I’m getting lots of calls from people I haven’t seen in a while. They’re feeling stirred up.

I’m feeling stirred up too. I’m waking up at night with fear that has no name. I can’t sit still. I feel it in my bones. It’s anxiety.

People talk about not being themselves. They talk about being irritable. They talk about being incredibly uncertain. They’re talking about anxiety.

Even if people aren’t directly complaining about the world in which we live, I promise you it is contributing to epic levels of anxiety.

Causes of Anxiety

  • fears of family/friends/self getting Covid-19
  • anxiety around not knowing when the Covid-19 pandemic will be over
  • uncertainty about the future (anything from vacations to jobs to family visits to income to food and supplies)
  • financial and job insecurity
  • lack of social visits and flexibility
  • reduced freedom in order to prevent Covid-19 spread
  • not being able to see others’ faces and read emotions in public situations (and this carries an incredible mental/emotional punch even if you haven’t noticed it yet)
  • political unrest, divisions, and outright nastiness
  • cultural unrest, racism, hate, and violence
  • forces in the world striving to turn each of us against the other — into enemies
  • news media infested with negativity
  • social media that is skewed and hyper-pitched
  • a complete lack of unified leadership, planning, and vision at the federal level
  • a lack of positivity in any messaging we receive

It is no wonder people are feeling out of sorts and anxious. How else are we supposed to feel?

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Long-term Issues

Although there is plenty to worry about each day, my fears, unfortunately, are long-term. I worry that we, as a society, are becoming way too comfortable with seeing one another as inhuman. Taking it one step further, I feel like we are at high risk of dehumanizing one another as we further disconnect.

Technology — including video classrooms and video meetings and video socials — plays a role. Not being able to read others’ emotions due to masks plays a role. Not socializing plays a role. Not taking time for basic courtesies in public (e.g, saying hello or opening a door) plays a role.

I see people becoming more and more detached, and don’t think for a moment that this isn’t going to have a long-term impact on kids who have not yet had a chance to form the understanding that this isn’t normal.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe we have to employ every tool we have to get through this moment safely. I strongly believe in masks and social distancing. My point in emphasizing the downsides of the prevention “cure” is that we need to proceed thoughtfully. Any time we have pain, it is important to reflect on what we have to learn. Sometimes there is nothing we can do to “fix,” but we can listen and learn. There is always a chance to grow.

One lesson I hope we learn is that this cannot become our new normal. Our anxiety is telling us this. We cannot let the undercurrent of suspicion, distrust, anxiety, mean-spiritedness, and fear become business as usual.

What keeps me up at night is how fear is driving our behavior in wildly erratic ways. When fear is combined with the dehumanization of others, we see people throw temper tantrums in public for being asked to comply with safety policies. We see people physically attack (and sometimes kill) other people with mis-directed rage. We see people attacked on social media with soul-crushing vigor.

My underlying fear is that these times are eroding our human energy to empathize. To have empathy is to attempt to see the world “as if” you were the other person and try to feel what the other person might feel. In other words, you imagine how the other person might feel based on his/her life experiences. Empathy is the ultimate in perspective taking because it is emotion-based. While we can never fully feel what another person feels, we have the ability to try, and that is what we are losing because we are becoming too complacent about forces tearing us apart in our world. We are are not on guard about the cost to human emotion.

And there are huge consequences. When we lose empathy, it makes it all too easy to attack first and commence defending ourselves as being the victim. When we have only our own perspective, we are full of blind spots.

There are overwhelming signs of empathy erosion. We can listen to daily reports of astronomical numbers of people sick and dying and not be moved. We can see images of children being detained in cages and torn from families and not feel heartbroken outrage. We can see those with different beliefs, backgrounds, or experiences as enemies and threats rather than sources of new information.

The United States used to be an interdependent society because we had to be. We looked out for one another, shared resources, and built one another up. For several decades, we have been on a trajectory of rugged individualism — touting self-reliance and individual success. This comes at a high cost. Empathy gets in the way of self-interest.

