The optimal emotional response to the coronavirus

April 3, 2020 | Tags:

Humans currently lack immunity to the novel Coronavirus, which is why we are investing a lot of energy in keeping it out of our bodies. The question I ask, is how much are we doing toward nurturing our immune system should the virus actually infect us?

Since I teach the science of living, particularly in the art of emotional optimization, clients and acquaintances have asked me, “What is the optimal emotional response to the crisis we’re facing?”

In reality, complex crises do not have simple solutions. I would therefore like to offer some direction of thought, perceptions and practices—facets of which can shape a multidimensional approach.

To start addressing the complexity let us divide the challenge into two areas. How do we contend with the space outside of us, and how do we manage the space within us?

Contending with the outside physical, social, economic space, the places we go, the places we avoid, is important. Managing the internal space within each of us is equally important. The virus crosses the boundary between the outer space and the inner space. Both require careful consideration.

How to protect the outer space I leave to virologists, experts, governors of states. However, within our inner space, every person is their own expert, their own governor. While the outer space is something we share with others, the space within us is the domain which each of us is responsible to guide and govern, virus or not.

How do we access and assess that inner space—the internal ecosystem, the world within? What is the optimal way to achieve “homeland security” in our internal country?

Since I’ve been asked, I will share with you how I go about it.

First, I choose to sit down, take a deep breath, and sit still for a while. I shift my attention away from the outside, drawing it inward, to what happens within my skin. The world within is not a world I see with my eyes; I perceive it with my senses. Unless I sit still and wonder what’s occurs within, I cannot start governing my inner space.

And what may I find when I draw my attention inward?

Initially, I might discover thoughts about the crisis, uneasy sensations in my stomach, tightness in my chest, restlessness of arms and legs. I am likely to experience impulses that move me to take action, sometime conflicting actions, leaving me unsure about which one to follow. There’s a lot of busyness in my mind involving thoughts about how to control the space outside of me. Where should I go, where should I not go? Will food be available? How do I regain control over my life during isolation? In all of that, my inner space is trying to control the outer space, particularly, how to bar entry of any virus into my body.

This is a common initial response. When something could harm us, we seek to prevent it. Escape. Take action. Fix it. Mobilize a lot of energy to run from the danger. Seems like speeding up is the optimal response, doesn’t it? Quick, fast action, if a bit stressed, appears to be the way to prevent illness.
Yet we hope that heads of states, medical experts and economist responsible for governing the outer space, remain stress-free and impart calm decisions. But in me, I find there is stress. Is this helpful? Is stress optimal? Does speed and power eliminate the virus? Can it help me generate wiser, better decisions?

If, as a first response, the stress and restlessness inside makes me feel powerful, ready to act, and take control of the outer space, I soon realize its limitations. This survival reflex fails to consider how to protect the inner space should the virus invade. What would happen if the virus, in the end, crosses the boundary and takes up space in me?

The energy that produces racing thoughts, and an urgency to act fast is governed by the sympathetic nervous system—one strand of the autonomic nervous system. It does not, however, support healing, or give me access to wisdom, or the chance to contemplate a range of approaches in dealing with this complexity.

The sympathetic nervous system supports a stress response and a survival reflex to protect me from imminent existential threat that can be avoided through fast and powerful movement. For that there is no time to think, no time to heal, or digest, or breath. There is only the powerful drive to act really quickly. This is the strength of the sympathetic nervous system. To do its job well, it activates a fight-and-flight response and suppresses any physical activity that could slow me down, including that of the immune system.

Illness heals in time. Building immunity is a healthy, natural part of life. It’s not a quick fix, but happens gradually. Strengthening and preparing the immune system offers the best chance to deal with the virus if it does penetrate into my inner space.

Acting with speed and power to avoid getting infected by germs and viruses actually endangers my inner space and weakens its resources. Ironically, in that state viruses that do infect me have the greatest chance to conquer the inner space, leaving me ill-equipped to cope with its effects. The very mobilization of stress energy with its promise of survival, is in itself a threat.

What is the optimal emotional response to the crisis we’re facing?

Taking the necessary precautions to move away from threat, while also moving towards building and strengthening the immune system. How do we achieve such a twofold complex approach? By shifting the internal governance from the sympathetic nervous system to the ventral part of the parasympathetic nervous system.

When the most evolved part of our nervous system governs our inner space, we can slow down, reach a state of rest, and bolster the immune system’s highest level of functioning. Even at home, in isolation our calmness can activate the ventral parasympathetic nervous system and boost the immune system in others, too.

In tandem, a calm and restful state activates a wiser neurological system of the mind with access to a broader perspective, short and long-term effects, empathy, connection, and mutual support. With increased wisdom, we can manage our immediate outer space in an efficient and thoughtful way. We can find inner guidance on how to protect our families and communities, incorporate decisions of policy makers, and address personal and financial implications caused by this pandemic.

Slowing down, not speeding up, is the optimal emotional response.