First lessons in facing crisis

During my first per-med year in college, I worked 60 hours a week as a firefighter in Port Arthur, Texas. My brain was tattooed with the smell of a burning oil refinery fire—Port Arthur being the second largest oil refinery site in the world. It took fifty fire trucks two days to dampen a potential disaster after a giant oil container exploded killing three men. Spending 12 hours sitting on a firehose 30-yards from a red-hot oil tank left a posttraumatic olfactory memory in my brain.

In those twelve hours, I had a singular intrusive thought: What if?  What if the steel tank gave way? What if a million gallons of burning oil washed over us? What if my life ended at age 19? The raging fire billowed smoke thousands of feet into the air. It could be seen for miles. What if this is my end? The self-centered, intrusive thought of What if? burned in my brain like the raging fire. 

The fear of dying was gradually extinguished by the comradery with 250 fellow firefighters during the long hours of toxic fumes and burning heat. By risking our lives together as a team, my attention was repeatedly refocused to coordinate action with my partner on managing a 2.5-inch diameter hose. Working with other firefighters to cool the blazing oil tank and mitigate disaster helped cool my brain, training me to accept What Is!

COVID STRESS: What IS! against What IF?

Today, we are experiencing a global fire, the COVID-19 pandemic. Our brains are spontaneously hijacked by What if? What if my family dies? What if it can’t be controlled? What if it destroys our economy?

It is time to challenge our brains fear response with Facts. We can extinguish the fears of What if? by thinking with mindful attention to facts, to What is! The fact is that the COVID fire will burn endlessly unless we stop it. We must work together to prevent a disaster. We must become a single army facing a ferocious, unpredictable enemy. Like firefighters, we need to prevent COVID from spreading. We must prevent a disaster that could wipe out millions of people. We have a shared mission—work together and save lives!

We have scientific expertise. We know how to mitigate the spread. We will develop treatments and perhaps a vaccine. We can prevent deaths if we work as a singular army, cooperating with clear guidelines. We can overcome our fears together.

The enemy is not the virus—the enemy is our fear.

When our brains are perpetually triggered by What IF? thinking we generate toxic stress. Our attention is distracted from the present to a catastrophic future. And after weeks of this new reality, stress hormones build up—we suffer with toxic COVID stress. Perpetual what-if thinking can lead to anxiety, panic, and depression. We can feel like hostages.

The antidote to what if thinking is to focus our attention to What IS! Reframing our attention from tomorrow to today is precisely what is needed to face the fear of global death spiraling out of control. By living in the moment, paying attention to our body, regulating our breathing, we can cultivate gratitude for the miracle of life and self-awareness. This mindful reframing to What Is turns off the stress response, activating the relaxation response.  By calming ourselves down and connecting with each other, we can participate in the critical mission of mitigating behaviors. It is in our love of life, our respect for each other, that we can collaborate to meet the challenge of Pandemic.

My first lessons in the sacredness of life were learned as a firefighter. We must face the COVID fire together willing to change our behaviors to protect others. At age 19, I became aware of the meaning of shared efforts to work together for survival. It is our deepest instinct as mammals to calm down, connect with each other, and fight the threat to our existence.

Many among us still live in denial of the morbidity of this pandemic. Minimizing the deadly threat is widespread, even among public leaders. The counter-phobic response of disregarding proven mitigating behaviors or social distancing and masks reveals human self-sabotaging arrogance at its worst.

It takes extra effort to mindfully challenge our selfish urges to survive as individuals or fighting for ourselves. We must surrender to the fact that we are stronger together. Our global connectivity is the critical ingredient to overcoming this pandemic. Our greatest survival instincts inspire us to calm down, connect with each other, and create new solutions for ourselves and our planet.