| Family Reflections |

Stressful Times

Strengthening our emotional well-being is an important step in preventing infection

 

We’re living in stressful times. While our leaders are guiding us spiritually, pointing us toward emunah and teshuvah, we’re also taking steps in the physical realm. We wash our hands and stay home to try prevent the spread of the illness. As part of this physical effort, we need to do everything we can to keep our immunity strong. Eating well, exercising, and getting sufficient sleep are foundational activities that help our bodies fight off disease. But there’s something equally  — probably even more  — important: our ability to manage stress. While it’s Hashem who ultimately determines each person’s lifespan, we’re responsible for looking after the body that houses our soul. Strengthening our emotional wellbeing is a primary way of doing that.

Sources of Stress
In order to better manage our stress, let’s examine it more closely. What exactly is stressing us out right now? It’s not only the fear of death; we know many will survive. But not knowing who will get the virus, when they will get it, or how badly they will get it, creates tremendous stress. Not knowing when all of this will end, or when  — or if  — life will return to normal is stressful. Not knowing how the world will look economically and physically when it’s all over, is intensely disturbing. Uncertainty creates stress. To reduce the impact of the disease, society is shutting down its institutions: schools and yeshivos, businesses, public arenas, libraries, and all the rest are closing doors. Each closing presents different levels of stress, but the disruption of normal life is, in itself, one of the biggest levels of stress. Change creates stress. Because of the need to distance ourselves from each other, and the need for some of us to enter quarantine, mobility is reduced. We’re stuck at home, either alone, or with too many people, or with people who are difficult to be around. Feeling trapped creates stress. We also have so much to do (trying to work at home while supervising our children while preparing for Pesach) with so little support and structure. Increased family conflict wears us down. Feelings of helplessness and exhaustion tax our ability to cope. We’re overwhelmed, overstimulated, and bored all at the same time. Chaos and overwhelm create stress. How can we reduce that stress and, even more importantly, boost our immunity?

Transforming Stress
Outside factors, fortunately for us, don’t cause stress. What they do is provoke a reaction. If we react to the coronavirus with fear, we’ll become stressed. In our fearful state, “uncertainty” becomes a dark and terrifying future, an internal movie of loss, famine, death, and destruction. In our fearful state, “change” becomes a deterioration of everything we’ve known and loved. In our fearful state, having our movements and our social life constricted becomes an endless form of torture. And in our fearful state, chaos and overwhelm destabilize us, threatening to push us beyond the limits of sanity and safety. All of this is due only to our fear. The key to transforming stress is to transform fear.

From Fear to Joy
What our bodies need most from us right now are positive emotions, particularly love and appreciation. Feelings like these strengthen the vagus nerve, the part of us that links the brain to our vital organs (heart, lungs, stomach, and so on), reduces the stress response and prevents disease-enhancing inflammation. When we put our attention on what inspires us, pleases us, fulfills us, and otherwise warms our hearts, the vagus nerve is empowered. Worry and stress, on the other hand, interfere with its healthy functioning, reducing our immunity and making us vulnerable to the pathogens around us. It’s not enough “not to worry.” We need to enjoy ourselves and experience happiness! This means that when we notice our minds wandering to scary places, we literally force ourselves in that very moment to thank Hashem for everything in sight. We need to be busy now with creative endeavors, with interesting activities, with family bonding, and with every other good thing. Although we need to wash our hands more often and keep a social distance, there’s no obligation to be sad or frightened. We’re stronger than our thought habits. If we want joy, we can have it by practicing the thoughts, images, and actions that will promote it. The more we practice, the easier and more “natural” it becomes

(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 686)

 

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