Are you struggling to maintain balance as the world gets crazier and less predictable every day? You’re not alone. Everyone is anxious right now. A global pandemic with no end in sight, a polarizing and protracted election, daily news filled with stories unimaginable a few months ago. It’s all too much, and yet, it’s where we are. What to do?
Read on for six things you can start doing today to cope with the chaos:
- Accept your anxiety. This advice may seem counterintuitive, like I’m suggesting you invite a gang of street thugs in for tea. But research shows that anxiety becomes more manageable when you turn towards it rather than pushing it away. With anxiety and other emotions, the maxim, “what you resist persists” holds. Trying not to have a feeling makes it stronger. On the other hand, when you make room for a feeling- without minimizing or magnifying it- it becomes more manageable. Learn more here. Next time you feel anxious, acknowledge your anxiety by saying silently or aloud, “I’m anxious,” or “I’m scared.” Take a breath, imagining you’re making space for your feelings. Follow this by saying something compassionate as if talking to a friend, such, “I get it; this is a scary time.”
- Don’t go it alone. Our society admires independence, yet our brains are wired for connection, and we need other people to help us feel secure and grounded. Talking to someone about what you’re thinking and feeling can be both relieving and clarifying. A word of caution: there’s a difference between talking and venting. Talking is productive when it connects you with other people or helps you understand and work through your experience. Venting, on the other hand, is counterproductive and doesn’t help you feel better for long or to move through your feelings. Instead, it can magnify and aggravate emotions as well as push other people away. When you vent, you’re not progressing; you’re dumping, stewing, or churning. Occasional venting is unavoidable and feels good temporarily, but a venting pattern keeps you stuck and isolated. How to tell the difference? Notice, do you feel better for more than a few minutes? Do you feel close and connected to the person you were talking with? If the answer is yes, you were talking productively.
- Tend to your nervous system. This is especially important amidst unprecedented stressors of a global pandemic. Before checking email or news, start your morning with something calming and centering, such as meditation, prayer, exercise, yoga, or journaling. Spend time in nature. Studies have shown that the simple act of looking up into the branches of a tree for one minute reduces stress and increases compassion. Taking short breaks to walk around your house or office building can significantly impact your mood and energy levels. Practice mindfulness by looking at the sky or trees as you walk. Tip: if your mind continues to whirl like a wild banshee, give it something to focus on. Repeat a calming phrase or word such as peace, or see how many shades of green you can find.
- Take positive action. The news is full of alarming events over which we have little control, which is problematic for mental health. Research shows when you feel unable to control what happens to you, stress levels escalate followed by despair and hopelessness. You might respond by giving up and becoming resigned, which deepens emotional distress. Yet you can regain a sense of agency by doing something you can control. Get involved by volunteering, donating blood or plasma, calling elected officials, or donating to a charitable organization or political campaign. Stay in motion by doing one small thing each day. If you’re at a loss of where to begin, spend a few minutes googling, “how can I help —“, filling in the sentence with a cause you care about.
- Compartmentalize current events. Each time you read something upsetting, your body gets a shot of cortisol, nature’s way of preparing you for fight, flight, or freeze, as if you’re under attack. When this reaction becomes chronic, it leads to exhaustion and depleted coping reserves. (Learn more). Regain control of your mental and emotional environment by being proactive about news consumption. Before the pandemic, I checked the news several times a day. Lately, though, morning news deflates me, and scrolling through news throughout the day makes me feel jangled and distressed. Now I’m reading news only at lunch on workdays and using the weekends to get caught up. Reframing this restraint as good self-care helps me stick to it.
- Consider the impact of your history. Current events can be especially upsetting if they’re reminiscent of previous difficult experiences. For some, an aggressive political figure may trigger memories of an abusive or controlling parent or partner. Bullying in the news can stir up painful memories of being mistreated or marginalized. Likewise, a person who’s been harmed by religion can feel threatened by the religious rhetoric in today’s politics. If these scenarios apply to you, your current feelings and reactions may be magnified, as if gasoline has been thrown on a smoldering fire. Try journaling about your reactions and emotions, which increases self-awareness, facilitates working through traumatic events, and increases emotional equilibrium. As you do this, be as compassionate and patient as possible. A soft, caring stance toward yourself helps you regain balance and safety. Self-criticism only increases stress and triggers another fight, flight,r freeze response.
Remember, in chaotic times, it’s helpful to focus on small things you can do on a daily basis to stay healthy and (relatively) sane. Focus on these six steps to give you a sense of safety and control:
- Accept your anxiety and other emotions.
- Don’t go it alone.
- Tend to your nervous system.
- Take positive action.
- Compartmentalize current events.
- Consider the impact of your history.