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Swipe This! How do I stay positive when everyone keeps sending me bad news?

We need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Apr 13, 2020, 6:12 am*

IRL

Nayomi Reghay 

Nayomi Reghay

“Swipe This!” is an advice column about how to navigate human relationships and connections in an age when we depend so heavily on technology. Have a question? Email [email protected]

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Dear Swipe This!

I have been living in New York since January when I came here from Spain. After a couple of months, the coronavirus has changed everything. I am an optimistic person. When this started, I told myself this will be difficult, but it’s OK. Everyone is going to get through this together. But now, I am constantly reading the news and getting messages from my friends and family in Spain telling me how bad the situation is here in New York. Every day feels so stressful, and every conversation feels so negative.

Not that I enjoyed reading the news before, but at least I felt like I was learning something from the world. Now I don’t trust anything I read. I read one thing, then my mom calls me and tells me something new. The other day we were arguing. She didn’t believe what I was telling her, and I didn’t believe what she was telling me. I feel safe in this country, but everyone outside the U.S. is sending me pictures and articles and saying “It’s so crazy in New York, don’t go out.” They’re making me anxious. 

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On social media, I feel like people are talking about it all the time. Everything is the virus, everywhere. Normally if I went to social media, it was to get away from bad news. But now I feel like the news has come to my sacred place. The other day, my friend and I went live on Instagram; she read a poem, and I played a song that I wrote to accompany it on the guitar. We were performing, and all the comments were like, “Oh so how is it in New York? I heard there are so many deaths!”

I wish we weren’t talking about the virus all the time. It’s so important so I’m not saying to ignore it. But I wish there was more positive news. There are a lot of beautiful things happening. This is making people stronger, more united, and more creative. But in the news, we’re just seeing Trump and death. It’s so hard to move people’s attention to something different. The anxiety feels contagious. Even when I try to calm people down, they will continue sharing anxiety and worry until I get anxious, too. Sometimes I just don’t reply. 

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I want to have more positive conversations with the people in my life. They always start with worries and news. “Oh the deaths are going up in New York, how are you doing, what’s the situation there?” And it’s like “No! I don’t want to talk about this!” 

How can I change the conversation? How can I keep hope alive?

Sincerely,

Optimist Trapped in a Pandemic

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Dear Optimist Trapped in a Pandemic,

This is not a great time to be an optimist. There is so much bad news right now. I fear there will be more bad news to come. But that does not mean that we have to live in a constant state of fear or anxiety. We can get through this by nurturing healthy connections with the people we love.

It sounds like you are someone who deeply values bringing cheer and happiness into the lives of others. You wrote music to accompany a friend’s poetry! You are clearly someone who wants to uplift and add beauty to the world. What a beautiful way to be. I hope you will continue to cultivate and nurture this aspect of yourself.

But life cannot be happiness, sunshine, and rainbows all the time. Sometimes, life gets very dark. In those moments, some may look for silver linings and beacons of hope. But many will also need to know that it is safe to feel and express less comfortable feelings, even dark and difficult ones. What we need in a crisis is not always a sunny revision. Sometimes what we need most is simply permission to feel what we feel.

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I’m not saying you should mirror every negative feeling your friends and family express. As you’ve already discovered, anxiety is contagious, and feeding your anxiety and the anxiety of others will get you nowhere fast. What I’m suggesting instead is that before you rush to fix or better things, you take a deep breath. Be present. Be still. Is it OK for others to be upset about the information they are presenting to you? Can it be OK to be confused about what’s true and what isn’t? There is so much uncertainty in our world right now. 

If we really want to be resilient right now, we need to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. So how do we grow that muscle?

We certainly don’t do it by gorging ourselves on news. I understand your impulse to search for answers and information, but as you’ve already found, frantically consuming information will not necessarily make you feel more informed. In fact, it often leads to more questions and more running around looking for answers.

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I would suggest setting up some very clear boundaries for what you consume and how you consume it. Pick one or two reliable news sources, and limit yourself to checking those sources once or twice a day. If this feels too limited, carve out a time of day when checking the news is absolutely off the table. Assign yourself a quiet hour away from screens. Play your guitar. Read a book. Give your brain a break. And for the love of God, please turn off your notifications. 

I would also share your new plan with your family and friends. Be honest with them about how this situation is affecting you. Tell them what you’re doing to stay sane in these very crazy times. If you don’t want them to send you upsetting stories, you can say, “I’m limiting my intake of news right now. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to receive these kinds of messages again.”

Then, let go of the idea that your way of coping needs to be their way of coping. Just as you do not have to jump on board for their anxiety, they are in no way obligated to join you in seeing the beauty or potential in this situation. If they want to be worried or sad or angry, that’s their right. Let them have the experience they have chosen to have.

One of the hardest things about this crisis is that it is forcing us to be apart. As humans, we desperately long for togetherness, especially when faced with a crisis. We want to know that we are not alone. But in this moment of separation, I believe we have an opportunity to get more familiar with ourselves.

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If you really want to change the quality of the conversations you are having with others, I think you will need to start by turning off your screens, turning off all background noise, and spending some time observing the conversations you are having with yourself. If you have a meditation practice, give yourself a few extra minutes every day. If you want to start, there are some apps like Headspace and Calm that can help. If meditating feels like too much, just pick a moment every day to tune in to whatever is going on inside of you.

Notice if you are putting pressure on yourself to feel cheery or optimistic. Notice what happens when you feel worried or upset. Can you have compassion for whatever you are feeling each day? Can you accept grief and discomfort without rushing to gloss it over with joy or false cheer? Can you let yourself just be?

This is not a small task. Zen monks spend years trying to attain this level of peace with the mind. You don’t have to become an enlightened being overnight. Just give yourself a little extra quiet and a few moments of attention and care. 

When you are ready to reconnect with those you love, you can offer yourself these moments, too. If you find a conversation is veering towards stressful territory, instead of arguing or rushing to fix it, tune into yourself. Take a deep breath. Ask yourself what might happen if you just let this moment of discomfort be. 

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Of course, this will pass. And my dirty little secret is that like you, I am a staunch optimist. So I have no doubt that you will emerge from this wiser, stronger, and possibly even happier than before. But for now, we are in it.

Stay home. Stay safe. You’re going to get through this.

CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC

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*First Published: Apr 12, 2020, 6:00 am