March 25, 2020
When Esalen faculty Elissa Epel realized that an inventive mix of pragmatism and science were ideal tools for optimal living, she set out on an ambitious path to share that knowledge with others. As president of the Academy of Behavioral Medicine Research and the co-author of the New York Times bestseller, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Longer, Elissa shows us that when we turn to evidence-based tools for living a vibrant life, even in the presence of stress, anxiety or a crisis, we create a greater capacity for vitality.
As we collectively navigate through COVID-19, we reached out to Elissa, who leads Cultivating Vitality in Body, Mind and Spirit: Boosting Mental Health with Natural Methods with Cassandra Vieten, a senior fellow at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, at Esalen May 29–31. She shares additional insights with us here about the difference between anxiety and panic, how to be mindful of media coverage, best practices for those who care for others, and much more.
How do we discern between anxiety and panic?
It is critical to understand the difference between the two so we can strike the right balance. I tell people that anxiety is helpful and panic is damning. Anxiety drives us to mobilize together, stay clearheaded and do what is needed for the common good. But panic is highly contagious and it throws us into irrational and catastrophic thinking. It can drive us toward poor human behaviors that can exacerbate our crisis such as greed, excessive hoarding and stampeding. Panic is highly contagious and infects those around us. Moderate coronavirus anxiety is good. We are doing smart essential things—washing hands, canceling things, staying home, no Disneyland for spring break. Prevention behaviors in turn reduce anxiety further. The stress response is what has kept humans safe and alive throughout history.
What actions can enhance our well-being now?
Keep social distancing but remain socially connected. That’s key. That is one of the most compassionate acts we can do right now if we are not critical workers. It will lead us quicker to the other side of this with fewer lives lost. Critical workers have more challenges. Their work is an act of compassion. They are the heroes of this era. Another thing we can do is be grateful for what we have, especially our more easily accessed safety.
What should we avoid doing now?
Panic. Strong negative emotions are contagious. If we are thinking with our primitive brain, we are probably not thinking rationally through our neocortex—our wise mind. We are not listening well and we are infecting those around us with high anxiety. We’ve probably all done this; had our moments of “oh boy!” But what we do next matters. Grounding ourselves and doing compassionate acts is ideal. By doing so, we make it possible to be on the other side of this and come out with a stronger social fabric. In hard times, our automatic tendency, if left unchecked, is to respond to others with competition, greed, and over-acquire any limited resources. This creates problems for the common good. In psychology, it is called “tragedy of the commons.” Panic buying may reduce anxiety temporarily—“I’m safe, I have 20 bottles of Purell and 10 boxes of masks”—and it gives us something we have control over, but real safety is found in certain safety and distancing behaviors, and supporting each other.
What is considered a normal dose of media coverage?
I could read articles for hours right now because there is so much going on. The worst media is the news and images from the epicenters of the COVID-19 crisis because if you watch too much of that it can have a negative impact on mental health. One of the best things to do is create household rules about when the TV goes on. Make some personal rules and set timers to make sure you don’t overdose.
What actions are beneficial during prolonged uncertainty?
Ask yourself how you can feel grounded in this moment. Get outside and get some fresh air. Give your pet some love. Schedule live or online wellness classes into your calendar and you will more likely show up to them. When you feel more regulated, one good action to take is to send a loving text to someone who may need it.