The problem is that if we are to survive and evolve as a species we need one another. Think about hunter/gatherer times. Each person in a community had a skill and a role. It is interdependence that ensures long-term survival not self-interest and self-reliance.

I fear that when we lose empathy, we begin to see others as non-essential — as expendable. When we see one another as the enemy — perhaps carrying illness or competition for toilet paper and hand sanitizer — we all lose.

What can we do?

I propose we start with self-awareness and self-care. We need to identify and manage our own emotions so that we aren’t reactive — aren’t hanging by a thread ready to explode. We need to challenge our assumptions and self-talk. We need to talk with someone objective about our feelings and get honest feedback — not just what we want to hear. We need to exercise and work off pent up tensions. We need to do whatever we can to self-soothe (meditation/deep breathing/online support groups). Professional counseling helps.

Next, when we feel triggered by an intense emotion, we need to ask ourselves what is it about. If someone else is involved, take up the practice of asking ourselves how the other person might see it. We should practice as much as possible trying to see through others’ eyes. I say practice because it is a practice. It isn’t easy. Vulnerability is involved, but while there is little to be lost, there is so much more to be gained.

Most people have heard of the golden rule. I propose we practice the platinum rule because the golden rule is about us and our own perspective. What if someone doesn’t want to be treated the way we want to be treated? The platinum rule is, “treat others how others wish to be treated.” This requires us to consider how someone else might feel because others are different. When we take the stance of “I don’t see color or difference,” it is not respecting that we are all different. Take a moment to consider how the other person might have a different take/feelings/preference on situations. It is good practice.

Limit exposure to the news and social media to a limited time of day. Talk with your kids about the news and try to present both sides of issues for practice. It isn’t easy. Argue the opposite of your beliefs for a moment for practice. This cultivates an ability to appreciate that issues are complex no matter how much fear would like us to make them black or white. Fear wants us to simplify. Welcome difference even if you don’t agree with it. Understand it.

Learn to listen without arguing, defending, or preparing your counter-statements. It is not possible to practice empathy without radical listening. Listening will lead to some understanding even if it is not what we want to hear.

We need to connect with friends — seeing their faces when we can. I recognize not everyone will have this privilege. Take it when you safely can.

When you go to the store, make a deliberate effort to look people in the eye and smile beneath the mask. Conscientiously extend kindnesses where you are able. Small kindnesses add up. Do not belittle small kindnesses. Practice saying “hello.” We are not robots. Refuse to behave like one. Refuse to become one.

Do good in your community through time and donations. It is a reminder that we are all connected. My success depends on your success and your success depends on another’s success. Despite a belief or tendency toward rugged individualism, we cannot survive as a species without one another. Our differences can serve to turn others into enemies or we can use them to more deeply empathize and understand our drives and motivations.

Part of self-care is letting things go also. Let’s remind ourselves that others may be struggling with concerns and experiences we cannot begin to understand. Be forgiving. There are times I look back and know I was on the wrong side of an issue (in my view). I am glad no one beat me up over it. We are all out there in the same shitshow trying to survive. Don’t make yourself sick over it either. It isn’t worth that.

If you have kids, practice all of this with them. Show them that these aren’t normal times. Leave a legacy of hope and love, kindness and compassion. Without these, we are doomed.

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  • Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt

    Health Psychologist

    Jodie Eckleberry-Hunt, Ph.D., A.B.P.P. is a clinical health psychologist who mashes up mindfulness, cognitive-behavioral strategies, and profanity to teach people get over themselves and achieve what they want. It's a method called MOMF (pronounced momph) or Move on, Motherfucker. You learn to call out your inner motherfucker - the one who is making you feel crazy - and you make a conscious choice to move on or let go. With a healthy dose of straight talk and humor, Jodie cuts right to the core issues to help combat the pain of guilt, anxiety, and co-dependence. Check out my Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages @jeckleberryhunt