…Then what I am afraid of comes. I live for a while in its sight.” (Wendell Berry (This Day: Sabbath Poems, Collected and New, 1979-2013 )
I admit it. The corona virus has me on edge. Since age and heart failure put me in the “greater risk” population, it may be part of the reason I awaken with the shadow of fear or worry close behind me. The thing is, I know fear and anxiety are not good for my heart. It’s a bit ironic, a kind of catch-22, because a diagnosis of heart failure is anxiety producing itself, and it’s progressive, so the undercurrent of unease never quite disappears. And when we’re anxious, it puts extra strain on our hearts, like increasing blood pressure, making us short of breath, and in more serious cases, interfering with the heart’s normal functioning…nothing anyone living with heart failure or other cardiac conditions needs.
In Japanese, “the kanji (Japanese character) for fear, shows a leaking heart, for fear drains our spirit. —Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu, PhD
According to Orly Vardeny, Associate Professor of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, “The corona virus’s main target is the lungs. But that could affect the heart, especially a diseased heart, which has to work harder to get oxygenated blood throughout the body…In general, you can think of it as something that is taxing the system as a whole.” For someone who lives with heart failure, that’s a worry, because my heart doesn’t pump as efficiently as it once did.
Fear, anxiety and worry all take their toll on my emotional and physical well-being. While we are in the midst of this pandemic, I have to consciously work to manage my fearful feelings. I follow all the basic health suggestions: handwashing, sanitizing, staying away from social encounters, diet, exercise and necessary sleep. But still, keeping my fear and worry in check requires a bit more self-discipline. Here are some of the things that have been helping me manage my level of anxiety and worry.
I’m limiting my exposure to the constant “buzz” and barrage of reports on social media and in the daily news. Too much information increases worry, and that can result in panic. It’s important to be in the know, yes, but as psychologists tell us, there’s a point at which information has the unintended effect of increasing your fear.
I take a few breaks during the day to simply be quiet. There’s a feature on my Apple watch that I now use regularly. Every few hours, it prompts me to do a minute of deep breathing. I pause, get quiet, and let the exercise of deep breathing for a few minutes lead me into a short period of meditation, freeing my mind of busy brain or any worrisome thoughts. Simply be quiet, focusing on the here and now is wonderfully calming and relaxing.
There’s a sense of calm in keeping a regular routine, and my morning routine has become even more important to me as a way to quiet any worrisome or fearful thoughts. I’m up early, before my husband awakens, to claim the hour or so of solitude and quiet I crave–and need-for my writing practice. It’s a ritual of sorts, freshly ground and brewed coffee, my open notebook, my pen moving across the page.
I place no requirements on this time, but write freely. Whatever emerges on the page hardly matters—sometimes I vent, other times I write poetry or just write freely, staying open to whatever appears on the page. What matters most is that it is restorative time for me. I watch the sun rise over Lake Ontario on clearer days, or simply notice life on the street below. Sometimes nature offers a special gift, like the two Canadian geese, honking and waddling about on the rooftop next door, momentarily lost from their flock. In those moments, I find gratitude—remembering just how lucky I am in so many ways. And it calms me.
Today I am fortunate
to have woken up
I am alive.
I have a precious human life.
I am not going to waste it…
I am going to …
expand my heart out to others…
(From: “A Precious Human Life,” a prayer by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama)
I’ve found that reaching out to and connecting with family and friends here, in Canada, Japan and the US has also helped to calm my fears. While I have discovered that mindfulness helps me to calm, focus, and reduce stress, so does honoring matters of the heart—connecting with people. As Dr. Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu demonstrates in his book, From Mindfulness to Heartfulness, in worrisome times, our connection to and with one another are even more important to what we call “enlightenment.” “The kanji (Japanese character) for mindfulness consists of two parts,” Dr. Murphy-Shigematsu explains, “the top part meaning “now,” and the bottom part meaning “heart.”
All of us share in this worry over the impact of the corona virus, but the simple act of connection, whether online, by telephone, letters or a note written on a greeting card, serves as a reminder that none of us are alone in our concerns or feelings. As for my health concerns, I’m lucky to be use Medley, the smart phone app that records my weight, blood pressure, heart rate, and symptoms daily, which is monitored by my healthcare team at Toronto General’s Peter Munk Cardiac Center. This too, provides some solace, a sense of being connected to the people who provide my cardiac care.
Music is a big part of my life, especially classical, and is a necessary ingredient in self-care and inspiration. It calms, inspires, and reminds me of the beauty and creative spirit that is part of being human. I’ve also been moved by the inspirational You Tube videos of people in Italy, Spain and Israel, isolated in their apartment buildings because of the impact of the corona virus, playing and singing together from their balconies. Last week, I discovered cellist Yo Yo Ma has released a series of videotapes on Facebook, the first “song of comfort” he offered was Dvořák’s Going Home. Ma explained: “In these days of anxiety, I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort.” Yesterday’s offering was “Sarabande” from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3, which he dedicated to the healthcare workers on the front lines.
So, we all ride it out, taking the necessary precautions, finding ways to stay connected, keeping our fear in check, and weathering this crisis, alone and together. I find I’ve been thinking of my mother, whose admonitions and homespun prescriptions often had my siblings and me giggling behind her back. Yet she’d suffered more than a little hardship in her younger life, and looking back, I realize her many “mantras” was her way of coping and getting through tough times. We were too young to understand it then, but we suffered from pain, illness or even an adolescent broken heart, she repeated one favorite mantra again and again: This too shall pass, she’d say. And yes, so too will this crisis, but for now, my challenge is to do all I can do to remain healthy and not be swept up in panic or fear. And frankly, that requires a little practice every single day.
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
(“The Peace of Wild Things,” by Wendell Berry, in: Selected Poems, 1998)
For the Readers:
What is helping you get through this time? How are you managing your worry or fears? What resources or suggestions can you offer to others? Feel free to comment on this post with some of your suggestions. For now, stay safe; stay well.