Tips to help manage your worrying
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that life can be unpredictable. When uncertainty hits, it’s only natural for you — and your kids — to feel anxious. Here, experts share their top strategies for staying grounded.
Worrying about the future every now and then is a normal part of life. How will my child handle their first day of school? Will I do well on this interview? Can I pay this bill on time? But for some, these occasional “what if” scenarios can become relentless, causing chronic anxiety and stress.
On top of it all, colder weather and shorter days can bring on the winter blues — feelings of fatigue and sadness. And this can make it even harder to handle the unknown this time of year.
And that’s the problem. “Much of our anxiety seems to come down to uncertainty,” says Kerrie Smedley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Annville, Pennsylvania. “But certainty is only a feeling, not a fact. We can’t ever feel 100 percent sure of anything. The coronavirus outbreak made these feelings so explicit — but uncertainty is always part of life.”
If you’re struggling with persistent anxiety, you’re not alone. Take a deep breath and follow this advice from mental health experts.
Stay-calm strategy #1: Have a plan
Worry is the ability to generate lots of negative outcomes in our minds, explains Catherine Pittman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana.
“Worry was very helpful for our ancestors,” she says. “Let’s say they saw a tiger wandering around. Some of them might think, Oh, that’s interesting, [and] then carry on with whatever they were doing. Those people were less likely to survive. But the people who worried about the tiger tended to spring into action — they might stay up all night watching out for the tiger. We are the descendants of the worriers. We have worry circuits in our brains, but fortunately, we also have planning circuits.”
So pick a positive activity in advance that can help you replace the worry — and avoid the anxiety, says Pittman.
The plan doesn’t need to be perfect. You just need to know what you’ll do when the worry creeps up: Pick up a pencil and doodle. Go for a quick walk. Call a friend. It doesn’t really matter what it is, as long as it’s something positive.
Stay-calm strategy #2: Fight fear with facts
There’s a lot of misinformation on the internet, from unfounded conspiracy theories to outright scams. And all of it seems custom-designed to ramp up your anxiety. Next time you find yourself going down an electronic rabbit hole, try to pause, take a deep breath, and step away from your device.
If your worry has to do with a health issue, the internet can be a breeding ground for unfounded worries and, often, misguided self-diagnoses. Instead, “pick one trusted source of information, like the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] or the WHO [World Health Organization], and stick with it,” advises Smedley. And then set your mind at ease by talking with your health care team.
Stay-calm strategy #3: Go on a news diet
Everyone is on news overload. Keeping up with the latest information could turn into a full-time job. “But it’s not likely that it’ll make you healthier or happier,” says Smedley. Instead, she suggests, consume your news in smaller portions.
The easiest way to do that might be to set a limit. “For some people,” Smedley explains, “that might be 15 minutes after work to talk about it with a friend or partner. Give yourself permission to share your worries and talk about the news — but then switch the subject.”
For limiting online activity, a great strategy is to set an alarm on your phone. When the alarm goes off, then it’s time for a news update. This helps place controls on the amount of information you consume and prevents it from being the center of your attention, Smedley says.
Stay-calm strategy #4: Look into the future — hypothetically
Imagination can be a powerful tool to calm your fears — and show you that you can handle whatever comes your way.
To use it to deal with anxiety, imagine what you would do and how you would feel in a certain scary-feeling situation. “Imagine yourself coping and then looking back at it, thinking: I was nervous about XYZ, but I got through it,” says Smedley.
Visualizing the outcomes can help you move beyond fear and find solutions. “If you’re anxious, you might not immediately be able to see yourself as being able to cope,” says Smedley. “But playing out that movie in your mind can give you a sense of control — it can help you realize through thought experiment that you would actually have ways to [get through it].”
How to keep your kids calm
Parents’ anxieties can be super contagious. “It’s important for parents to manage how they’re responding to their own fears, because that has a big impact on how their children respond,” says Miyume McKinley, a licensed clinical social worker who treats children and adolescents in Los Angeles. “Kids see and hear everything we think they don’t notice.”
These strategies will help them handle their own worries.
Be choosy about the information you share. “Refrain from discussing all the details with [your] children — gear your conversation toward their developmental level,” suggests McKinley. “Check in with kids about what they know and try to respond to their specific concerns.” They might be worried about another pandemic, or they might just be wondering if their friends can come over to play.
Take action. Let your kids know that no matter their age or the situation, there are tangible things they can do. “With a snowstorm, for instance, you’d make sure you have shovels, gloves, and hats on hand,” suggests Smedley. “Finding one solution and living with it can help during [times of] uncertainty,” she says.
If your worry is interfering with everyday tasks and holding your back from activities you enjoy, you’re not alone. It could be time to talk to your doctor about other ways to manage your anxiety. This way, you can get back to living your life to the fullest.