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How Can 'We' Better Live In Panic-Stricken Times?

It's normal to feel stressed out and alone, so what can we do about it? Timothy Tate, Bozeman psychotherapist, shares a few thoughts about creating the transformation we need

Words chiseled in stone to live by found at the Alex Diekmann Fishing Access Site in Bozeman's Story Mill Park.
Words chiseled in stone to live by found at the Alex Diekmann Fishing Access Site in Bozeman's Story Mill Park.
It’s okay to feel afraid.

In fact, it’s normal in abnormal times. If you’re not feeling tense right about now, or in need of cathartically blowing off stream, or craving companionship, or losing sleep, I would be a little surprised.  We are gripped by a pandemic of uncertainty that has hit us like an asteroid.

Truth be told even as a psychotherapist with years of experience and tools of the craft at my disposal, I tend to experience anxiety when my capacity is overwhelmed either by emotions, fatigue, or compassionate overload. I’m contending with all three.

I'm especially concerned about the doctors, nurses, EMTs, firefighters and police officers on the front lines. I'm thinking about the less fortunate among us. I'm thinking about the grocery, hardware store and restaurant personnel making sure we have adequate supplies. I'm thinking about the people delivering our mail and newspaper. I'm thinking about the elders who are especially vulnerable.

Our current global health crisis is certainly a catalyst for us to feel anxious at an unprecedented mass scale. And yet, in the West and many parts of the country, we dwell in a land of stoicism where people, especially menfolk, are taught not to show or acknowledge their vulnerability. Well, we are vulnerable to something we can't see.

In these trying times it’s worth remembering that the world is more vast than our protective ego complexes allow us to know, but anxiety and its next of kin—panic, fear, and dread—sure are convincing. 

People who visit me in my office—now having sessions remotely by phone— often arrive there with various kinds of anxiety or distress. Modern living all by itself is complicated. Feeling severe anxiety, panic or distress about life is normal. Our ancestors fretted about being eaten by sabertooth tigers as they hunted to bring food home to the table; we have different kinds of beasts stocking us, externally and within.

Covid-19 is only the latest and thinking you or a loved one might die due to a global pandemic and/or that economic apocalypse may result, fits along a spectrum of anxiety that can lead to a full-blown panic attack. 

Let me describe a few of these troubles since in the moment, when we're in the middle of an individual, familial, community, national and global manic episode, the physiological sensations driving it are very real. 

The question is what can we do about it?  It seems like an agitated state related to a collective chronic mania has actually been building in our society for years now. I’ve witnessed it in residents from towns large and small. This mania can manifest in the form of compulsive exercise, excessive consumerism, chemical addiction or chasing after the almighty dollar. Sound familiar?  If we use a storm image to describe the force of this pandemic, then we are experiencing a named storm coming at us. Its name: Covid-19.
The word "panic" is derived from the Greek god Pan, god of nature and wildness thereof. The simplified version of what Dr. James Hillman presents in his book Pan and the Nightmare is that the degree to which we are out of touch with our Nature is the extent to which we will experience the alienating emotion of panic. 

 So, if you’re feeling a desperate yearning to get out and maybe frustrated by rules restricting your movement know you’re normal. You live in a mountain town because you know innately getting outside is good for you; it makes you feel better. The nature Hillman speaks of is both within our own psyche and within the wildness of Pan’s haunts, Earth’s Nature. 

He points out that this alienation will rear its head in our nightmares and will manifest itself in our waking state as panic. Our first move then is to trust our nature. This means that we must find a way to return and take stock in who we are, not how we have performed or been swept up in the wave of fear. This means to me that returning to nature, be it a neighborhood park or trails in our area, is vital. It re-grounds us.

The second axiom that comes to mind is the definition of intelligence that the author John Holt coined in the Sixties. He stated, and I paraphrase that intelligence is not so much a question of how much you know but how to behave when you don’t know what to do.
So let’s review the variety of conditions to which we are vulnerable. Stay with me as we go through the terminology. Anxiety is the reaction we have to either losing a perceived sense of control over a situation and/or feeling personally vulnerable. We have anxiety now over the virus. We don’t know whether we have been exposed or how we will cope with it if infected. 

