How To Reduce Personal Risk and Find A Sense of Control During COVID-19
You are already a risk-taker.
Whether or not you see yourself this way, chances are that it’s true.
Because you have engaged in risky behaviors your entire life, and you will continue to do so after the Pandemic ends.
I’m going to focus on one specific behavior: driving.
Unless you live under a rock, you have traveled in cars since you were very young. Driving is astoundingly risky; almost 40,000 people were killed in the US in 2019 from traffic fatalities, and 4.4 million were injured enough to require medical attention.
The vast majority of us continue to drive and think nothing of it when we get in a car. Why is this? Why aren’t we more afraid of auto-accidents?
The reason is that we intuitively understand how to manage the risks associated with driving. Accidents are scary, but almost all of them can be avoided through relatively straightforward steps:
-Wear a seatbelt
-Don’t drive too fast
-Don’t drive drunk
-Don’t text and drive
-Don’t drive in bad weather
-Don’t run red lights.
-Don’t drive when you are falling asleep
And so on.
The National Highway Safety Traffic Administration estimated that 47% of the passenger occupants killed in car crashes in 2017 were not wearing seatbelts. Over 2500 lives would have been saved if seat belts were used.
So we start to realize something important: the risk of driving is not evenly distributed. A catastrophic event is considerably more likely without common-sense precautions in place.
Just one single act makes you considerably safer. And the more of these simple precautions you take, the more your risk continues to reduce.
It isn’t inherently dangerous to drive. It is dangerous to drive when you drive dangerously.
It is impossible to eliminate risk. There is always the chance that something could go wrong; for example, what if your car gets hit by a crazy drunk driver?
Even then, if you were driving the speed limiting and not tailgating another car, you would have had time to slow down, make the necessary adjustments, and react correctly. Your risk of a worst-case scenario goes down considerably.
This is the point: you are more in control than you think when it comes to driving, as long as you take the necessary steps.
A nebulous, difficult to understand risk (worries of horrific auto-accidents!) quickly becomes something very easy to manage.
Lessons About Risk In Latin America
Buenos Aires, Argentina, is a beautiful city with a nasty bite. I learned from experience.
I visited in 2015 and enjoyed the fine wine, steak, and inexpensive five-star restaurants.
One night, I went to a dance club with a friend. We were staying in Palermo, an upscale neighborhood, and the club was only twenty minutes away from our Hostel. Our host assured us that the district was safe and that we could walk on the streets 24/7.
At 2 am — late for us but very early for Portenos (Buenos Aires residents) — we decided to walk back from the club and go to bed.
The streets were dark, and there was no one around. We walked down a road to the left, only to realize that we had gone the wrong way and needed to backtrack. We found our way back to the main street and rerouted towards the Hostel.
As we were walking, we heard footsteps behind us. I put my hand in my pocket to protect it in case someone tried to take my wallet.
The next thing I know, two guys have grabbed us from behind, and we are both knocked unconscious.
I wake up lying down on the sidewalk; it was like the reverse of one of those bad dreams where something terrible happens, and you are relieved to find out that it was just a dream. In the dream, I thought that the mugging was just a dream, and when I woke up, I was horrified to learn that it was real.
They stole our phones, wallets, and money. We found some people nearby to help us, and the police arrived quickly. We knew that the Buenos Aires police were unlikely to be helpful, so we simply walked back to the Hostel and took stock of what had happened.
This was undoubtedly a frightening episode; neither of us was severely injured — my friend hit his chin and later had to have some dental work, and I was completely unharmed.
We were shaken up, and I spent the next couple days reflecting on the episode. It was clear that the neighborhood was changing for the worse, and that Buenos Aires was dealing with some intense socio-economic issues that led to an increase in crime.
But I was primarily focused on what I had done wrong.
In the end, the lesson was utterly simple. The streets of Latin American cities are not safe places at night. Unless you are with locals or in a big group, you shouldn’t be walking around late. Your risk of crime is exponentially higher compared to the day time.
It really was that simple. Now, when I visit a city in Latin America (or any city that I don’t feel utterly safe in, for that matter), I am incredibly cautious at night and default to taking an Uber under almost all circumstances.
In 2018, I visited Cali, Colombia, which was named one of the ten most dangerous cities in the world due to intense cartel activity. It is a beautiful place and the global capital of salsa dancing.
On one of my final nights, I went to a big salsa club right near my Hostel. The place was vibrant and packed with locals dancing passionately to spicey music. As the night came to an end, I was ready to leave. The Hostel was only five minutes away.
But this time, I was adamant. I was not stepping foot out of this place without a car to take me home.
The Uber arrived, and I was asleep within five minutes.
The next morning I learned that over the past week, three people in my Hostel had experienced muggings or non-violent crimes. It all happened right between the dance club and the Hostel; the busy road was notoriously dangerous.
I learned my lesson. This is how you deal with risk. Even in the most dangerous places, the danger isn’t evenly distributed. Do the smart, straightforward thing, and everything gets a lot safer in a hurry.
I have not had a single issue since Buenos Aires, and I’ve traveled all over Mexico and Latin America.
The World Today
We find ourselves in a world we don’t understand, overwhelmed by life changes and facing an invisible virus with unknown effects. Our routines are, our economy is paralyzed, and our sense of security is thrown into question.
It is challenging to process what the heck is going, nevermind guaranteeing our health and safety.
