“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:
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!”
Saul Rosenthal, PhD March 19th, 2020
Posted In: Calm