Dealing with anxiety and depression in the age of Coronavirus

I very much enjoyed this conversation, which talks about cultural and structural causes of anxiety and depression. I found it a very worthwhile listen while I’m staying at home, and I think my readers will as well. It’s part of a Rolling Stone podcast called Useful Idiots.

The conversation starts about halfway through the podcast episode and is just under an hour long. Enjoy!

Useful Idiots interview with Johann Hari

Coronavirus – what can I do?

The old and compromised have their lives at stake. But what about the rest of us? I’ve been thinking a lot about what my strategy should be – what can I do?

Consider the worst case scenario, something like what Italy is experiencing as I write this. Our hospitals become overwhelmed with people coming in because they are having difficulty breathing. As more and more resources are dedicated to helping these people, less resources are available for everyday health needs, such as pregnancies, work injuries, etc.

The curve below illustrates best and worst case scenarios:


By slowing the spread of the disease, we can help ensure our healthcare system doesn’t become overwhelmed. This is systems thinking in action – what’s good for my community is good for me. If we all think, “What can I do to flatten the curve,” we can get through this together with minimal damage.

So… What can I do? I’m following the CDC guidelines, washing my hands regularly, trying to avoid touching my face, and cancelling trips to events where I’d be in close proximity to lots of other people – concerts, conferences, etc. I’m not going to the gym, but I’m going to keep paying those fees because those folks need to make it through this too.

And yes I’m doing this before I hear that the virus is spreading through my community, because the time to act is now.


Some beliefs

I’ve been paying attention to politics a lot lately, trying to understand how we got to such a polarized place. As a citizen of a republic, and one who wants to keep it, I think about what I can do personally to make a difference. This morning I started thinking about some fundamental beliefs that I’ve come to over the years. I thought it would be good to write some of them down.

I believe that people, given the opportunity to do meaningful work, in a system that helps them do it well, will do their best. Broken systems lead to demotivation and malaise.

I believe that people are wired for connection, and that cooperating with each other is in our nature.

I believe that if someone isn’t winning, at some point they’ll stop playing the game.

I believe that government should cooperate with industry with an aim of everybody wins.

I believe that a free press is a critical check on government and industry, and its aim must be to contribute to the common good. Pandering to a selected audience for short term profits is a debilitating disease.

I believe that people have more in common than they are lead to believe by the media.

There’s more, and I’m sure I’ll expand this list, but this is what’s top of mind for me right now.

Curing sleep apnea

For many years I’ve struggled with insomnia. I remember this starting back around 2011 when Mari and I first moved to Utah to get the office started. It was tough moving away from my kids, and I’m sure that had something to do with it, plus all the pressure of getting a new office started. Then as the company grew, and office politics crept in, I ended up in a pretty high pressure situation.

At some point it got so bad that I started using medical marijuana to help me get to sleep at night. And when that stopped being effective, I started taking sleeping pills like Ambien. At this point I realized I had to do something different. Around that time Mari happened to meet someone whose husband also struggled with sleep, but it turned out he had sleep apnea. Mari thought that could be my problem as well, since she’d been worrying lately listening to my breathing. Sometimes I’d stop for quite awhile and then restart with a gasp.

Mari’s friend, whose husband had since been sleeping much better, connected us with Dr. Damaris Drewry, who was instrumental in his cure. After talking with Dr. Drewry, I learned that there are actually two types of sleep apnea, although most people only are aware of the first – obstructive sleep apnea. This is where the airway is physically blocked and a CPAP machine is typically prescribed to keep it open via positive pressure. I’d tried a CPAP machine and found it incredibly frustrating to sleep with. When Dr. Drewry explained the second type of sleep apnea, I saw a glimmer of hope. This second type, central sleep apnea, is where the brain stops sending signals to the body to tell it to breathe. This is more neurological and is often based in deep rooted trauma. Some of the questions she asked me were interesting – have you ever held your breath in response to a fearful situation? Have you ever had a near drowning experience? Were you abused or neglected as a child? And so on…

I spent several weeks after that working with Dr. Drewry over the phone. During that time we reviewed experiences in my past that she believed could lead to my central nervous system locking up my breathing at night. PTSD that runs 24 hours a day, basically, keeping me breathing shallowly, and stopping my breathing at night while I sleep. I didn’t realize it early on, but she was teaching me how I could cure myself of the apnea. And sure enough, I’ve been sleeping quite well since the work I did with her back in April of this year. I’ll be forever grateful to her, and I wanted to let others know about my success. If you’ve been struggling with sleep apnea, I think you’d find it worthwhile to learn a little bit about central sleep apnea, and see if Dr. Drewry’s work can benefit you as well.

