If you’ve never heard of “thought work,” don’t worry.
I hadn’t heard it myself until probably six months ago, when I really dug deep into working on myself.
Yesterday I listened to a special bonus episode of one of my favourite postcasts, Unf*ck Your Brain, by Kara Loewentheil. It was a virus dedicated to virus panic so I knew I NEEDED to listen to it.
Oh boy, not only did I listen, but I took notes the entire time (which I texted to my sister in 30-second intervals for a full hour) but I also just went to her website and pored over the show’s transcript.
While I highly encourage you to listen to the full episode — and subscribe to the Unf*ck Your Brain podcast because there are SO MANY back episodes to catch up on — I’m going to summarize my main takeaways here. (Mostly so I can come back and re-read this post when I’m spiraling, but also for you guys, too.)
Ready? Let’s go …
It’s our damn brains. Kara talks about how when we panic, our prefrontal cortex “goes offline” and can’t reason the way it normally does. That’s why we have to process our emotions to bring down that intensity bit first.
“The existence of a virus is a circumstance. The number of people who have a virus is a circumstance. All of it is a circumstance. And then there are your thoughts. Thought work is the most important when everyone is losing their minds, and all of your brain’s biases are kicking in and working against you. We have control over our minds and our feelings and our results that we create for ourselves in our life, but we do not control our circumstances. Only how we react to them.“ — Kara Loewentheil
And we’re reacting in a total state of fear right now, obviously. Kara says that’s because for our generation, here in North America, this is BRAND NEW SHIT. We haven’t experienced war or famine or scary illnesses threatening to wipe a bunch of people out. I mean, EFF! We’ve only read this stuff in books!
Because it all feels new to us, we’re feeling like we suddenly have no control over anything. But Kara says the truth is that we never did — we just used to have “an unrealistic belief in our ability to control our lives and forestall our own mortality.”
Kara says this pandemic is reminding us of what’s ALWAYS been true — we just didn’t usually think about it — and that’s that our time on earth has always been limited, we have never been about to control or predict anything, we have never been about to control other people, and that’s all we know for sure.
I know I’m a person who’s always desperate to exert control over situations because it makes me feel better, but Kara’s right in saying that we DON’T have control — and never did — so we have to accept that. If you’re obsessed with trying to control outcomes and keep people safe, you’re always going to feel crazy/upset/panicked because YOU CAN’T CONTROL IT.
“This pandemic is giving us an opportunity to confront the truth, which is that the universe has changed and everything else is an illusion. It feels scary, that idea, so we resist it, but it only feels scary because we’re still half-holding onto it. When you’re truly willing to accept that, you’re going to see so much of your fear melt away.” — Kara Loewentheil
“Let go of the illusion that we can control anything 100%, including our own lives. And it is paradoxically, that is so freeing to remember that has always been the case. You have never had control over that. You don’t have it now and you never have and you never will.” — Kara Loewentheil
Kara says we might decide to take certain actions or preparations with regards to work, what we buy, what we do, etc. but “they don’t have to do anything to do with being panicked, afraid, or hysterical.”
Instead, she recommends making these choices rationally. Kara cut her trip short and went home to practice social distancing, but she did it out of LOVE, not FEAR.
Instead of being fearful she’d pass on the virus or catch the virus by being out in public, she chose to stay home out of LOVE for the people around her. She was thinking she should rent a car in case she wanted to get out of NYC, so she rented a car and then never had to think about it again.
When we act out of fear — like panic-buying all the toilet paper — we’re only getting a temporary feeling of relief, and then we’ll start acting out of fear again to try to make ourselves feel better. But Kara says we can’t “do” enough things to actually make us feel safe. It’s all in our thinking.
“You can never act your way to emotional safety, and you can’t think your way there by solving problem after problem. You can only think your way to emotional safety by letting go of trying to control the things you can’t control.” — Kara Loewentheil
Our circumstances may have changed, but our brains are the same old brains we’ve always had. Kara pointed out that our brains are used to freaking out over the things we’ve trained them to freak out over. If you’re usually stressed about money, you’ll be more stressed. If you often worry about scarcity/not having enough, etc., that’s going to come out even more. For her, she’s trained her brain to worry about her romantic relationships so she’s especially anxious about her boyfriend, who is in Europe for work.
