As Passover approaches, it may seem difficult to celebrate deliverance from slavery during this time when so many of us are feeling anything but free. Whether we are in self-quarantine or simply practicing social distancing, it can feel like bondage. However, there is at least one kind of slavery we can control — being slaves to fear and negative thinking.
At this time it is absolutely essential to take precautions, follow protocols, and stay aware of current circumstances. Yet, if we spend too much time watching the news, talking about the situation, researching the latest statistics, and ruminating about what may happen, we may become unable to function. The challenge is to be vigilant and responsible without falling into negativity and depression.
It is possible to avoid becoming a slave to our own fears, but it requires a commitment to self-reflection and deliberate action.
First, it is important to examine the lens through which we view the world. The history of Jewish oppression has created a sense of disease for many of us. Way before the threat of the coronavirus, our people have been on edge, waiting for impending disaster. This mindset is not unreasonable given our history and the recent resurgence of anti-Semitism, and many of us have been brought up to believe that the world is unsafe, and catastrophe is likely at any moment, especially for children of Holocaust survivors.
While this fear may be valid in some cases, it is not empowering. An alternative is to reflect on who and what informs our thinking. It can be useful to ask ourselves, “Is my fear exacerbated by my assumptions about the world? Am I scaring myself? Do I tend to focus on the negative? Do I miss signs of compassion and hope such as the online communities trying to support one another? Is this negative thought consistent with my own experience or is it colored by the views of someone else who had very little hope?”
Once we examine our assumptions, we can take our cues from the field of what’s known as “positive psychology,” founded by psychologist Martin Seligman, which emphasizes the power of shifting to an optimistic outlook. Far from being a Pollyanna approach, research shows that individuals who focus on gratitude, look for signs of hope, and help others usually experience an increased sense of well-being and in many cases are more likely to be welcomed into the lives of others.
It is important to pay attention to our actions so we don’t fall into negative behaviors that undermine our ability to stay positive during stressful times. As a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders, I have seen many individuals who choose to overindulge in food, alcohol, or other self-destructive (or addictive) behaviors in order to push down feelings of anxiety. For emotional eaters, externally imposed isolation is the perfect excuse to overeat or eat unhealthy food. This can lead to a negative spiral of self-loathing and hopelessness.
Even those without a tendency toward self-destructive behaviors must take action to stay in the best possible frame of mind. Though outside opportunities are limited, we can look at what is in our power to control. In other words, how can we best take care of ourselves given our circumstances?
• Consider limiting your exposure to the news. Designate a certain time for news consumption each day — ideally no more than 20 minutes of TV/internet news in the morning and again in the evening, and a maximum of 40 minutes of news in print. Don’t worry about being uninformed — if something big happens, the news will find you.
• While practicing physical distancing, it is essential to maintain healthy social connections through all available channels, including video chats with family, virtual classes, support groups, and synagogue services.
• Think about how to be part of the solution. Is there someone you can help, an elderly relative who could use a phone call or groceries? Ask your synagogue for virtual volunteer opportunities.
• Exercise, even if that’s doing sit-ups in your bedroom, an exercise or yoga video, or dancing to music in your kitchen. It is important to keep those endorphins up.
• Pay attention to right now. If you find your mind wandering and catastrophizing, try to pull yourself back to the present, and focus on the task at hand. One day at a time, or even one hour at a time. For meditation resources, try mindfullivingsummit.com or calm.com.
• Look for virtual entertainment such as zoo, museum, and theme park tours, or broadwayhd.com, a streaming service for theater performances now offering a free one-week trial.
• Start a gratitude list, possibly focusing on gratitude for many of the things taken for granted in the past. Research shows that gratitude is linked to increased well-being and resilience.
This year’s Passover will look quite different from usual. But whether that means small gatherings of our immediate household or virtual seders with extended family, we can still keep the spirit of the holiday in mind. Possibly our work this year is to celebrate the gift of freedom by not enslaving ourselves to our fears, and holding onto a sense of hope.
Joanne Gerr, licensed clinical social worker, is a psychotherapist in Highland Park. Visit ny-njeatingdisordertherapy.com.