There’s a stranger at the door.
At every home around the world from Milan to Modesto—as well as from Santa Cruz to Watsonville. It is a cousin to a more familiar presence in our lives, the persistent low-grade angst endemic to contemporary life. But this stranger is exponentially more unsettling and ominous. No one knows the toll it will demand.
That stranger is not so much the COVID-19 virus now threatening the world’s health and economy as it is the dread and anxiety that attends it. Fear of the virus has reached every neighborhood, if not every household, in the world.
How do we take the measure of this frightening new mutation of social anxiety? Most people are already negotiating with the stranger. Denying it, like a Florida spring breaker, is not the responsible option. Facing it, adapting to it, even listening to it is likely to lead to a better outcome for health and peace of mind.
Still, there is an emerging consensus on how to deal with pandemic anxiety that reflects a ritual familiar to anyone who has traveled on a commercial flight. In case of turbulence, when the oxygen masks drop, we’ve been told hundreds of times, secure your mask first. Then help others with theirs.
To survive the crisis will likely require a renewed sense of community and helping others. But it makes sense that to be an effective helper, everyone will need to come to some kind of self-assessment on their mental and emotional health. Spreading panic or denial will help no one and will probably lead to more suffering. Before engaging with the world, at least in an effective and helpful manner, all of us will have to come to an understanding with the stranger at the door.
Be Like Scarlett
First off, advises Santa Cruz physician Dawn Motyka, it’s crucial to understand the distinction between the viral infection itself and the anxiety of avoiding it. Motyka says she has seen patients who are convinced that they have contracted the illness—and that they may be developing pneumonia—because they are experiencing the inability to draw a deep breath.
“This ‘I feel like I can’t get a full breath of air’ thing is a very common symptom of anxiety,” Motyka says. “I tell people to walk up and down the stairs a couple of times. If you can manage it, you don’t have pneumonia. If you have some kind of pulmonary thing, any amount of exertion will just wipe you out.”
Motyka defines anxiety as “a state of persistent heightened physiological arousal.” Anxiety releases adrenaline, the body’s go-to hormone in fight-or-flight situations of immediate threat. The human psyche is equipped to deal with environmental threats, but not so much a constant state of uncertainty and dread. The metaphor Motyka likes is that of a car revving its engine but not necessarily going anywhere.
“Our society is so overstimulating that so many people get trapped with the accelerator slightly pressed at all times,” she says.
Anxiety, she insists, is not solely a psychological state—it has physiological dimensions in the body. “It’s a physiological state that can be generated by a thought, and often is,” she says. “But it can also be generated by a pattern of physical stimulation in the environment, like a cellphone alert going off all the time.”
Especially in an environment where “shelter in place” and “social distancing” have become the new normal, managing anxiety is always a question of balance. Your body, as well as your mind, needs down time—diversions such as reading, listening to music, or gardening.
“I always think of Gone With the Wind,” Motyka says. “Scarlett O’Hara says, ‘I just can’t think about this right now. I’ll think about it tomorrow.’ That’s good advice sometimes. Budget the amount of time you spend catastrophizing.”
Leigh Anne Jasheway is a wellness and stress-management expert, and a stand-up comedian. Jasheway has published more than two dozen books, and has keynoted events across the country with the message that a healthy sense of humor is one of the keys to a sane and balanced life. While emphasizing that there is nothing inherently funny about COVID-19, Jasheway says cultivating humor is a valuable coping mechanism.
“The reason we have a sense of humor is for arousal relief,” she says, “which is the release of negative emotional states, as well as for social bonding. Rather than saying just change your attitude—there’s a little bit of privilege in that kind of language—it’s more like changing the prism through which you look at things.”
Finding the self in others
Spirituality is another realm that has lessons of facing dread and intense fears and their effects on mental health. Much of what Buddhist meditation has taught, for example, has now been embraced in the medical world, most prominently, the benefits of focusing on breathing as a means of managing stress and anxiety.
Catherine Toldi is a Zen priest and teacher at the Santa Cruz Zen Center. One of her students—a single parent working multiple jobs and living with stress pre-pandemic—told her recently about the meditation practice she’s been teaching, “This is exactly what we’ve been practicing for all these years. Here it is, the ultimate practice conversation. In a way, it’s almost a relief to face a real fear instead of the fears that I make up in my head.”