Kara says people’s brains are naturally obsessed with looking for threats to their survival and now they’re being told, round-the-clock, that there is a very real threat. She says it’s hard to pull yourself away from your phone because things are changing so fast, and “it’s like heroin for your brain. It’s completely addictive.”
Since we’re all obsessively reading as much information about the virus as we can, Kara also says to be careful we’re not taking it all as fact (circumstance). “A lot of which is very speculative. There’s a lot of uncertainty, and that is part of why your brain is losing its shit.”
If you do want to binge-read a ton of terrifying articles or watch scary videos but find they always upset you (HELLO, IT’S ME), she says to prepare yourself for having “an emotional hangover” afterwards. Do it knowing it’s going to be rough afterwards, and plan how to comfort yourself when you’re done.
Kara says it’s important to still feel connected to people, and luckily we have phones and video chatting and all kinds of ways to be connected from a distance. BUT she says not to spend the whole conversation talking about the virus.
“Constantly ruminating about it out loud to other people will not feel any better than ruminating about it to yourself.” — Kara Loewentheil
I am super guilty of this. It’s like I can’t stop talking about it, but I know that’s unhealthy. I talked about it the MOST yesterday, since I had a vacation day from work, and as a result I was probably the MOST anxious yet last night when I was trying to sleep.
It feels like we should be panicking, we should be scared, and we are — at least, I am. But Kara says that’s not useful at all. Our primitive brain’s “fear response” is only helpful if we’re being chased by a tiger who wants to eat us, or if we suddenly need to leap out of the way because we’re going to get hit by a bus.
But that’s not how viruses work. They don’t give a shit if we panic or not.
“Don’t let your brain and other people convince you that hysteria is going to keep you safe or that everything has changed and so all of it is terrible and frightening and scary. It’s always just a circumstance. You always get to decide what to think about it.” — Kara Loewentheil
We may have felt like our “old lives” (as I keep referring to things from March 11-ish and before) were very safe and comfortable and like nothing unexpected really happened, but Kara says the truth is that anything could have happened at any time. We’re just MORE AWARE OF IT NOW.
“There’s so much that is unknown right now. Personally, on a national level, on a global level, we don’t know what’s coming. But the truth is that’s always been the case. We have never known what was coming. But now we are forced to be present with that.” — Kara Loewentheil
“The truth is that life is always unpredictable. And the only certainty is that we are all going to die someday. That’s always been true. We never know how long our time is, how long we have, with ourselves, with the ones we love. We never know that.” — Kara Loewentheil
Kara wrote a really nice manifesto about her role right now — showing up for people, guiding them through this, etc. — and I liked it so much, I wrote my own.
My job is to guide my children through life, doing my best to keep them happy and secure. My job is to love and care for my family and friends, understanding that they have the freedom to make their own decisions. My job is to find ways to use my creative talents to help others. My job is to manage my thoughts so I can be the best version of myself — calm, strong, and accepting that I can’t control anything except how I think, feel, and show up in the world.
Once I wrote it, I realized that that’s always been my job! Seriously. Nothing about that job description is different now, other than the fact that I hadn’t put it on paper until now.
No, I’m not going to follow it perfectly. I’m human, and humans are flawed. But it’s certainly something to remind myself of, especially when I’m starting to spiral. When this happens, Kara also suggests acknowledging how you’re feeling by talking calmly to yourself. “I see that you’re feeling very anxious right now. That’s okay. I’m here for you.”
Kara says now is the time to think about how we want to show up in the world — for ourselves, our friends, our family, our neighbours. How do we want to experience that time we have for however many days we have left on this earth, which are never guaranteed?
“Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl said, “The last of human freedoms is to choose one’s own attitude in any given set of circumstances. To choose one’s own way.” And that’s what “thought work” is. That is why thought work is so important right now.” — Kara Loewentheil
None of this is easy. Believe me, I am openly struggling with all of it — as you already know if you’ve been following my emotional unraveling over on InstaStories.
But I do believe everything Kara’s saying. Panic isn’t going to help — it’s only going to make us fall apart, which will make it harder for us to get through this. We need to show up in love. We need to remember that we can’t control what happens but we can control how we think, feel and act. We need to take care of each other, and we need to take care of ourselves.