We have fear associated with anxiety’s alarm signals. We have panic because our nervous system takes over and sends us into a state beyond our mental capacity to regulate or cope, i.e. calm ourselves down.  We also experience dread when our anxiety or panic are real sensations. We have mood dysregulation (swings) if we are fatigued either due to the enervatedness of anxiety and panic attacks and/or lack of, or significantly disturbed, sleep. 

What’s not normal is that we’re told the way society must confront the pandemic is to self-isolate and socially distance which, while helping to protect us from physical illness, is not a good prescription for maintaining mental well-being. It is important to remember that these states of emotion and mental distress are not mental disorders in and of themselves. 

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders v.5: Generalized Anxiety Disorders are: “Excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least six months.” The pandemic has only been with us a short while.

Panic Disorder is a “recurrent unexpected panic attacks. A panic attack is an abrupt surge of intense fear or intense discomfort that reaches a peak in minutes. The abrupt surge can occur from a calm state, or accelerated heart rate. 

A Panic Attack “Is not a mental disorder and cannot be coded.” In other words you can experience a panic attack but clinically speaking it must occur within the context of other pre-existing conditions.

Clinically, there is a list of thirteen symptoms that identify a panic attack such as (and apart from any possible virus symptoms): 

1. Palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate. 

2. Sweating 

3. Trembling or shaking 

4. Sensations of shortness of breath or smothering 

5. Feelings of choking 

6. Chest pain or discomfort.

Numbers 12 and 13 on the list are fear of losing control and fear of dying. These sensations amplify according to the nature of the person experiencing them and they vary among those suffering mental disorder pre-conditions to those of us who are confronted with a global pandemic that is undefined. 

Given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 virus we are all subject to another diagnostic category called Adjustment Disorder. For now let’s take refuge in that this “normal” reaction to a global crisis must occur within three months of the onset of the stressors. And that the symptoms don’t persist for an additional six months. 

The qualifiers to this challenge of adjustment are people already dealing with depressed mood, or with anxiety, or with mixed anxiety and depressed mood, or with disturbance of conduct, or with mixed disturbance of emotions and conduct. Again, I would guess that many can relate.
Let's remember that there are stages or waves of this pandemic that will surge over us and take a different toll in each phase. Simply stated these three stages might be called: The Looming UnknownThe Actual Event and The Aftermath.
Although we may be able to check all those boxes, let's remember that there are stages or waves of this pandemic that will surge over us and take a different toll in each phase. Simply stated these three stages might be called: The Looming Unknown, The Actual Event and The Aftermath.

Here’s how I see this playing out. There are differing lenses that we look through to view these stages: the physical, mental/emotional, financial, and the spiritual. Imagine a visit to the optometrist when she looks at your eyes as then flips through a series of lenses to see how you see. '

The physical lens is the overall condition of our bodies with or without an underlying compromising condition. That’s why exercise, good sleep and eating right can be important. It's why trying to find a routine of rhythm is important.

The mental/emotional lens is the maturity of these forces within your character: immaturity yields one perspective, maturity another. Reactive dramatic tendencies yield a warped view contrasted to that of a reasonable mind. This is why finding a way to still the racing mind is important. At the very least, turn off the TV and radio. Take a break from the deluge of Covid-19 news. Look around you. Take stock of all the good things in your life: your loved ones, the things that leave you feeling happy, the fact that you get to live here in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The financial lens filters determine our reality through the degree of financial resources and security or lack thereof. Does this feel like a question of survival or is there a cushion of funds from which one can draw? There is a dynamic spectrum ranging from mild to moderate to severe in each of these perspectives. Here, don't let worry about the future which isn't here yet become the enemy of the moment. Regarding the financial lens, if you are secure in the moment, then make an attempt to reach out to people who are not and support organizations, like the food bank, working to bring relief to those who are lacking necessities, especially families with kids and the elderly.

The spiritual lens is rooted in our established or absent spiritual practice. Those among us who have made peace with the forces of the invisible world will experience these stages with more calm than those who either do not have such a practice or are behind the spiritual curve, whatever the nature of that curve may be traditional religious, philosophical, wisdom traditions, or new age forms. Most spiritual beliefs help us find solace in knowing we are not in control of all the variables.
The Looming Stage 

The Looming Stage of this global pandemic is in full swing in the US. Those who live in countries gripped by the virus are moving out of this stage whereas many sectors of our nation are tempting fate with a bravado denying its looming nature like the fracas with college students partying on spring break in Florida. 

