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‘Southern Voices’ is a reader-submitted platform for stories from the heart. Today’s submission comes from Sharon Ball, LPC-MHSP, founder of 9paths.com. If you have a story to tell, see our guidelines for submission here.

On March 5 I boarded my United Airlines 11 hour flight to Tel Aviv. I was super excited and hopeful as I had anticipated this trip for almost two years. My son (12), parents (age 69), sister and her son (14) would all be traveling together with a group from my father’s church in Phoenix. My hopes for the trip were big; time with my parents and sister, concentrated time between the cousins, and the deepening of my faith. Our group consisted of millennials, elders, a few middle-age and several children as young as 8. Our group was made of self-employed, retired, restaurant workers, church staff and two doctors. Many of whom had saved for a long time to make this journey to Israel.

Our flight took off, and within six hours my seatmate, a Jewish-American began to inform me of the updates he was receiving from friends in Israel regarding the coronavirus. Israel was proactively responding to it, including the consideration of ceasing all international flights. In mid-flight over Europe, my mind began to race, reviewing the research I did prior to departing about COVID-19. Before departure it appeared as if the virus was not a threat.

As I watched my son rest peacefully during the flight, the list of “what if”s began to grow in my mind: What if they do not allow our plane to land? What if my mom or dad get sick? What if my son gets sick? What if I’m stuck in Israel and my business falls apart?

What if… What if… What if…

In that moment, flying into the unknown, I knew I needed to address my situation hour by hour, minute by minute and not day by day. I want to share with you how I mentally reset my fear and implement preparedness allowing myself to live in the moment of each day.

Our flight was the last U.S. flight allowed into Israel. We landed at 6:30 a.m., uncertain of what would happen next. The airport was easy to navigate because of the closing down of the flights. Our guide informed us that Bethlehem was in quarantine and many sites were being shut down, however we would do as much as we could, as long as we could.

Experiencing life overseas during a pandemic was surreal, however it was the perfect place to practice what I preach. As a licensed psychotherapist for 20 years and a natural disaster mental health first responder, I knew two mental roads were about to collide in my mind: fear and preparedness. Moreover, if not managed properly, my fear would win.

How does FEAR win?

I reminded myself of fear’s role in my life:

  1. Fear is a normal reaction to abnormal events. I was experiencing an abnormal event.
  2. Fear is a protective emotion and will do anything to keep me safe.
  3. When fear floods, it often will not make the best decisions.
  4. When fear is managed it can be a powerful tool for strategy and preparedness measures.

Understanding FEAR

Why is fear so powerful? Fear is the emotion that triggers your amygdala, the tiny almond shape part of your brain that senses distress and puts your body into a fight, flight or freeze mode. It is the part of your brain that is charged with keeping your existence alive; the basic needs of life and survival. It responds to real or perceived threat. I was feeling a measure of perceived threat; we are in a foreign country, my child and elderly parents are with me, I do not have any guarantee of what the future holds, and there is a pandemic.

When the amygdala is activated, you lose access to the frontal lobe in the brain and your ability to implement executive functioning responses — problem-solving, emotional expression, memory, language, judgment and discernment. I needed to control my fear rather than letting it control me. I needed a mental reset.

Implement a mental reset.

On day 2, I sat on my kibbutz patio overlooking the Sea of Galilee and practiced a mental reset. I knew if my fear was fueled — by unconfirmed data, worry, “what if”s — it would grow into panic and anxiety. I needed to ground my body with what was known and familiar. However, I no longer had my Nashville routines to orient me — hiking Radnor lake, walking my dog, seeing my clients, or my bedroom.

So, I looked around using my five senses to find familiar things in Israel. I knew engaging in my five senses would orient me to the present, cooling-off the part of my brain that was headed into anxiety: the amygdala.

  1. Smell and taste: I made myself some great smelling and tasting Israeli coffee.
  2. Sight: I sat on the patio and watched the sunrise.
  3. Hearing: I listened to the birds chirping good morning.
  4. Touch: I snuggled under a kibbutz blanket.

I sat and just stilled my thoughts to focus on these five senses. So for the first time since landing, I gazed out onto the Sea of Galilee and appreciated its beauty. I received without fear the quote I chose by Corrie ten Boom to focus on:

“Worrying is carrying tomorrow’s load with today’s strength — carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.”

I marveled at the quote and the atrocities that this woman endured and was subjected to. As I sat there the surge of gratitude began. I affirmed things in my life were uncertain, I affirmed that my fear was normal, and I affirmed that I was not going to be driven by the fear. If Ms. ten Boom could live day to day, hour, by hour, minute by minute, so could I.

My mental reset was taking place, and I was able to move into action:

  1. I took care of myself. I made sure my needs were taken care of; food, clothing and shelter. I then addressed my mental health. After addressing my self-care, I was in a better position to help others.
  2. I shared my CONCERN with my son. I was careful with my words, because words matter. I was mindful of my emotional expression. I told him there was a virus spreading quickly, and unlike strep throat, we do not have an antibiotic for it. This virus is harder on people over 60 and those with health conditions. I emphasized the best way to keep from getting the virus is preventative measures; washing hands, not touching his face, and sneezing or coughing into his arm. I encouraged my son to take an active role in decreasing the spread of this virus by practicing preventative measures. We discussed that being careful may actually keep someone from getting sick. We discussed living out of gratitude that our bodies are healthy allows us to look after those who might be at risk. By giving your children age-appropriate information that is emotionally regulated and providing them action steps they can take, it will help curb feelings of confusion and helplessness. Children are smart and caring people. They get it!
  3. I took cues from the doctors in our group. Healthcare workers live in this reality daily, and preventative measures are their friend. Staying calm and rational allows them to make logical decisions that help many. I may not be in the day-to-day trenches, but it surely does give me a great example of humanity at its finest.
  4. Focus on gratitude and mindful community living. We stayed several days at a kibbutz. A kibbutz is a rural community dedicated to mutual aid and social justice; it has a socioeconomic system based on the principle of joint ownership of property, equality and cooperation of production. Kibbutz is a Hebrew word for gathering or community. The irony of staying at a kibbutz during a pandemic where we need each other the most, and many in the states were hoarding, fighting and capitalizing on the situation. Whether you agree with all the concepts of a kibbutz or not, I hope we can agree that coming together (even through social distancing) with compassion, hope and strength is what we all must live by in order to survive a pandemic!

I arrived two weeks later to the United States grateful to see my family and ready to make accessible “mental resets” to our community. Our counseling center in Berry Hill is now providing mental health services online (learn more here). I encourage you to reach out to a counselor if your anxiety or depression is not manageable. These sessions are invaluable in regulating your emotions and helping you make action steps during these difficult times.

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