Feeling scared and anxious about coronavirus? That’s ok — and a good place to start.

I don’t know who needs to hear this, and if you don’t it may sound terribly insignificant, but here’s the thing: it’s ok to be anxious and scared right now.

My day started off with someone telling me that as a hospital chaplain I should remain “peaceful” and “not anxious.” We were discussing how to balance our own fears and struggles to make difficult personal decisions in the face of COVID-19 with our moral and ethical responsibility to continue providing spiritual care to our patients and families. The intention of the comment was TOTALLY good and caring and actually a helpful reminder in the context of our conversation.

But it reminded me of how uncomfortable our society is with difficult emotions. How our attempts to process and handle emotions often result in them being invalidated and erased. And all the ways we deny, avoid, and distract ourselves from actually feeling them.

I see this in my own life, such as coming to the recent realization that many mantras proliferated on social media don’t actually help us FEEL things where we are at but rather help us GET READY for what’s next. Sayings like “I can do hard things,” “I’m going to be ok,” and “I am strong and bold and beautiful,” sound empowering and they are — if utilized at the right time. Because somatically what they do to our bodies is to clench and tighten our muscles, as if bracing us for impact. Which is great if we need to take action but if we need to feel then we need the opposite. We need our bodies to relax and open so our emotions can run fully through. So I made up an alternative type of mantra trying, “Just feel it…just feel it… just feel it.” It viscerally felt soooo different and was much more helpful at the time. I named these ‘strength mantras’ and ‘surrender mantras’ and have begun being intentional about which to use/recommend because solely utilizing strength mantras can prevent us from fully experiencing our emotions and too quickly rush us towards action, agency, and/or amelioration. Yet it’s no surprise why strength mantras are much more popular.

I also see this in my professional work when it is often only the chaplain who can sit with patients and families in their grief and despair without running away or trying to fix it. It is an absolutely excruciating experience in helplessness to sit on your knees holding a mother collapsed in grief until you look around, see no one else, and realize that just being there is the work. As one bereaved mother once described, “Friends kept their distance. I saw them take great care to avoid me: to cross the street, switch supermarket aisles, literally do an about-face when they saw me coming. They stopped sending invitations. My phone went silent. My friend was marked by a deeper isolation than I’d ever know.” In this way, our discomfort is not neutral. It has valence and can add pain to an already trying situation.

Finally, I see it in our society in the way our calls for civility can sometimes become acts of violence themselves if and when they seek to quiet or critique someone crying out for help. How easy it is to rationalize about why the way someone is communicating their experiences is incorrect, unprofessional, and unacceptable! How easy it is to convince ourselves that if someone doesn’t present in the way we want or prefer that their needs are unimportant and invalid! How easy it is to feel morally righteous! And yet how convenient for us because then we don’t have to do anything. But the truth is that our unwillingness to hear their cries says way more about us than them. It speaks volumes about our own ability or lack thereof to even hear pain and fear in our fellow human beings — let alone do something about it.

And now in the context of COVID-19 where it feels impossible to not underreact or overreact, the urge to invalidate our own and others’ emotions becomes even easier. I know I’ve wondered in the past week if I’m being crazy, needlessly anxious, or giving in to panic and what others might be thinking about me.

So…what now? What do we do in a context where the status quo is to struggle with difficult emotions and we now have an added public health crisis that makes it even easier to feel judged for our emotions?

Well, while my day started with a conversation with a colleague it ended with a conversation with a scared and frightened mother. She wanted to know how to find strength in the days ahead. I listened and then asked if we could reimagine and reenvision what it meant to be strong. I asked for examples from her own life where she considers herself to have been strong. I reflected that while she attributes strength to herself now, she likely was very scared in the situations themselves. She agreed and I told her that there is a critical difference between “being strong” and “feeling strong” and that not experiencing the latter often leads us to believe we aren’t the former. Whereas the truth is that we can be strong and yet feel terrified. I told her this was often the case with veterans I’ve worked with who were seen as brave heroes running into battles but themselves felt very scared. I told her that I think both “strength” and “bravery” are OBSERVATIONS and not FEELINGS. We can only ever witness them in others who themselves are likely feeling doubt/weakness/fear.

So this is what we do. This is where we begin. With letting ourselves feel what we feel. With not invalidating our feelings or those of others. We name them and make space for them.

Believe me- this is radical and as good a first step as I can imagine.

This is what I ended up telling my colleague this morning. I told them that I didn’t see it as my goal to not be anxious and solely be peaceful because it made these feelings mutually exclusive with my own truth. I told them that instead I would treat myself the same way I treat patients and families, seeking not to get rid of challenging emotions but helping feel them and find ways to carry them with grace and self-compassion.

So I am scared. I am anxious. I am fearful. AND I know I can still be a source of comfort, generosity, compassion, and hope to those around me.

And you can, too.

Hospital chaplain, community organizer, writer. Shamelessly laughs at the same jokes over and over and believes there are gateways to holiness everywhere.

Hospital chaplain, community organizer, writer. Shamelessly laughs at the same jokes over and over and believes there are gateways to holiness everywhere.