How to cope in an age of uncertainty
By Dan Martinson, PsyD
We are living in a time of unprecedented anxiety. We have constant access to news of outbreaks and economic turmoil. We are experiencing social disruptions. We have lost social supports and routines.
The future is uncertain and this is the perfect recipe for anxiety.
If you Google the definition of anxiety, you will find this: “Anxiety (noun): a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”
Are you facing any imminent events in your life right now? Any uncertain outcomes? I think we all are.
It is perfectly normal and understandable to be feeling anxious in the age of COVID-19. In fact, anxiety is a healthy reaction to unfamiliar, possibly threatening circumstances. It can prompt us to pay attention, plan ahead, and keep ourselves safe.
Unfortunately, our over-stimulated minds can easily transform helpful nudges of anxiety into decapitating lashings of panic. Since COVID-19 is “too close to home,” I will use another example to illustrate how this can happen:
Imagine you have a big test coming up. It is very important to you that you do well on this test. Yet when you sit down to study, you find that studying is the last thing you want to do. It makes you feel uncomfortable. You feel overwhelmed by all of the information in front of you. You doubt your ability to absorb it. You are concerned that you will not do well. Maybe you are experiencing shortness of breath, tightness in your chest, or a pit in your stomach. You get swept up in thoughts of all of the terrible, horrible things that could go wrong. Those possible future catastrophes quickly become inevitable facts in your mind. They go something like this:
- I will fail the test.
- I will fail the test after that.
- I will fail the class.
- I will not get into the college/graduate program/profession that I want.
- I will be stuck in some job that I hate for the rest of my life.
- I will die, alone and friendless.
By now, your heart is racing and you feel close to hyperventilating. You stop studying for the test. That small, uncomfortable feeling of anxiety was supposed to prompt you to pay attention, study hard, and perform well on the test. However, the anxiety quickly spiraled out of control in your body and mind. It caused you to freeze up, freak yourself out, and avoid preparing effectively.
Thankfully, there is a way you can capitalize on your anxiety so it works for you rather than against you. I will break it down into five steps:
1. Recognize your anxious feelings and thoughts.
Until you can pause and notice what you are feeling in your body and thinking in your mind, you are at the mercy of your anxiety. Once you notice where anxiety is popping up (“Oh, there is that pit in my stomach. And — yep — there is that thought that I will lose my job!”), you are actually in a position to decide how to respond.
This first step is simple, but not easy. Be patient with yourself as you practice it. I hope you would not expect yourself to instantly become proficient in speaking another language or playing a new sport or musical instrument. You should know that these things take patient, persistent practice. The same is true for noticing anxious feelings and thoughts.
2. Slow down and “press pause.”
Do not run away from the feelings and thoughts you are noticing. Stay with them for a minute.
This is where deep breathing can be really helpful. Take slow breaths in through your nose for 3-4 seconds, hold your breath for 1-2 seconds, and breathe out slowly through your mouth for 3-4 seconds. Find a pace that feels right for you. Make sure you are taking deep breaths from your stomach, not shallow breaths from your chest. Keep this up for at least 30 seconds to fully settle into the pattern, and see if you can “get comfortable” noticing your feelings and thoughts while you do so.
Pro tip: Expect that the more anxious you feel, the longer you will have to stay on this step. If you are experiencing a full-blown panic attack, it might be 5-10 minutes before you can really slow your breathing down and get it under control. That is okay. Pull up a deep breathing app as your guide, or call a supportive friend to walk you through it.
3. Ask yourself if these feelings and thoughts are helpful right now.
You are now in a better position to evaluate whether the anxious feelings and thoughts are helping you act effectively and get you where you want to go, or whether they are taking you in an unhelpful direction. If they are seeming helpful, then hold onto them! A mild to moderate amount of anxiety can help you face challenges more effectively than if you had no anxiety at all.
But if your anxious thoughts and feelings seem to be taking you in an unhelpful direction…
4. Step out from under the anxiety spiral.
Take a break. Go for a walk, if safe and possible. Have a conversation with a loved one. Eat something healthy. Exercise. Then get back to doing the things that are important and necessary.
As you engage in these activities, keep your focus fully in the present moment. Do not try to distract yourself from your anxiety. Rather, continue to be open to and aware of your feelings and thoughts. If you notice anxiety building up to an unhelpful place again…
5. Repeat steps 1-4.
Maybe this seems like a never-ending anxiety loop. Some days, it might feel that way. Yet as you continue to practice, you may notice that your anxiety holds less sway over you. Your anxiety may gradually transform from a tyrant that controls you to a companion that helps you.
Dan Martinson, PsyD, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at the Virginia Tech Cook Counseling Center, where he helps students pursue more open, aware, and engaged lives.