Coronavirus is many things at once. I’m not a scientist or an economist, and my vantage point is limited. So take everything I say with a grain of salt.
But I will say this: I have had peace of mind most of the time since the beginning of the Pandemic. I acknowledge that part of this is privilege related to having a good job and living in San Francisco, where the spread was relatively low.
But let’s forget about my specific situation. I want to share what has worked for me, and you can try it out and see if it works for you as well. Here are my strategies:
- Focus on what you can control
As I emphasized above, the risk is never evenly distributed. Some behaviors exponentially increase your vulnerability to the virus.
You may feel powerless and overwhelmed by the virus. But let’s focus on the facts: we know that washing your hands, engaging in social distancing, and wearing a mask are all evidenced-based ways to protect yourself and other people from the spread. When you engage in any of these behaviors, your risk profile drops exponentially.
You may feel like this isn’t enough, and you want to eliminate ALL risk. But this strategy will backfire. If you try to disinfect every surface in your house every two hours, it is not likely to accomplish very much, and you are wasting a lot of energy.
Stress also reduces immune function; you are better off meditating, praying, or journaling instead of engaging in perfectionism.
Refusing to leave your house will affect your mood when you need some fresh air and sunlight to be happy. Wear a mask and go for a walk in the park.
Take the common sense approach and trust that this is enough.
2. Continue the healthy lifestyle that worked before the Pandemic.
There is an incredible amount of disagreement about what the perfect diet looks like. I’ll sidestep that and focus on the obvious.
Sleep, exercise, fruits, and vegetables, cut out junk food. This works as well as it did before. Eating well will boost your mood and your immune system.
COVID is an incredibly complicated health problem, and yet requires an incredibly simple response to stay healthy.
Keep doing whatever you were doing before, and talk to a Doctor or Nutritionist if you need support.
3.Integrate, Integrate, Integrate
I cannot stress this enough: you must integrate your COVID experience.
Integration is taking the time to process a challenging experience. It is the act of sensemaking that allows you to calm down and keep moving forward.
You can integrate individually, with another person, or in a group.
You can integrate individually by journaling, recording yourself on video, meditating, praying, or creating art.
You can integrate with another person by engaging in a conversation and sharing the vulnerabilities of your experience.
But the absolute best way is to integrate through groups. Humans are tribal, and we heal faster when we process together.
I am currently attending two integration circles a week, and they are of enormous benefit to my mental and emotional health.
Ideally, we would integrate in-person, but because of the Pandemic we are in Zoom mode. Everyone goes around and shares their experience. Some people are distraught; other people are joyful. It doesn’t matter — all of it is valid. The most important thing is a non-judgemental attitude throughout the group.
Afterward, everyone walks away with a bit more understanding of their own and others’ experiences, and perhaps a deeper meaning of the entire Pandemic.
If you can’t find an integration group, it’s easy to start your own. Just get a bunch of friends together and talk about the Pandemic. But it can’t be chit chat. You need to get real and be honest with the group about what you’re actually feeling.
Integrate, integrate, integrate.
4. Let Go
I’ve talked a lot about managing risk in this essay, and hopefully, I’ve convinced you that there is a lot you can do to dramatically increase your personal safety.
But let’s face it: we can’t control everything, and we can’t have perfect certainty. There is always a chance that something could go wrong.
Instead of fighting that remaining risk, the best thing you can do is let go. This is the time to trust in God, or a Higher Power, or the Universe. You’ve done everything you can, and it is working really well. Now, it’s time to relax and spend your time on work or something that brings you joy.
5. Find Meaning
What are you learning from the Pandemic? What is the deeper meaning of Coronavirus? How has it affected your life?
Notice what life is saying to you. What are the messages that are coming through to you? I mean this very literally: when you walk down the street, what do the signs say? What are people saying on social media that seems relevant to you?
I’ll give you an example: every day, I walk to the grocery store and pass a giant billboard that says, “Tonight Is The Making Of Tomorrow.” It’s an ad for a mattress company.
I ignored the branding and asked myself — what is this reminding me to do? The answer, of course, is to use shelter-in-place as an opportunity to get excellent sleep. Without distractions, I can get to bed earlier and feel better every day.
In general, I look at life from a mystical perspective; this means I pay attention to what is right in front of me — small and large — and ask what the greater cosmic significance is.
If life asked me to go into shelter-in-place, it must be for a reason. Perhaps I needed a retreat or just a time to focus.
You don’t need to be spiritual or religious (though it helps a lot). The point is that if you can see the more profound meaning — or perhaps even opportunity — in the events and circumstances of your life, it will be a lot easier to make sense of the whole Pandemic and find a sense of direction.
Just kidding, I’m not a Doctor, but if I was one, I would have one single directive for you.
If you take one thing away from this essay, it is this:
Seriously people. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic, stuck in our homes, and experts, scientists, billionaires, politicians, and economists have no idea what’s going on.
If you don’t know how to handle it — great. You’re in good company with another 3 billion or so people across the globe.
We are all figuring this out on the fly, and there are going to be good days and bad days.
If you didn’t eat healthy enough, or didn’t exercise enough, or felt anxious, lonely or depressed, those things are all part of the process.
This is not the time to be punishing yourself. If you get out of bed every day and are showing up for whatever you need to do, you’re doing great.
We’ll all get through it together, and in the meantime, let’s go easy on ourselves.