In beforetimes, the screentime bar graph on my iPhone, which shows how much time I spend on the device, was a neat collection of short rectangles. I took pride in my self-control. I enjoyed putting my energy elsewhere.
And after the coronavirus?
Well, on a typical June morning, I hit the Time Limit warning I programmed on Twitter before I finished my coffee, and, as I sipped, I thumbed right past the OK button and mashed hard on “Ignore Limit For Today.”
There are stories I could tell about why my phone use shot up so dramatically. I was reading the news! I was learning about important things! The more I knew, I reasoned, the safer my family would be from this terrible virus.
Even as I told myself those stories, I knew I was a liar. Those stories were, at best, only partly true. The truest story was that staying so connected to my phone kept me disconnected from my feelings. I was numbing out.
One month in, 56% of Americans said the coronavirus negatively impacted their mental health.
Three months in, I had to admit I was among them.
I hold a graduate degree in psychology, and I’ve been practicing Buddhist mindfulness meditation for 13 years, so I had an idea of what was happening. I was worried. I was anxious. I had no idea what would happen next. In other words, I was suffering, and I was trying — desperately — to find a way out of that uncomfortable fact.
Suffering, according to Buddhism, is the unsatisfactoriness and painfulness of everyday life. In this lens, suffering is wanting things to be other than what they are. With a pandemic like Covid-19, there are a great many things I wish were different. While that is a normal wish, it does lead to painful feelings.
Doomscrolling like I was, although common, isn’t the most skillful way to respond to these feelings. Disconnecting like this hurts our mental health and, researchers say, is associated with decreased well-being and increased depression. Avoiding suffering is not the same as ameliorating suffering. We need to find a way through instead.
How can we find a way through?
We can start with the acceptance of suffering and painful feelings. “Pain is not wrong,” says psychologist and Buddhist teacher Tara Brach whose books include Radical Compassion, which explores using mindfulness to foster acceptance.
In her book, Dr. Brach suggests using a four-step acceptance process called RAIN, which stands for recognize, allow, investigate, and nurture. The four steps of RAIN, Dr. Brach says, can help “guide you in listening and responding” to your own inner wisdom so you can better cope with painful feelings.
I decided to see whether RAIN could help me respond to my coronavirus anxiety more skillfully.
Here’s how I did it.
The first step of RAIN is to recognize the sensations you are feeling in your body. This step is all about noticing, without judgment. You can ask yourself, “What is happening inside me right now?”
One morning when I was doomscrolling, I set down my phone, closed my eyes, and asked myself that question. Here’s what I noticed right away: I can feel my blood pumping and my heart racing.
The second step is to allow the sensations you feel to just be.
You don’t have to do anything to change those sensations and feelings. You are only seeing if you can sit with your experience. You can ask yourself, “Can I be with what is inside me?”
When I asked myself that question, with my phone down and eyes closed, I was surprised that I could, in fact, tolerate the uncomfortable sensations I had recognized. I told myself: I can be with my pumping blood and racing heart. I can notice how that feels in my chest and stomach and even in my pinky toes. The feeling is all over my body.
The third step of RAIN, investigate, is about getting curious.
The goal is to uncover what the sensations you are experiencing mean to you. Many times, we attach a story to our sensations and feelings. To reveal the story you may be telling yourself, you can ask yourself these guiding questions: “What is really happening inside me? What am I believing? What does this feeling want from me?”
This is the step that rocked me. Most mornings, on my phone, I disconnected from my feelings so quickly I didn’t have a chance to listen to them. But they had a message for me all the same. When I did listen, I finally heard that message. This is what I learned: I feel like I want to hide. I feel unsafe. I want to feel safe.
Time for the final step of RAIN: Nurture.
Nurture is an invitation to exercise self-directed TLC. It presents an opportunity to take compassionate action toward yourself. To discover how you can do this, try asking these questions: Can I be with this with kindness? What is the most vulnerable part of me saying? How does this part want me to be with it? What does this part most need?
When I asked myself these questions, I heard a clear answer: The most vulnerable part of me is saying that it needs help to feel safer. I decided to honor this answer by taking steps to calm my nervous system. I began to make regular time for stretch breaks during the day. It’s a small thing, but stretching is one way to calm my body and let it know it is safe in this moment.
It’s been a month since I began using RAIN during Covid-19. It has not taken away the painful feelings associated with life during a pandemic, but it has added some peace while living through one. My mental health is better, and when my iPhone’s time limit notification appears, I yield more of the time.
Feeling our pain, I’ve found, frees us to find the possibility of something beyond it.