In early May, someone began posting flyers in lower Manhattan stating: “Selfish joggers who jog on this block without masks, be warned—we value the lives of our elderly neighbors and will throw stuff on you from our windows!!!”
Eyebrow-raising, perhaps, but not nearly as scandalous as the ones that appeared the week prior, proclaiming: “Dear Joggers, Put on a f*@#ing mask, you do not live alone. Love, East Village.”
There’s a lot to feel angry about these days. Over the past few weeks, we’ve all watched, riveted and yet surreally detached, as schools have closed, offices have turned remote, small businesses have shuttered, and events as massive as the Summer Olympics and as small as our kids’ soccer seasons have fallen like dominoes. This tumultuous new landscape is stressful and frightening for everyone.
“People are feeling a tremendous loss of control,” says New York City psychologist Leah Lagos, Psy.D., author of Heart, Breath, Mind: Train Your Heart to Conquer Your Stress and Achieve Success. “As a result, there’s anger about life being abruptly disrupted and inconvenienced.”
When you have a chronic health condition or compromised immune system, living through an infectious global pandemic adds an extra layer of anxiety. Watching the actions of those who are, shall we say, less-than-stellar about social distancing (Spring breakers, we’re looking at you) or who complain about having to stay home when they themselves are healthy and could, more likely than not, weather a COVID-19 infection…it’s difficult.
But while cursing out heavy-breathing, unmasked power-walkers may feel good in the moment, it may actually work against you in the long run. Unchecked anger can compound already sky-high levels of anxiety, disrupt sleep, compromise the immune system, and exacerbate pre-existing medical conditions.
Rather than let resentment, rage, or fear simmer, there’s an alternative approach—one that can actually ease your stress, build your resilience muscles, and help you emerge from this wild new world healthier and happier: compassion.
Compassion for Others Can Reduce Your Own COVID Stress
Researchers typically define compassion as “the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” Classic examples include giving food to a homeless person, checking in on a friend who’s been in a funk, or donating blood.
But Lagos says the concept of compassion can be slightly reframed in light of current events to represent the act of putting others’ needs above our own, even when that’s not the easy choice. (After all, compassion means “to suffer together” in Latin.)
Consider sheltering-in-place. The notion of halting or altering nearly all normal daily activities, from work to yoga to meeting friends for dinner, solely to help vulnerable strangers is a completely new way of thinking for most of us, she says, “an inversion of our natural psychology, which is to protect ourselves and those we care about deeply,” Lagos says.
But by doing it, as well as by practicing social distancing, we’re showing compassion for our fellow citizens. And that may benefit us just as much as it helps them. Reams of research show that compassion acts as an antidote to stress. Practicing the benevolent emotion reduces pain, speeds healing, and can ease depression and anxiety. A 2020 study in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine associated high levels of compassion with lower blood pressure.
Other research shows that practicing compassion promotes feelings of social connection—particularly important in these times of isolation. “One telling study showed that lack of social connection is a greater detriment to health than obesity, smoking, and high blood pressure,” writes Emma Seppälä, Ph.D., science director at the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. “On the flip side, strong social connection leads to a 50 percent increased chance of longevity.”
Self-Compassion Can Help Us Cope Better, Too
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo called COVID-19 “the great equalizer” when discussing his brother Chris’ diagnosis. He’s right—this virus is blind to race, gender, age, socio-economic level, political leanings, and more. But it’s a wonderful equalizer in another important way: It’s put all of us in the exact same housebound boat, and that can provide tremendous comfort.
“As someone accustomed to meeting face-to-face with clients in an office, working via telepresence initially felt daunting,” Lagos says. “Would my young daughters burst in and interrupt my appointments seeking help with a puzzle or to ask about goldfish crackers?” But she quickly found that her “Just a warning: My four-year-old may come in” preface was met over and over with knowing smiles and “I get it” reassurances. We are all the BBC Dad now: Zoom meetings are constantly interrupted by little ones asking for attention and dogs seeking camera time. By opening up to others and embracing some of the chaos, Lagos says, we have a chance to normalize vulnerability and create shared experiences, both of which lend themselves to stronger bonds and can actually end up enhancing our health.
