Anxiety in Uncertain Times
The COVID-19 pandemic is the first we’ve had to deal with in the US. Our routines are disrupted, the economy is in trouble, many people’s livelihoods are threatened, parents are scrambling to provide child care for kids, stores have long lines and empty shelves as people panic- buy. We see images of how it has ravaged other countries and fear for our own safety and well-being, and that of our families and communities.
Most of us are not used to this kind of chaos and uncertainty. People have different levels of tolerance for the unknown and for uncertainty as well as different amounts of social and financial resources. Social distancing is a new concept and practice for us, which while helping to keep the virus from spreading, can create its own problems of social isolation, depression and anxiety.
Fear and panic are at least as contagious as the virus itself. While anxiety itself is a natural response to a challenging situation, making us alert and helping us respond in ways that keep us safe and functioning, it becomes problematic when it becomes chronic or morphs into panic.
People especially susceptible to extreme anxiety or panic about the virus often have suffered some trauma in their lives. You have already lived through something extreme and unprecedented and the current situation creates a PTSD type response. If you tend to be an anxious person or are a highly sensitive person, you may also tend to be more prone to catastrophizing and panic.
Without our usual routines and structure, it becomes especially important to create new ones to help us manage these unprecedented, uncertain times with as much equanimity as possible. Below are some suggestions as well as resources.
Rising Up After Falling
You can fall
but you can rise also.
- Angelique Kidjo
Often many of us don't take risks as we may fear looking foolish or falling flat on our faces. This fear of falling, whether literally ( ice skating, riding a bike, climbing) or metaphorically ( public speaking, studying something new, communicating differently) may hold us back from growth, connection, expansion, mastery and enjoyment!
This brings to mind what it's like for babies who are learning to stand and walk. If they gave up the first time they tried to stand up and fell down, they would never master walking! Luckily, human development is biologically programmed so babies don't and can't give up. On the other hand, it's also more than biological programming. Watch a baby mastering something new like walking. They are curious, they are determined, they are not afraid of failure or of looking foolish, they have fun! Although they fall repeatedly, they also rise again repeatedly, with determination and delight.
How does this translate to us as adults? It is not always as easy to have this same determination, as over the years we have learned to feel shame or inadequacy, we may compare ourselves to others, we may have been laughed at, made fun of or bullied. So trying new things and the fear of falling or looking foolish is more loaded. Yet as Angelique Kidjo's lyric says, though you may fall, you can always rise up again.
What is to prevent you from rising up again if and when you fall? How has the fear of falling become greater than the determination to rise up again? The next time you get trapped in this cycle of fear and inhibition, make a point of watching a baby learning to walk! They fall repeatedly but they determinedly get up again and again, until they have mastered the skill. They may wobble around for a while, but then they walk, then run and skip. Can you apply this idea to anything in your life?
If you would like assistance in breaking this cycle of fear,
call me for a consultation
Which side is up?
Don't worry that your Life
is turning upside down.
How do you know that
the side you are used to
is better than the one to come?
Human beings are creatures of habit. Change that arrives without having specifically been invited is often viewed as disastrous.
Life is really minimally under human control, but most people carefully craft and attempt to control their lives, to not have to face this reality. Many people think they know what is best for their individual lives (not to mention the world at large); everyone certainly has their preferences ( based on their lives so far).
When that carefully crafted life is confronted with a challenge, when life feels like it is turned upside down, panic often ensues. A health issue, a lost job, relationship or home can all feel catastrophic. It's hard to imagine that the upside down vantage point might be beneficial, might even be better!
How life being turned upside down effects each individual has a lot to do with how change was experienced and dealt with in childhood. Was it something to be avoided at all costs? Or was if faced head on, encouraged?
It can be growthful, although upsetting, to be forced to see things from a different perspective, to shake things up and challenge what has become known, familiar and comfortable. There may be grief for what is lost, but there are new things to experience, see and live when the world tilts in the other direction.
Assumptions or Facts?
Your assumptions are
your windows on the world.
Scrub them off every once
in awhile, or the light
won't come in.
Most of the time perceptions are based on past experiences, rather than what may actually be going on in the moment. The brain organizes experience by sorting, generalizing and categorizing. This was certainly important for survival in ancient times, and to a certain degree, still is important to make our way through the world without having to learn everything over and over again.
On the other hand, the mind seizes on past experience and makes assumptions about what you are experiencing now, or what you anticipate you will feel or experience in the future. In this way, your "windows on the world" become clouded by your past.
Each person has a long list of usually unquestioned assumptions about life, based on past experiences. These assumptions may be about what life is like in general, about how people treat you or how you expect to be treated, about what you can or cannot have, about how safe or unsafe you are or life feels.
Making assumptions allows you to feel safe and in control, since consciously or unconsciously you know what to expect. But it also creates a limited life, a life where the same scenario is lived over and over, since you see the world through windows covered with the shadows and grit of your assumptions.
There is very little space to grow, to learn new things, to see things with what the Buddhists call "beginners mind." Maybe it's time to take a sponge and soapy warm water to the windows of your world, and see what new ways you may experience yourself, your relationships and life.
Curiosity will conquer fear
even more than bravery will.
~ James Stephens
Fear can be an overwhelming mental, emotional and physical experience. It can paralyze you, or push you into fight or flight mode. It often gets to the point that you may be afraid of fear, a vicious cycle that perpetuates the state of fear. It may reach the point that you are frequently in a state of fear or have set up a complex defense system of avoidance, where you aren't consciously aware of the fear, yet it is still effecting you.
I was fascinated by the above quote that suggests bringing curiosity to fear, rather than will power or courage to power through it. If fear could lose its stigma as the internal bogeyman, how might you relate to it differently? What might you learn from it?
If you try approaching fear with curiosity, you might ask yourself what the fear feels like in your body and where you feel it. If you keep your attention there, does it stay the same or does it shift? Is there a color, an image, a memory associated with the fear?
Can you trace back to the trigger of this feeling of fear? Was there a particular thought, or image, an interaction with someone or an imagined interaction with someone? When exactly did you become aware of the fear?
Does fear come up when you imagine a particular outcome in an interaction of some kind? Are there particular situations or imagined future situations or outcomes that tend to evoke fear?
There are many questions to ask yourself in an attempt to get to know, even to "befriend" the fear, at the very least to look behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz and see the little man behind the scary image of the Wizard.
Peggy Handler, MFT, is a psychotherapist in San Francisco's Noe Valley