Practical Hope in the Time of Coronavirus: Henry Emmons

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"Hope in the Time of Coronavirus" is a Mpls. St. Paul Magazine series that features Dr. Henry Emmons '81. This story first appeared on, March 27, 2020. Copyright Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.

Is fear, stress, or the coronavirus itself today's biggest worry?

Henry Emmons is a psychiatrist who, in the course of his 30-odd year career, has become one of the country’s foremost integrative mental health experts, though a lot of people mainly know him through his bestsellers The Chemistry of Calm and The Chemistry of Joy. To me though, he’s mainly a really nice, really wise individual who has practiced his whole life in the trenches of how to really make people feel better, which is why he’s so widely beloved in the forward-looking psychiatric and medical parts of town.

As part of this series on Hope in the Time of Coronavirus, of course I had to talk to him, because he’s brilliant. We started off chatting about how we were both doing during this crazy week, in which Minnesota declared a stay-at-home order and announced schools would be closed through May 4. Then there are still not enough masks for healthcare workers, and the New York hospitals have started getting overwhelmed, it's a lot. Emmons said he was doing pretty well, all things considered. But like all working moms looking at a cratering economy, who are also now homeschool coaches, I was feeling overwhelmed.

Dara: All right. Let’s do this. Practical hope so we can all get through this without going nuts. Go.

Henry Emmons: Let’s be clear, most of what I’ll talk about are things I find helpful for myself. One thing to be grateful for is that it’s so clear that we are all in this together. There’s a level of shared humanity we are witnessing that’s simply undeniable. Personally, I think there are some nice parts to this enforced slowing down. My life, like most people’s lives, has now become very, very simple. It’s a nice chance to institute some new routines, and in a sense an opportunity for growth. I’m doing some more meditation, doing some real reading, and trying not to spend all of my time reading news feeds because that will make me stress. I’m staying on top of the news of course, but trying not to do it all the time. I’m a physician of course, and with a science-training and background, I find it most comforting to look to the experts. They say we’re in for a rough ride these next two or four weeks. There are things we can do about it, which include really paying attention to our need to separate ourselves physically from each other.

But I want to say: This is all scary. For a lot of reasons. And it’s different. What a lot of people feel stressed about usually is not real in their external world, it’s things we make up with our thoughts and emotions, with our thinking—however, that’s not the situation we’re in now. This is a real stress. We should be stressed about this! That’s normal. But: Stress is not the same as fear. Fear is when we start projecting into the future, wishing we had done things differently a few days or a few weeks ago, and that creates anxiety and worry. Stress can be a good thing, stress makes us more capable of responding to what we have going on. If we don’t let anxiety take hold, stress can increase our mental focus and clarity. It can help you solve problems.

Dara: It’s hard to know the difference I think when you’re losing your job, as happened to millions this week.

Henry Emmons: Yes. Losing your job, losing your house, getting sick, those are real concerns. But I think most people know intuitively that if we become really contracted by fear, we can’t respond as effectively. When we really look at this, probably everybody is going to lose some savings and income in this, maybe more. The question becomes how can I respond best to that in this moment, how can I respond as capably as possible. Fear makes us reactive and clouds our decision making. What’s driving stock markets now is people panicking. The stress of coronavirus is not optional, but how much we let it overtake our minds, that’s something we do have some say over.

One strategy is to ask yourself, repeatedly: What am I experiencing at this moment? Right now. Am I feeling sick? Most of us no, we’re not. A lot of the fear is of getting sick, really sick, or passing it on. If the answer is: No, I’m not sick right now, then the question is, then what can I do? I can focus on keeping myself safe, not being in close contact with people who are sick, and so on. If I was sick, I’d ask the same question, and the answer to what can I do might be, lay low, get better. If you can stay in the moment, you can ask, are things really as dire as my mind says? The answer is usually no, at this moment.

What I think of resilience as being is that we have the capacity to face whatever is in front of us and do it with whatever skills we have.

It is normal to feel scared. What we don’t want is to let the fear overtake us and decide our actions and responses.

Something else I find really helpful is to feel, really let myself feel what it is I’ve lost in this moment, in a way that helps me appreciate what I’ve lost. I love going to restaurants with friends. I can’t do that now, and I am missing it. So I can genuinely reflect on how great it is to have such good restaurants in the Twin Cities, and how good it is to spend time with people. That appreciation gives me space to realize more about our community, like how resilient we actually already are. If you look at what has changed in the last two weeks, all the adaptations we’ve made, it is stunning. It is remarkable. People are able to do that. In their lives, people are acclimating to this new reality. This is the biggest change any of us have experienced in our lifetimes. Think about that. That’s enormous.

That’s why this time, more than any other, is a time for everybody to do really good self-care. Your immune system is affected by what you eat, for sure. How much you sleep, absolutely. Exercise, stress hormones, all of these make a big difference in how your immune system works. The thing that might make the biggest difference in your immune system is that stress hormones are direct suppressors of your immune system. We need to try collectively to stop the viral spread of fear.

I really see it as two epidemics, one is the coronavirus, the other is fear. They are related, though they’re not exactly the same. The coronavirus, we can take that on directly, by taking seriously this need to isolate for a while. The fear, that’s something else. So often, the thing that’s actually happening, even if it’s bad, that’s not what causes most of the harm. What causes most of the harm is the reaction. That’s from the fear, and it might be a reaction of grasping, or it might be pushing things away and not seeing or accepting things as they are. Denial is really dangerous right now, and that’s part of fear too. We have to be able to see this clearly and be open to it if we’re ever going to turn it around quickly.

Dara: Okay. We’re in for a rough ride, but we can learn to distinguish between what’s going on at this moment, and fear. I thought you were going to say something about eating lots of different things, like in the Chemistry of Calm and Chemistry of Joy.

Henry Emmons: I do say that! It’s all in the books. This may sound odd, but this is sort of well-timed for us. About two years ago Tim Culbert and I started a website devoted to natural mental health, Ways to deal with depression, anxiety, and mental health. We have been trying to find ways to make those skills and practices available to people online, and we have a lot of free online Wednesday night resiliency retreats.

We’ll offer some info and concepts, do some practices together, some movement practices, talk about some best ways to approach your sleep, your eating, and how you can work with your fear which is really universal. We knew when we started this it would be needed, we didn’t know how much.

Photo credit: Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl

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