You’ll find her website at I’d be happy to share my own experience with insomnia and how Dr. Drewry helped me – just contact me here and we can set up a time to chat.


Offending from the victim position

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life, called “My Effing First Amendment”, which includes the story of Katie, a young conservative activist who, guided by a right-wing group dedicated to influencing students on college campuses in the US, set up a table at the University of Nebraska. It wasn’t long before a professorcourtney named Courtney spotted her, and, outraged, began a one-person picket line in front of Katie’s table. Listen to the episode if you’d like to hear what transpired, but suffice it to say, Courtney found herself so outraged that she ended up calling Katie names and flipping her the bird. All Katie had to do was film Courtney doing all of this, which enraged Courtney further.

As most of my readers know, I’m not a big fan of right-wing groups, and I’m not here to defend Katie’s political ideas. What I’d like to point out is that behaving like Courtney did isn’t making anything better. It’s called offending from the victim position, and it’s the way violence is justified in the vast majority of situations. You hit me, I’ll hit back 10 times harder. This is a vicious, escalating cycle. It’s much more difficult in the moment to turn the other cheek, but it’s also much more powerful in the long run, because it puts a stop to the cycle of violence, and allows for the possibility of discourse and repair.

Even more powerful than non-violent protest, what would it have looked like for Courtney to simply have sat down with Katie and talked? Perhaps to try to get beyond the slogans and messaging that Katie was delivering and find out about Katie, simply as a human being? I’ll bet Courtney and Katie have more in common than they realize. They both have family and friends that they love, and they both think ideas are important and love their country.

Mari has always told me, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” By being friendly toward Katie, Courtney could have led by example and shown how it’s possible to have sane discourse and focus on what we agree upon, even in politics.

Be careful how you choose your enemies. You will become like them.

Relational repair

Ruptures in a relationship are a normal part of life. Skillful repair requires both partners to work together for the good of the relationship. The method that I prefer is based on Terry Real‘s work, and is documented with lots of examples in chapters six and seven of The New Rules of Marriage. This formal repair process isn’t necessary for all of the little bumps in the road. Where this tool is useful is when there’s been a significant rupture.

Let’s use Alice and Bob, a fictional couple, as an example. Say Alice feels hurt by something Bob did or said. It’s Alice’s job to initiate repair. She shares with her partner how she feels hurt and what she would like to be different in the future. Alice’s aim is to teach Bob how to give her what she needs, and to help him succeed. Her aim is not to unload on Bob and tell him what an awful person he is.

Asking for what you want

Both parties must be receptive for repair to be effective, because they both have to give a little, putting aside individual egos in service of the relationship. So Alice checks to see if Bob is in a good place for a difficult conversation: “Bob, I’ve got some feedback that I’d like to share with you. Is this a good time?” If Bob is feeling centered and can put up his boundaries and listen in a healthy way, he’ll reply, “Yes.” Otherwise he should let Alice know that he’s not ready and propose another time.

When Bob is ready, Alice’s next step is to take a breath and remember that she loves Bob. When we’re feeling hurt, it’s often difficult to be measured in our words, so taking this step to remember love is crucial.

Now Alice takes four steps to explain herself, briefly, to her partner. She speaks from her own experience, uses “I” phrases, and owns her own thoughts and feelings. Preferably keep each of these to a single sentence. Allowing this to turn into a lecture will defeat the purpose.

  1. What I saw and heard.
  2. What I made up about that.
  3. What I felt about that.
  4. What I would like in the future.

When saying what she saw, Alice imagines what a video camera might have captured; this will have the highest likelihood of matching Bob’s experience. She avoids exaggerating and embellishing.

When saying what she thought about it, she’d be wise to say, “What I made up about that was,” which leaves lots of room for other interpretations. This is where Alice stays in her lane, owning her own thoughts, and allows that Bob might have other thoughts about what happened.

When saying what she felt, Alice speaks from the first person, “I felt ____”. It’s tempting to blame our feelings on others and use phrases like, “You made me feel ____”. Avoid using “made/makes me feel” here. Own your own feelings, because your experience is uniquely your own, and many of the feelings you are having likely have more to do with you than with your partner.

When Alice says what she’d like in the future, she’s coaching her partner on how he can succeed. She’s rooting for the relationship. “In the future, I’d prefer it if you would…”

There’s one final step in all of this – Alice lets go of the outcome. She knows she won’t always get what she wants. She knows that she doesn’t control Bob, and that it’s up to him to give whatever he can give.

This is not easy. But it works much better than most typical strategies of trying to control your partner, yelling, screaming, nagging, withdrawing, being passive/aggressive, and so on. The more I practice this, the more natural it feels.