Zen practice, Toldi says, is a way to take a step to the side to watch how the brain works. “If you’re a person who, over the years, has painstakingly been looking at your mind, you can take that step back and say, ‘Hmm, how do I want to think about this right now?’ Rather than just being like a fish on a hook that immediately goes wherever your mind is telling you to go. We’re not under the illusion that we’re in control of this thing going on. But ultimately, we are the ones who choose what radio station we’re going to listen to in our brain.”
Toldi also points to the Zen paradox that working on one’s self is the same as loving others. Meditation, she says, is “not about my awakening—this is not about me going off on some mountaintop somewhere. It’s about you. What do you need?”
Needs of the Many
The evolution of the pandemic might mean that once people are more secure or certain in their own situation, then they might focus on another impulse: to care for the community.
In Santa Cruz County, there are enormous and immediate needs in the nonprofit sector. Many nonprofits, whether they are arts-oriented or health and human services, typically hold their annual fundraisers in the spring. This year, those events have uniformly been cancelled, abruptly cutting off lifeblood financing.
“You really have this triple whammy,” says Karen Delaney, the executive director of the Santa Cruz Volunteer Center. “Everybody has had to cancel their fundraisers while trying to cope with both elevated risk and elevated need.”
Suzanne Willis of Second Harvest Food Bank says her organization is receiving about 10 times the call volume for their services from a year ago, at the same time that many of their volunteers are retirees and in the demographic most vulnerable to the virus.
Second Harvest is converting many of their farmers-market distribution points to a more grab-and-go style, which means an even greater demand for volunteers to bag food for pickup.
“The most important thing to hear in Santa Cruz County,” says Willis, “is that the food bank is here, and we have food. We have a pipeline coming in and we’re not going to run out.”
But Second Harvest needs volunteers to work in either of two shifts daily, working mild physical labor in a warehouse with safety protocols in place.
The situation is similar at Grey Bears, which delivers food to seniors and other clients at 150 sites around the county. Gov. Gavin Newsom’s stay-at-home orders last week reduced the number of 65-and-over volunteers able to work at Grey Bears.
“We’re all kind of moving through this blindfolded,” says Tim Brattan of Grey Bears, who calculates that they’ve lost about half of their volunteer force. “(Those who) are receiving our services, I would urge them to stick with us. We’re committed to this. We’re going to keep providing this essential service.”
Most nonprofits are in critical need of both volunteer energy and financial donations. Susan True, the CEO of the Community Foundation Santa Cruz County, says donors are beginning to step up.
“We’re seeing an incredible desire to act,” says True, who has established a quick response fund at the foundation. Donors to the fund include many of the dependable names the foundation has depended on in the past, as well as many new people looking to give. The nature of the philanthropy suggests that people are only beginning to focus on the community.
“When you think about the  wildfires in Sonoma County, most of the donations in that situation came within the first week,” says True. “But this is a really different situation where the effects are multiplying so quickly that we anticipate people understanding the depth of crisis much later, when they actually see it. We don’t have that visibility yet.”
The Volunteer Center is gearing up for a bigger push for raising funds for local nonprofits by re-imagining their annual Human Race fundraiser. The race, now in its 40th year, has historically brought together the county’s nonprofits for a May walkathon. This year’s event has been converted to an online fundraising effort.
“There’s probably not going to be an actual walkathon on May 9,” says Delaney, “though we hope there will be some sort of celebration, depending on what happens.”
Instead, the Human Race is now a six-week GoFundMe-style fund-raising campaign, which kicks off this week, to fill the hole created by the cancellation of the various spring fundraisers around the county.
“Not every nonprofit knows how to do online fundraising,” Delaney says. “But the way the web-based Human Race (humanracesc.org) will go is that any person can pick their favorite charity, create their own fundraising page and raise money for the causes they care about.”
Charitable donation is often a function of habit. But this year, Delaney says, a new kind of thinking and new kind of action is required.
“It’s not an event,” she says. “It’s a campaign. In the past, we’ve asked people to gather some money from friends, show up at the race, and walk. Now we’re asking people, as you’re sheltering in place, to connect the way you’re connecting otherwise, online or over the phone, and spend a little time stepping up for the community.”
Still, she says the Human Race will commit to one sign of normal times: “There will still be T-shirts.”
THE HUMAN RACE
The Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County’s Human Race will be fundraising online March 25-May 9. Go to humanracesc.org to donate or begin fundraising for your favorite cause.
For continuing in-depth coverage of the new coronavirus and its effects locally, visit goodtimes.sc/category/santa-cruz-news/coronavirus.
To learn about action you can take now, whether you’re seeking assistance or want to find ways of supporting the community, visit goodtimes.sc/santa-cruz-coronavirus-resources.