Uncertainty Anxiety at its Core

This is a time of unprecedented uncertainty. And as that uncertainty increases as a function of incessant change in the world, people’s anxiety levels are increasing as well. For some people, this will exacerbate their existing anxiety disorder, while for others it may mean developing such a disorder for the first time. Either way, the anxiety levels are being raised.

However, not everyone is affected on the same scale. Those who are less anxious probably have a higher threshold before they are negatively impacted by the unknown and therefore better at managing their reaction to uncertain times, while those who are naturally more anxious will do quite the opposite.

There is no correct way to act, there are just different ways to react. However, experts caution that the concern comes when the magnitude of the anxiety response is disproportionate to reality.

But there is another issue as well. As David Kessler tells Harvard Business Review, much of the anxiety is grieving on a micro and a macro level about what to anticipate. Anticipatory grief is the feeling about what the future holds. Usually, it is anchored on feeling something is lost.

As Kessler, co-author of On Grief and Grieving explains, anticipatory grief is the mind going to the future and imagining the worst.

According to Kessler’s understanding, we are experiencing anticipatory grief because we realize that something is gone, and probably gone forever. Whether it’s the loss of safety, the loss of a sense of belonging caused by isolation, or the loss of a sense of feeling in control, any way you look at it, it’s loss and the accompanying grief that the future is somehow emptier and less secure.

What we need are solutions to our current predicament. Below are suggestions from professionals who help people cope with their anxiety.

1. Don’t Just React; Pause and Then React

When we react to an external stimulus, there’s a 90-second chemical process that happens in the body, putting us on full alert. The “90-second rule” is a term coined by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor in her book, My Stroke of Insight, to explain the nature and lifespan of an emotion. If you leave it uninterrupted by thoughts, you can quickly regain control of your response.

After that time, the body flushes those chemicals away. This means that, for 90 seconds, you can observe the process happening — you can experience, feel it, and then see how it goes away. You can react to this chemical alert, or you can wait until it’s gone before you act.

Next time you are overwhelmed by an emotional reaction, pause. Practice deep breaths — you can stretch your body, too — during those 90 seconds. Enjoy that moment, and don’t let emotions dictate your response.

2. Your Words Need Reframing

Dr. Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist, teaches us that, since words are powerful, the way we talk about the crisis has a direct impact on our perception. Negative words create an adverse effect, and vice versa. As Dr. Newberg explains, “The longer you concentrate on positive words, functions in the parietal lobe start to change, which changes your perception of yourself.”

For example, when we replace “isolation” (that has a negative perception) with “protection,” we begin to feel differently. It’s not that we are isolated from other people; we stay home to protect ourselves and others. Become more aware of your words, and reframe the negative ones into positive words.

3. Control What you Can

“It sounds simple, but I make a list of the things I can control and let go of the rest,” said Sean Davis, a marriage and family therapist and psychology professor at Alliant International University.

You need to identify what you can control, then take action. For example, you can have meaningful conversations with family and friends; you can apply for jobs as they become available; you can maintain a healthy routine that benefits your mental health. Practicing control will help ground you when you feel your anxiety level rising.

On a related note, Jerry Lynn Petty Jr., a licensed professional counselor in Denton, Texas, has found that consistency is key when everything in the world feels uncertain. And a great way to do this is to stick to a routine. Even if it’s a super basic one.

“I go to sleep at approximately the same time, wake up the same time, eat at the same times,” he said. “Keeping routines instills a sense of normalcy during very abnormal times.”

4. Gratitude

Kathryn Grace Zambetti, a psychotherapist and executive coach at Grace Consulting, said gratitude for what you have right now allows the brain to release thoughts tied to the future. It’s important to do this regularly, even when you aren’t in a time of crisis.

Reflect on three or four things you’re grateful for — the more specific, the better. You can acknowledge them quietly to yourself, she said, but advised that “a daily gratitude practice is also much more effective when it is said out loud or written down on paper.”

It’s remarkable how gratitude can transform anxiety. “Finding the silver lining in a new reality is super important,” Amelia Aldao, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York City and the founder of Together CBT, a clinic specializing in group therapy for anxiety, OCD, stress, and depression says.

5. Mindfulness

Meghan Renzi, LCSW-C, RYT-200, is a psychotherapist based out of Bethesda, Maryland, who is an expert in using mindfulness-based practices and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to help teens and families who are struggling with anxiety and other mental health concerns. She advocates mindfulness meditation, to reduce anxiety. Some other techniques include:

  1. Swimming or Floating in the Water: Swimming uses the entire body without putting pressure on the joints.
  2. Meditative Walking (Core Walking): The breath, body, and mind are all connected.
  3. Drinking a Cup of Tea
  4. Hiking or Connecting with Nature
  5. Gazing Meditation
  6. Guided Meditation
  7. Stretching
  8. Breathing Techniques