Listening without being defensive

What’s Bob doing during all of this? He’s listening to understand. He’s putting aside his own thoughts and feelings, and being fully receptive to what Alice has to say. He knows that repair is a one way process. It’s not his turn to talk about what he thinks or how he feels; if he has something to share, he can do that at another time. This is Alice’s time, and he gives her that gift because he values the relationship.

When Alice talks about what she saw and heard, if she’s skillful, Bob won’t find much to disagree with here. It’s when she moves into what she thought and felt that Bob will have to hold a strong boundary. If Bob pays attention, he will get a better understanding of Alice’s thought process and how she feels about things. It’s critical that Bob spends this time listening to Alice instead of focusing on building his own defense. Otherwise he’ll miss out on some important learning. And though Bob may disagree with much of Alice’s reasoning, there’s almost always a seed of truth in there. As a skillful listener, Bob is looking for those seeds. This is the most difficult part, and it’s where Bob’s internal boundary really matters. Bob listens and pays attention to what Alice’s story is, and he doesn’t have feelings about anything that is not true for him. He knows that this is about Alice, not about him.

When Alice talks about how she felt, this is Bob’s chance to be empathic. Since Bob has heard the story in Alice’s head (what she made up), he’s much more likely to understand her feelings. He’d probably feel something similar if he had that same story in his head. If Bob listens empathically here, he’s likely to soften up and feel compassion for Alice.

Giving what you can

When Alice asks for what she wants in the future, Bob will listen to see what he can give. Often what Alice will ask for will be easy for Bob to give, sometimes not so much.

Once Alice is done speaking, Bob gets a chance to ask questions, to be curious about what he heard. It’s important to focus on understanding, and not being defensive. This helps Alice feel like she’s really understood, and it helps Bob get a better understanding of where Alice is coming from, and how she arrived at the story that’s playing in her head.

Now it’s time for Bob to step up and say what he’s willing to give. If he’s skillful, he’ll give as much as he possibly can without overcommitting himself. Making a promise you don’t intend to keep is a recipe for disaster.


This article is a brief summary of an effective repair process. For further study, I recommend Terry’s book, The New Rules of Marriage. Terry offers a 2-day Relationship Boot Camp from time to time, but if you don’t want to travel, you can watch an online course which covers a subset of the material called Staying in Love. Mari and I have read the book and taken the online course, and we’ve found both to be great resources.

And once again, remember that this is not just about marriage – repair is a critical tool in any relationship. An intimate relationship such as marriage is the most difficult place to be skillful, because the stakes are so high. And so are the rewards!

Relationships are cyclic

Just like the circle of life, a relationship between two people is cyclical. Since I discovered this, I’ve found that I have more courage to stand strong and compassionate when the other is going off the rails. Here’s what it looks like:

The Auspicious Cycle

1. Harmony

2. Rupture

3. Repair

When my relationship with Mari is in harmony, I feel a deep sense of peace, abundant joy, and safety. This is the normal state of affairs these days. Then the stresses of life kick in and tickle us in just the right way that there’s a rupture. Now I experience a variety of hurt feelings, and maybe even some distrust creeps in. Once things have calmed down and we both are back (somewhat) from being triggered, one of us will initiate repair.

If the repair is delivered skillfully and received skillfully, both of us feel heard and understood, and, while we may not get all that we want, we return to harmony again.

If the repair is either not delivered or received skillfully, we will develop resentment for the other. In the early days of our relationship it was more likely that we’d simply put on a happy face, pretend we are okay, and move on, burying the hurt. This is what it used to look like for us (and I think this is the norm in many relationships):

The Vicious Cycle

1. Tolerable

2. Rupture

3. Bury the hurt

A mentor of mine once shared with me the phrase, “Tolerably intolerable”, and I think most of us live in that space in many of our relationships, because we aren’t good at repair (many people have no clue what harmony looks like, because they’ve so rarely experienced it).

These really aren’t just cycles, but rather spirals, because with each pass, the relationship is either strengthened or weakened. The auspicious cycle spirals up: with each successful repair we develop more trust and repair becomes easier next time, while the vicious cycle spirals down: with each hurt we bury, we add another brick of resentment to the wall that we are slowly erecting between each other.

These cycles apply in any relationship, not just intimate ones, so even if you’re not married, you’ll find that a study of relationship skills can go a long way toward helping you develop long lasting relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

Next up, an article dedicated to relational repair.

The sexual boundary

This is the third in a three part series. Here is a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me from, among other things, unwanted closeness or touch from others, the sexual boundary takes this one step further.

