For the healthy, safe and secure, the coronavirus shutdown is also an opportunity to let go

I study the cost of being Always On to mental and physical health, including the immune system. Here's what I know

Published April 4, 2020 7:30PM (EDT)

A man and a woman go for a walk with their two Border Collies (Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/Getty Images)
A man and a woman go for a walk with their two Border Collies (Mohssen Assanimoghaddam/Getty Images)

We woke to thick raindrops in San Francisco on the first day of our semi-quarantine. Before my wife and kids got up, I sat in a chair looking out the window and petted a purring Pickles. I thought about a stark reality that might have dawned on you already about the novel Coronavirus of 2020.

Opportunity of a lifetime.

With the humblest recognition for all the suffering, the dying and desperation, I offer for the rest of us in relative safety the idea that we have the rarest chance to live in and with silence. With ourselves and our families.

On this society-wide Sabbath, a string of dark-lined Christmas Days with empty streets and tabled gatherings, we have permission to exhale, if we take it. That is no small ask.

Over the last decade for the New York Times and in books, I've studied the cost of being Always On to our mental health and physical well-being, including the immune system. I've studied the lure too of constant stimulation. It is powerful.

Modern times stoke with honed precision our primitive impulses to be on guard, respond to external stimulation, course with adrenaline. The daily commute, pack the lunch, hurry, a call from the boss — are you coming in today? — the latest poll numbers read on the train or heard on MSNBC or Fox, no time for exercise today, a call from school about a failed test or a bumped head, and then who the heck was supposed to make dinner?

On top of all of it, the call of the smartphone. No one on the other end, just you, playing Words With Friends, filling momentary vacancies with texts, lapsing into slack-jawed surfing. Why? Because it feels good, and because it helps you ignore the other pressures, the fact you've not accepted what you cannot change or changed what you can, and because the whole darn business model of the 21st  century is capturing your attention.  

Time to take it back. Right now. Don't finish this column if you don't want. I'd rather you do you. But if you want to go on, I'll give you some science, a few anecdotes, starting with the conversation I overheard that Saturday morning after the family rose.

"I need to get my dance bag together," my eight-year-old daughter said to my wife. 

Not today, my wife told her. "It's a different kind of Saturday."

* * *

Stanford and Yale scholar Emma Seppala works with veterans who have killed, who have scooped the organs of dead and wounded friends, and some who have used terrible techniques during interrogation. She teaches the vets to breathe with deliberation, a version of meditation I won't belabor. It's the rationale and outcome I want to communicate.

When a vet with this kind of severe PTSD hears a door slam, he or she might dive under the table. The present becomes filled with triggers to horror. The soldier lives in a perpetual state of fight-or-flight, coursing with the hormones that drive our ability to survive in times of acute threat — even though there is no actual threat.

Dr. Seppala (and others doing similar work) has figured out that breathing can help turn off the physical response that has become associated with the memory. So when the door slams, or a car alarm sounds, the PTSD-plagued soldier gets a moment of clarity to decide: Is this really something to react to? The answer, most of the time, is no, and so the soldier need not go into fight-or-flight.

In medical jargon it's called the Sympathetic Response. It sends blood pressure up, heightens awareness, puts your body into a state of emergency. It also dampens the immune system's response to disease. Why would that be? Because if you're going to get eaten by a lion, the head cold doesn't matter, not in the moment.

Trouble is, in modern life, our body reacts far too often as if there is a lion that ain't.

"In our day and age, we're running on adrenaline, running on fight-or-flight," Dr. Seppala told me. "It comes through every facet of your life, the constant stimulation of every electronic source, ambition, the financial pressure."

People embrace a life of high caffeine, of over-scheduling, of waiting until the last minute to get things done. You're supposed to be in fight-or-flight when you're in a life-threatening situation. The whole body mobilizes. It takes so much toll on your body. We volitionally pump it up and think it's the only way to function.

Right now, add in Pre-T-S-D. What might happen? Will I get sick? What will happen to my job? My parents, grandparents?

From the breathing and the vets, you have a new tool. Breathe and disentangle the memories and fears of the future from the physical response. React less to the external stimulation that would have you dive beneath the chair. See it for what it is — a threat — but you are sitting in the chair while the rain falls outside and your family, for the moment, is safe. 

* * *

The day before it rained, at a lunch break, I stood across the court from a tennis partner. He has a newborn and a boy he and his wife kept out of school even before they closed the doors. He is a professional investor, the plummeting market his watchword. Just before we started to play, he said, "I feel such gratitude."

"I have a job," he continued. "I love my family so much."

Amen, I said. Where did that come from — just now?

"I used to have the worst sciatica," he said. "About 18 years ago, couldn't sit at my desk, couldn't do anything. I read a book by a back doctor and realized it was about stress. I was at a startup, dot com bust, and I figured last in, first out. I'd screwed up in high school and thought I'd never get a job after that, or get into college."

"I had to learn to let go."

Can others learn that? Can they learn, I asked him, to feel gratitude in the face of crisis?

He was skeptical; I think, he said, they have to first hit rock bottom. I know whereof he speaks. I once collapsed emotionally, and I learned to meditate and to accept the fear that comes and goes in an uncertain life. It's not that I don't experience the fear, but I tell you from experience that the power to not let it take a physical toll on me is as good as a superpower.   

It leads to more sleep, which also protects the body from infection. More sleep, less stress. More gratitude, less stress. Less stress, less infection. Take this moment when you're not commuting and blessed to be inside with your family, maybe with rain outside, and breathe and fight two infections at once: the novel coronavirus, which preys on a weakened immune system, and the infection of modern life that chips away at the soul.

* * *

My wife and I walked our dog, Uncle Mort, down a desolate street. A neighbor poked her head out the window. What if, she asked, our kids got together and knocked on the door of elderly residents in the neighborhood and offered them any help they might need? A trip to the grocery store? Or the pharmacy?

We walked on and I bubbled with the idea.

"Why do you always feel so much joy?" my wife asked me.

Don't worry. I don't always feel so much joy. It's just that the particular joy I felt right then seemed out of proportion with the moment.

"I'm here with you, and I love watching the dog waddle down the street, with his crew."

* * *

This is a time to sow. Plant seeds of contentedness and gratitude. Let them rest in the torn and ruptured soil of your spirit. It will spring.

By Matt Richtel

Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist and the author of "An Elegant Defense: The Extraordinary New Science of the Immune System."

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