pro/con list all I want, but emotions don’t always fit into neat, tidy boxes.

What complicates matters is the self-awareness of my own biases when it comes to risk. I am a chronic minimizer when it comes to danger. Sometimes this comes in handy: I can remain calm in otherwise stressful situations or not feel overwhelmed with fear when I am faced with some sort of threat. But it also means that I might miss or downplay important indicators something is wrong.

So when faced with the decision of deciding whether my family should abruptly back a bag and evacuate our home, my brain short-circuits itself. It tries to weigh the risks on both sides: fewer cases in current country but a more vulnerable health infrastructure to manage the virus when it does hit versus thousands of cases in my home country, long airline travel to get there, but at least the system holistically is in better shape and would be more likely to withstand the strain of the ongoing pandemic.

My gut? It says stay put. This is our home. We have our stuff here. We are comfortable here. We are healthy (right now). I can weather a quarantine much better from this walled compound, with a full pantry stash, complete with space to run around and play for the kids.

But then the doubt creeps in. Are you only leaning that way because of your bias? Are you making a false conclusion about the risk in staying put? Are you downplaying the potential for needing medical care and then not being able to receive it? Is this about you just not wanting to be inconvenienced by a 30hr flight followed by quarantine with two small high-energy kids? Are you choosing convenience over safety?

And then I freeze. Because I can’t answer those questions. But what I can do, is just listen. To use the mindfulness skills I’ve been cultivating to check-in with my whole self for answers my brain can’t quite access. When I do that, I can sense my path. It’s not very loud, just a slight feeling that whispers: stay.

So we’re staying.

I have no idea if it’s the “right” decision or if I will regret the decision in a week from now. But at this point it doesn’t even matter. The decision has been made. Now the focus is figuring out how to make the most of what’s here now.

What decision(s), are you facing and finding yourself getting stuck on?

Why Everyone Tells You to ‘Just Breathe’: And why you should listen

Picture this: you’re getting ready for an international flight. Maybe you’re finally flying home to see family or maybe there’s an important work conference you’ve been tagged to attend. You’re not the best flyer, so you’re already feeling a little anxious about the whole thing. You’ve attempted to prepare as best you can, packing the night before and ensuring that all your essential documents are readily accessible. You call a cab to bring you to the airport, allocating plenty of time to get there, check-in, get through security and even hit the bathroom and grab a snack before needing to board.

The cab miraculously arrives on time and off you go, mentally running through all your check-lists again and again. You feel somewhat relieved in knowing that at this point, you’ve done as much preparation as you can, so now it’s just go-time. That’s when you notice your cab slowing down. You peer out the window to see a field of red brake lights and exhaust pipes. 

What the…?

You pull out your phone. Google maps showed no traffic before you left, but now, to your horror, you watch as it becomes orange, then red. Well shit.

You feel your pulse quicken and your breathing becomes more shallow. Your whole body becomes tense. You suggest to the taxi driver that maybe he could take an alternative route but the car is smackdab in the middle of traffic, and there’s no way he’s moving without all the other cars around him moving first.

Your mind is racing in 1000 different directions. What if we can’t get out of this? What if I miss my flight? What if there aren’t any other flights leaving today? Even if I make the flight, what if my baggage doesn’t? If I can’t get out the next day is my trip ruined? Should I call the airline now and see if I can shift my seat? Should I get out now and try to walk to a different street? Surely it would be faster to walk at this point. Do I cancel the trip? Agh! What do I do?! Why does this always happen to me?!

Want to know what you should do?

It’s fairly straight forward. One of the most common anxiety/stress-relieving suggestions there is.

Ready for it?

Just Breathe.

What? That’s it? That’s Bogus!! That doesn’t fix anything!

You’re right. Breathing doesn’t necessarily fix anything. It won’t magically get rid of traffic and it won’t hold your flight for you. But it will do something I consider fairly magical.

Breathing gives YOU control over which part of your nervous system you want activated. Are you about to face down a lion and need to summon all your body’s resources? Great, then start huffing and puffing. The sympathetic nervous system (aka, fight/flight) is up and running and will direct all energy towards survival.

No lion? Then it’s time to manually take over and get your nervous system to cool its jets. 

Start by focusing on taking long, slow exhales.

Exhaling in general is associated with a slight drop in heart rate, and it brings your parasympathetic nervous system online. Not only will this make you feel calmer and more relaxed, but in this state your brain is taken out of problem-focused tunnel-vision mode and is able to operate more holistically. You can see opportunities instead of just limitations. You’re better able to accept whatever life throws at you, even if that means a missed flight.

Perhaps you see breath work as a bunch of woowoo fluff, and if so, I don’t begrudge you one bit. But the science is there. And for me, there is something validating in knowing that I have some control over how my body is reacting.

Try this at home (or anywhere): Start by breathing normally, whatever that may be for you. Count out your inhale, then attempt to make your exhale a little bit longer. With each breath cycle, try to slow yourself down a little bit more, even pausing at the top and bottom of each breath. 

After doing this for a couple of minutes, what changes do you notice in your body?