Saul Rosenthal, PhD

HEALTH PSYCHOLOGIST

"Keep calm and carry on"

“What do we do?”
“I don’t know how I’m going to make it!”
“I can’t imagine what’ll happen tomorrow.”

These are just some of the things I’m hearing these days. The situation with the novel coronavirus changes almost minute-to-minute. We are living in a time of crisis. Uncertainty is the new normal. When the world around you seems out of control, and even the so-called experts are freaking out, What are we to do?

First, we need to remind ourselves that in just a few days, the world, to paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda (who in turned paraphrased others), is upside down. It’s not surprising that everything feels somehow off. Suddenly thrust into uncertainty, how do we respond?

Take stock. Check your perspective. Take a slow breath, low in your abdomen. Examine what you are doing. Are you glued to the Internet, looking for news? Constantly sharing the latest theories and advice through social media? Are you hunting down every last bottle of hand sanitizer (or, at this point, the ingredients to make your own)?

If you are doing any of these things, that’s okay. Many, many people are. However, if you want to reduce your anxiety, ask yourself — honestly! — “Is this a helpful response?

That question should be forefront. Is it helpful to review CDC guidelines for reducing viral transmission? Yes. Is it helpful to spend 8 straight hours on social media, looking for new tidbits of information? Probably not.

We all need to find the balance point between adjusting to an ever-changing reality and maintaining our lives. That is not a goal to reach. It is an ideal to move towards. Adjusting to changing circumstances is something we do all the time. Remind yourself of that.

Remind yourself also that extremes are easy to fall into and that they serve a purpose — they are attempts to manage anxiety. Trying to learn everything possible is a way of trying to reduce uncertainty to zero. Trying to ignore everything is a way of trying to erase the problem that triggered the uncertainty.

Neither strategy works for long. Maintaining the middle path between facing threat and maintaining our lives is challenging. It is a process we continually work towards. But it absolutely returns a sense of control and, in turn, truly reduces anxiety.

Regaining a sense of control starts with accepting that you can’t control everything — including really big things. You cannot control the virus. In fact, trying to control the spread of the coronavirus is the same as trying to keep a plane in the air by gripping onto the arms of your seat.

Letting go of the need to control everything is not the same as giving up. In fact, it’s the opposite. Acceptance is an active approach of consciously directing your attention away from something that eats up too much time and energy. Doing so allows you to use your resources to attend to what you can control. For example, instead of spending all day on the internet trying to find definitive answers, consciously decide to only spend 15 minutes, three times a day, online (stay with trustworthy sources and set a timer). Put aside time to exercise. Engage in a creative activity. Try something new. Finish those household projects. 

It may help to have a concrete plan. Spend the first part of your day laying out a schedule. When will you work? When will you exercise? When will you relax? When will you spend (virtual) time with friends and loved ones?

And then, follow your plan. It will not always be easy. Anxiety may try to pull you into the rabbit hole of the information superhighway (does anybody call it that anymore?). Resist. You are stronger than your anxiety. Respond to it with a proactive, conscious choice to do the opposite. Remember to find the joy in life and spread it however possible.

My colleague, Inna Khazan, wonderfully lays out a response to uncertainty and anxiety that she labels FLARE:

  • Feel the anxiety. Accepting that you are anxious is okay. But instead of reacting to it, notice it. Where is it? Are your shoulders tight? Is your breathing labored? Do you have butterflies in your stomach? Anxiety is an automatic, physiologic reaction to a threat. But just because you feel threatened doesn’t mean you actually are threatened. 
  • Label the experience. Remind yourself that what you are feeling is the consequence of “uncertainty” (or whatever makes sense as a label). It is the inaccurate reaction of your threat response system. But it’s not helpful to react to a nonexistent threat.
  • Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable. So much is out of our control, it’s okay to feel anxious about that.
  • Respond to the discomfort. Do something that helps reduce the discomfort while accepting both it and the thoughts that drive it. The truth is, we don’t have the answers. Trying to deny that will simply feel untrue and make the distress worse. Instead, focus on the discomfort itself. Try some physical relaxation, for example low and slow breathing. Tell yourself that it is okay not to know. Remind yourself that you are doing the best you can, and anybody struggling in such a time benefits from kindness and compassion. Give yourself some of that kindness and compassion.
  • Expand your attention. Go beyond the discomfort to take in things around you. Start with the physical. The chair you are sitting in. The walls of the room. The ground beneath your feet. Then include how you are feeling inside. The rhythm of your breath. Tension in your shoulders. And then to your thoughts besides the virus. What else is going on? What’s for dinner? What are you planning to do for fun?

The FLARE approach helps to remind us that there is more to our experience than the discomfort of uncertainty. I am not suggesting that you deny that we are living in a time steeped with uncertainty. I am not suggesting that you should not be anxious.

Rather, I’m reminding us that there is more to our experience than this moment in time. And certainly more to our experience than our anxiety tells us. As we make our ways through this time of crisis, let’s do our best to answer the question, “Is this a helpful response?” with a resounding, “YES!”

March 19th, 2020

Posted In: Calm

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