After months of fear, isolation, soaring unemployment and uncertainty, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Census Bureau estimates one-third of Americans are anxious about the future.
Stress and uncertainty produce anxiety. COVID-19 has produced not only a health epidemic, but also an anxiety epidemic:
- Once we thought we were invincible; now we feel fatigue as we ponder our own future
- Once we sprang out of bed because we had things that needed to be done; now we crawl to our home office with a sense of resignation and indifference
- Once we planned vacations and conferences; now the most exciting part of our day is streaming video
Anxiety is fed and watered by the sustained presence of fear. Fear is a strong negative emotion meant to keep us safe when our brain senses danger. Not everything new and different is a threat to our safety, however. If we’re mentally tough, we can control our emotions and give our thinking brain enough time to assess our situation.
Anxiety is created when you move into the unknown because your fear response is on high alert. Has your fear produced anxiety because there’s a genuine risk? Or has the fear produced anxiety and panic because you’ve moved into your discomfort zone?
Since anxiety can hit us hard and leave us spinning in our tracks, we convince ourselves we can’t overcome it. But it’s easier than we think. Here is how to manage your anxiety and reduce stress in four simple ways:
1. Nip the ugly beast in the bud
Fear can trigger a physiological response like high blood pressure or an emotional response like anger. Most of us are more comfortable with being angry than being anxious so we use anger to alleviate our anxiety over life’s uncertainties. When we default to our anger response, it can give us clarity over the direction of our next step.
The problem with letting fear control our behavior is that it overrides our ability to think in a rational manner.
Fear drives our behavior in other unproductive ways. It can:
- Leave us insecure and mewling like a baby
- Bring out the coward in us when we avoid new challenges
- Waste opportunities because we procrastinate and can’t get our act together
Here’s the thing about all negative thoughts and emotions: It’s key to nip them in the bud, when they first show their ugly head. It’s also when they are the weakest. If left unattended, fear will continue to grow and become stronger.
How to make it work for you: We’re lectured on how to take better care of our physical health, but we need to pay the same attention to our mental health. When you need a break from anxiety:
- Meditate: It can help you identify toxic thoughts and emotions in the moment so you can examine them more closely
- Nature walk: A few hours a week can produce improvement in your wellbeing
- Focus on breath: A walk or run can calm your nervous system when you focus on your breath because it lowers activity in the part of the brain that processes fear and anxiety
- Pray: if you have a faith tradition, you can call upon a higher power
2. Create deeper social connections
If we thought social disconnection was prevalent before COVID-19, we’ve hit a tipping point now. A lot has been written about loneliness, and COVID-19 may give it the attention it deserves, but social connections and loneliness are two very different things.
Social connections are about relationships. We don’t need a long list of people, but it is important that we have someone to turn to when life gets hard.
Loneliness, on the other hand, is a feeling of isolation. Being alone doesn’t always mean you’re lonely, nor does hanging around with a bunch of loud folks mean you’ve found your tribe of forever friends. Loneliness is a feeling only the person who experiences it can truly identify.
How to make it work for you: Strong and deep social connections give us social and psychological safety nets. We don’t need to be best buddies with everyone we know; when it comes to relationships, always strive for quality over quantity.
The thing is, deep social connections take time. They need to be cultivated and tended over time, so keep this in mind as you learn how to better manage your social anxiety in the long term.
3. Strive to create certainty
It’s imperative to give yourself and others as much information about your situation as possible. Whether you’re leading a force of five hundred or one, share positive and encouraging information that creates certainty.
This is not a “bury your head in the sand” approach; information activates the reward networks in the brain because the brain craves information. If you doubt our fascination with a continuous flow of information, go no further than CNN or Fox.
Ambiguity and uncertainty create a threat response so even small tidbits of information can make a huge difference. According to neuroscientist David Rock, “Ambiguity creates a stronger threat response in the brain than an actual threat.”
How to make it work for you: It’s important to create calmness in those areas of your life where you are in control. The bad news is that you can’t control anything but your thoughts. The good news is that with your thoughts, you can control your stress and anxiety. Search and seek out information so your brain can relax. It knows you’re on top of the situation.
4. Connect with your better self
As a child, bright and shiny objects grabbed our attention. For many of us, it’s debatable whether we ever grew up because it’s still the flashy things that get our attention — money, sex and power.
These things are short-lived and devoid of true value and meaning. They scream that you’re still in the first-grade playground and looking for sources of external validation to make you feel all better when you can’t find Mommy.
Once you decide to become an adult (and the choice is yours), you begin to understand that you need to heal what ails you from inside. Even more, you understand your purpose in life –discover your values, live by them, and in the process, become a better person.
We all have an innate drive for self-discovery, for meaning. It’s always a forward motion to reach a better self. This is the ultimate goal of every faith tradition, and each of us must answer it for ourselves in the quiet of our heart and the depths of our soul.
When we choose to pursue the things that are truly important, we find that they change our behavior — not just manners but behavior that flows from the heart. Remember that heroes evolve; they aren’t born. If there are no heroes to save you, you be the hero.
How to make it work for you: Make a small commitment each day to be a better person. Focus less on yourself, reach out to others and widen the circle of your concern. With each of these small steps, you’ll begin to connect with your better self. Anxiety lessens when you pursue what is truly important and realize that the world isn’t all about you.
Are you mentally tough? Take this free assessment.
LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years. She exposed foreign spies and recruited them to work for the US government. As an FBI agent, she developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty, and deception. Quy is the author of “Secrets of a Strong Mind” and “Mental Toughness for Women Leaders: 52 Tips To Recognize and Utilize Your Greatest Strengths.” If you’d like to find out if you are mentally tough, get her free 45-question Mental Toughness Assessment. Follow her on Twitter.