My sexual boundary protects me by allowing me to control where, how, when, and with whom I will be sexual.

I have the right to protect myself this way, and I show self respect and self compassion for standing up for this right.

And I contain myself by giving you the same respect.

This boundary implies asking whenever in doubt of what another wants sexually. Even with a partner that you’ve been sexual with for years, having a conversation like this can be refreshing.

The words, “be sexual”, are pretty vague, and everyone will have a different definition. My wife and I have had conversations about this and I have learned a lot about what is sexual for her. And it’s different from what I find to be sexual. I remember after having those conversations how respected I felt that she would be willing to honor my boundaries. And after years of violating hers, she now feels much more respected by me that I’ll ask when I’m not sure.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you really get your head around these ideas.

The internal boundary

This is part 2 of a three part post. Here’s a link to part 1.

While my physical boundary protects me externally, I also need a boundary that delineates my thoughts and feelings from yours. This is the internal boundary.

Inside the internal boundary is a peaceful, safe space. Mine is the deck of a ship on a glassy ocean, with my wife Mari next to me. I smell the ocean. I see the peaceful water and an occasional seagull floating by. I hear the flapping of sails and the creaking of wood. I can feel the support and warmth of the lounge in which I’m reclining. I feel the warmth of Mari’s hand in mine. Here I am safe. Nothing can get to me. With practice, I’ve been able to get to this place remarkably quickly.

My boundary is a force field. I imagine that it creates waves in the atmosphere around me, and I can reach out a finger and touch it, “Zzzzzttt”. Yours will be different – you just have to imagine something that feels right. Mari has a set of hula hoops that spin up around her. Just make sure there’s room for something to get through so you don’t end up with a wall.

When someone speaks to me, my internal boundary keeps me safe from their words. It’s like an inspection station – as I hear those words I’m constantly asking, “is this true for me?” Pia proposes that there are three answers: yes, no, and “I’m not sure.” If the answer is yes, I take the words in and have feelings about them. I let the words touch me. I may even change my mind about something as a result. This is part of my continuing development as a human.

If the answer is no, I don’t take them in. I don’t have feelings about them. I imagine them going “plink, plink” off my boundary and just sliding off. There’s something about that visualization that really helps me – I suppose I’m so focused on “plink, plink” that I don’t have time to have feelings about the words.

If the answer is, “I’m not sure,” I say something like, “I’ll have to think about that and get back to you in a few days.” And that’s a promise that I must honor if I am to remain trustworthy.

Can you see the difference between this and a wall? A healthy internal boundary is strong, and at the same time, it’s porous. Using a wall only makes sense when you’re trapped in a situation with an abusive person and you have no way to flee.

One downside of “plink, plink” is that, like all of us, I have blind spots. I find it helpful to imagine grabbing those “plinked” words before they completely disappear and queuing them up for awhile. That way I can look for patterns, “Wait, I’ve heard this from several people. Maybe I have a blind spot. I should talk to a trusted friend about this instead of just ignoring it.”

Boundaries are a daily practice, and I sometimes get caught with my guard down. Recently Terry Real gave me some advice for this situation. I now visualize a way of getting something OUT of my boundary if it got in by accident. I imagine a vacuum cleaner sucking the ick out of my safe space. Like “plink, plink”, this helps let those feelings go when they are from words that I’ve realized aren’t true for me. And on my worst days, I don’t do any of this stuff and I’m just damned hard to be around. As time goes on I’m having less of those days 🙂

Okay, so that’s the protection bit. Now let’s talk about containment, which is just as important.

Containment is all about being thoughtful. It’s an inspection station for my outgoing words. As I’ve become more mindful, I find myself slowing down a little. In my head, I’ll play the words I’d like to say and imagine how the recipient will experience them, given what I know of her reality. And if I think it’ll be hurtful, I’ll back up and play some different words. With difficult topics, I find myself doing this many times before I find the right words to convey my meaning. Once I think the words won’t be hurtful, I’ll share them. This thoughtfulness has increased the harmony in my relationships.

Even on my best days, others may still feel hurt when they hear my words. I can never know the entirety of another’s reality. Even with a healthy containment boundary, there will be situations where my words are interpreted by the other as hurtful. And there are plenty of times when, in the heat of the moment, I forget entirely to follow this process (I’m “boundaryless” in those moments). The delightful thing is, relationships cycle in and out of harmony all the time, and I have learned an effective repair process. I’ll write about that in a future article.

And finally, part 3, the sexual boundary.

This material on boundaries comes from Pia Mellody’s work. Please support her efforts at The Meadows by purchasing her audio CD on the topic. She provides a lot of examples that will help you get your head around these ideas.