Consider Another Perspective: Compassion for the Shirkers
But what about showing compassion for the friends you see on Facebook who are getting their kids together for pandemic playdates? Or the person reaching right in front of you at the supermarket to grab a box of pasta, completely ignoring the six-foot rule? Must you show compassion for them, too? Or can you just scream something along the lines of what was written on that East Village flyer?
Compassion wins out, says mindfulness expert Rebecca Scritchfield, creator of the Body Kindness podcast. Scritchfield is a registered dietitian and author who has carved out a focus on helping people love their bodies. Her recent podcasts have covered topics such as exploring how compassion and altruism spur people to help others; coping with COVID-19 anxiety; and showing gratitude to frontline healthcare workers. Schritchfield suggests that rather than let toxic thoughts flood your brain and body (“These morons don’t give a crap and are probably going to give me coronavirus, and then I’ll give it to my 80-year-old mother…”), try to flip things around and consider current events from their perspective. Scritchfield calls the process “making a generous assumption.”
“Maybe the parents are struggling with work or their kids’ lack of social connection and they’re making a calculated choice. Maybe the group of teenagers you see crowded together at the park is missing their prom or graduation, don’t know whether college will happen for them, and are starving for emotional connection.” Do their actions violate the rules? Yes. Are you irritated, resentful, and perhaps a bit jealous? Absolutely. But taking a moment to consider them as human beings can help reground you, moving you away from unhelpful anger and toward a calmer headspace. “Your feelings of anger are valid,” Scritchfield emphasizes, “but extending compassion towards them helps your emotional regulation and wellbeing.”
For the runners whizzing by you, exhaling heavily, consider that they might rely on running as an anxiety balm or, as a recent RunnersWorld.com story pointed out, runners themselves are nervous about passing people on the sidewalk because running on the street could get them hit by a car. For the small business owners re-opening before a time you deem acceptable, consider the economic hit they’ve likely taken.
Remember, this is about showing compassion, not supporting their choices. “At the end of day, we can’t control other people,” Scritchfield says. “That loss of control heightens our fear and frustrates us, because we want everyone to do what we’re doing, what we think is right. Instead, ask yourself, “What can I control?” You can continue to practice impeccable hand hygiene, wear masks in public, practice social distancing…and “radically accept that there are other people doing things you disagree with, but you’re choosing not to let it get to you.”
Practice Loving-Kindness Meditations
Meditation itself is inextricably linked with compassion and empathy, in that practitioners are constantly reminded that if their mind wanders, they should simply guide their attention back to the meditation without judging or berating themselves for losing focus. With practice, that lack of judgement and ability to self-empathize (“Whoops, there I go, thinking of my To Do list while I’m supposed to be OMMMing. Time to get back to the meditation.”) translates to other areas of life, like work, relationships, and even body image.
Scritchfield says a particular branch of meditation, called loving-kindness meditation, may have a place in the current COVID-19 drama. Also called Metta meditation, it focuses on evoking love, compassion, and hope for yourself via a script that has you repeat a series of hopeful wishes: “May I be safe. May I be healthy and strong. May I be free from mental suffering and physical pain. May I be happy.” (Or some variation of those thoughts.)
The benefits of loving-kindness meditation range from general (an increase in positive emotions, including joy, gratitude, and hope) to specific (a reduction in migraine pain and chronic back pain).)
Ready for a challenge? Those same mantras can then be extended to someone you dislike or take issue with, like the hand-holding couple who refuses to move out of the way as you pass them on a narrow nature path.
“Mentally, you’re in the red zone, so it’s really difficult to send them wishes for their wellbeing, comfort, safety, and peace,” acknowledges Scritchfield, who once led a roomful of hundreds of people through a Metta meditation on the eve of the 2017 Women’s March. But doing it can help you release anger and resentment. Try taking a few slow, deep breaths and silently repeating, “May they be safe. May they be healthy and strong. May they be free from mental suffering and physical pain. May they be happy.”
There. We bet you feel better already.