The Looming Stage is experienced as a mix of anxiety/panic or conversely a befuddling stalwart minimizing denial approach, i.e. a sense of invincibility or the false believe it can’t happen to me or the people I love. 

Reality has a way of announcing itself directly. Some have vision to see a possibility coming and others are caught off guard. It seems that this looming stage lasts weeks to a month while the gravity of this new pandemic reality settles into our personal and collective psyches. 

We know from studies of stress that the stage between when a test is announced/taken until the results are known is particularly stressful. This holds true if the test is the news or an actual test for Covid-19. Waiting for the virus to reach our town, then waiting for it to spread and waiting to see if it arrives in our home is agonizing. The second stage of pandemic’s reach might be seen as The Event itself. 

The Event Itself

Whether we view our national leadership as faltering in recognizing the reality of this event or not doesn't matter. It is here now and national action is in play. We are sheltered in place, quarantined or hospitalized. We are actually sick or taking the appropriate measures to contain the viruses spread. I am certain that this may be too little too late but action is taking place. 

Anticipation has been replaced with seeing consequences. “Break it to me, Doc. How bad is it?” Those among us who are asymptomatic or are carrying the virus undetected wait. Those who are sick fight. Those who govern act. Those who research discover. Those who are helpless suffer the most. We probably all know that if we pick a fight trying to beat or deny reality, it’s going to win. 

The fight is on. We are in the first flush of reckoning. We are coming to grips with what we have to do. To stay at home, to work remotely if possible, to keep our social distances, to not congregate with more than a handful of folks we know and trust, to disrupt our unconscious habit of touching our faces. This is a test of our individuality and how each of our individual actions adds up to a societal expression. Nobody likes being told what to do but are we able to put the good of society and community first>

As this stage sinks in and lasts an undetermined length of time, possibly months, trouble will show  different faces. It might be the face of resignation or despair. It might be the grotesque face of aggressive behavior. It might be regressive folly and withdrawal but its face will be revealed in the coming months. It might be grief. Try to be aware and ready. 

The Aftermath

The Aftermath is a stage yet to be written. Is China a model for pondering it? Is the military convoys transporting the Italian dead it? Are the mass graves in Iran what the aftermath looks like? Are we even able to conceptualize what it looks like? The Aftermath, however, involves more than how we react to what is yet to come. It involves how we plan to rethink our values. 

Experts suggest models and one such author David Quammen, a local Bozeman citizen, who like us mountain folk takes solace in our wildlands, wrote a book entitled Spillover, published in 2012 that helps us understand the emergence and causes of new diseases all over the world, describing a process called “spillover” where illness originates in wild animals before being passed to humans and discusses the potential for the next huge pandemic.

Far be it for me to summarize Quammen's predictions which were echoed recently in The Atlantic, but in layman terms this pandemic signals a new order for the planet. How can we pretend that with dwindling resources, dependency in parts of the world on bush meat, dramatically changing climate, global commerce and travel, and messing with natural systems, we are not vulnerable to waves of viruses boosted by such conditions? 

As he points out, part of the problem is the dysfunctional relationship with nature—our pushing ever deeper into wildlands where pathogens exist; our consumptive exploitation of animals; our inability to acknowledge that nature does not exist over there and we here. Our actions are shaping nature's well-being which means when we engage in actions that harm nature we are harming ourselves.

The particularity of the Aftermath of this pandemic are unknown but we know the world will not be the same. Can we resolve to build a better more mindful world? This is not a one and out episode. And rather than this notion paralyzing us perhaps it is a call to us to make fundamental changes and have coping strategies to abide this jarring global transition. 

We do not make plans for the Aftermath while hunkered down in the storm but there are ways to hold the tension of the unknown without falling prey to the shadowy forces described above. A maxim I apply in my practice that is attributed to psychologist Carl Jung is: “Maturity is the ability to hold the tension of the irreconcilable paradox of life.” 

Certainly we are currently in the clutches of such an irreconcilable paradox: we don’t know if we carry the virus, we don’t know if we will survive an infection, we don’t know how long this first shock wave will last, and we don’t know what the economic status of our economy or the globe’s will look like in the months ahead. What are we to do? The racing mind wants to know. The answer to that riddle lies in the synthesis of doing and being.

What can we control? Many things. We can be more compassionate and empathetic. We can be more kind. We can be more loving. We can be more selfless and less self indulgent. We can be more generous. We can be more thoughtful. We can be less future obsessed and dwell in the joy and miracles of the moment. We can be more grateful and less envious of those with things that, in the big picture, don't matter.
What can we control? Many things. We can be more compassionate and empathetic. We can be more kind. We can be more loving. We can be more selfless and less self indulgent. We can be more generous. We can be more thoughtful. We can be less future obsessed and dwell in the joy and miracles of the moment. We can be more grateful and less envious of those with things that, in the big picture, don't matter.
These are the things that, when they add up to a collective attitude, can move to save the specialness of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem or wherever you live. 

Aspiring to heed our better angels and yet recognizing that when inevitable adversity comes we can persevere and aid others. That is power waiting to be harnessed.  Sometimes, we can help ourselves simply by acknowledging that such events and times as these make us feel vulnerable and it is not a weakness to solicit help.

Some final thoughts

If you’re feeling stir crazy or anxious, try this. Sit quietly in a still place and consciously breathe with deep inhalation until lungs are full and then allow the full cascade of exhale to let go of the breathe. Do this for at least twenty full breath cycles. Feel the full sensation of your breath calming you down until there is an evenness of pace.  Try to void any thoughts. Focus only on the breathing. Repeat as needed. It will help you get centered. 

Now, once you have done this, summon thoughts related to what resides in your heart.

This storm we are in should be approached as a “we” not a “me.” Social distancing is not and should not leave us isolated or alone. It is important that we keep reaching out to each other. Compassion is the ability to get outside our own suffering and relate to the world beyond our ego complexes. 

This can be shown in a smile, a wave, a greeting (from six feet away), a chore done for others unable to do themselves. Or, even, a phone call or dropping a note in the mail to a friend on the other side of town. Try also to have a creative and positive social media presence. Yes—park the negative energy at the door when you're responding on Facebook! Negativity is corrosive. How you use social media is a choice. Be party of the healing of toxic tribalism that needs to happen.

In fact now, with time on your hands, try doing good things that you might ordinarily not do because you found them to be personally inconvenient. 

The editor of this journal and I remembered fondly our root Midwestern values, reminiscing about how as kids, unprompted, we would get out our snow shovels and clear the walks of elderly neighbors after a blizzard. We may be past winter storms for now but you get my “drift.” Reach out to others in need and in so doing you will lift yourself out of a funk. 

The second way to be of service is act beyond me-me-me. Those among us who are blessed with financial means can find a creative and meaningful way to help those in need. 

I know of a landlord in downtown Bozeman who is right now giving his tenants some relief from rent and staked money for a matching grant in support of the local Food Bank, warming shelter, bus service and community restaurant called Fork & Spoon

of employers keeping employees on the payroll for a stretch longer, of supplies delivered to our food banks. May each of us help those less fortunate in ways that come to us.

We are privileged to live in western mountain towns surrounded by expansive farm, ranch and prairie land know that without neighborly help we will fail whether that takes the shape of pulling someone out of a ditch or putting up hay, or carrying for injured climbers or skiers on the slopes. This pandemic will not convert into pandemonium to the degree we are able to rise to our better nature.

I was touched by a scene from Boston streets making the social media rounds the other day featuring apartment tenants, folk on the street and stopped cars with drivers leaning out their windows. Someone broadcast the Bill Withers song “Lean On Me” as others chimed in or clapped in rhythm. Man that touched me. Lean on me. Be there for someone else. Reach out to others whether they ask for help, or not; trust me, they'll be grateful either way.

NOTE: Support your local Food Bank. Here are some groups to contact in communities around Greater Yellowstone that will have ideas for how you can help local charities.


HRDC Bozeman (it will also have suggestions for how to support communities beyond Bozeman)
Montana Community Foundation (serves communities across Montana)


Wyoming Community Foundation (serves communities across Wyoming)


Idaho Community Foundation (serves communities across Idaho)

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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