For the last couple of weeks, and likely for the foreseeable weeks to come, we’re inundated with minute-by-minute updates on our current Armageddon. And right alongside we’re being given no end of advice about how to deal with the widespread anxiety that’s accompanying this pandemic.
Most of the guidance I’ve seen offered is focused on coping strategies – basically, how to distract yourself from the racing thoughts that keep you tossing in the night and fretting through the day. I’ve seen suggestions that range from guided relaxations, to cooking and baking, journaling, exercising with a YouTube video and making a photo album for grandma.
These are all delightful activities that are likely to be helpful in the moment. But like tossing a bone to distract an angry dog, they’ll only work for a little while. They won’t change the fact that anxiety has control over you. Will grandma get a new photo album every time there’s a crisis?
Anxiety is anxiety. Whether it’s over coronavirus or your dwindling followers on Instagram. And when you find the secret to permanently overcoming it you’ll be able to apply it no matter what the cause.
Begin by asking yourself if you enjoy your anxiety and whether or not it’s serving you.
If you find it pleasant and useful, there’s nothing more to be done. If, however, you think you’d be better off without it, then you’ll have to tackle the roots of the issue, not mask the symptoms by distracting yourself.
There are three fundamental principles that can make a difference for you today, in the midst of all this uproar. More importantly, they can make a difference for you every day for the rest of your life.
1. Decide that you are going to take full and complete responsibility for everything that happens in your life. While it’s easy and tempting to find culprits and complain about how bad things are, neither of these will change anything. Even if there is someone or something that’s responsible, pointing the finger won’t change your situation one whit.
You’re stuck at home, you’re running low on toilet paper and you’ve been furloughed from your job. Got it. Now, write down five ideas that occur to you immediately that could help relieve each of these situations. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: Read three new books, use wash cloths and launder them, register yourself on one of the freelance work websites. Now it’s your turn…
Doesn’t it feel empowering when you start to actually solve a problem instead of merely stressing about it?
2. If there are absolutely no good actions to take, and the choices in front of you amount to Bad, Really Bad and Awful, remember that you ALWAYS have the ability to choose your mental and emotional response.
I was making dinner the other night and discovered that I was short of an ingredient. While normally I’d dash across the street to the grocery store, this time I was tempted to whine about our current lack of mobility. I thought I was due a little pity-party until I remembered our visit, last summer, to the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam. For 25 months she and her family hid in an attic, relying on the bravery of friends to keep them fed. If you haven’t read her inspiring diary, or if it’s been some time, this would be a great time to read it again.
As Viktor Frankl, another prisoner during the Holocaust, wrote, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
3. Realize that peace is not the absence of external turmoil or discomfort. No matter where, no matter when, if you look around you’ll be able to find something with the ability to distress you: You’re lying by a babbling brook, fluffy white clouds floating overhead and warm, gentle breezes rustling the leaves. How many people do you know that would point out the mosquito?
Instead, let’s model those who, in the midst of pandemonium and panic, will always notice and take delight in the flower growing up through the cracks in the concrete.
It takes desire and it takes practice. But anyone who truly wants to can do it.
Let’s face it – life occasionally hands us a sour one. There have always been and there will always be external events that challenge our ability to remain calm, centered and at peace.
But the more you fight against, complain about or live in fear of what might be going on, the harder you push against it, the more whatever’s going on will push back. The more you protest that it’s not fair or right, the more you’ll discover that whatever’s going on is bigger and stronger than you.
When you relax and accept what’s going on for what it is, though, you regain the power to choose your response and influence your outcomes.
No, serenity is not the absence of disorder and chaos. Serenity is a choice you make regardless of what’s going on around you.
No it doesn't
We all get to choose.
That’s the essence of free will. In every moment, no matter the circumstances or the situation, we always get to choose. And even when there don’t seem to be many or any good choices, we always have the ability to choose what we think and the attitude we adopt.
This week, as we all come to grips with our new reality, I’ve noticed that people are choosing to be kinder and more considerate. In spite of the imposed separations, I see people who seem to be more willing to engage in conversation and smile. To go to an effort to consider the other one.
Maybe it’s just what I’m choosing to see. But it works for me and I like what I’m seeing
There are many excuses for choosing anxiety and unkind behavior in our current circumstances. But there are more than enough examples of people choosing to reach for – and embrace – their higher selves.
It’s possible to imagine a world without anxiety. (And I do. Regularly.) And even amidst the onslaught of coronavirus news there are plenty of demonstrations of anxiety-free thinking and behaving, if you choose to look for them
Let’s all put our minds to imagining a world in which challenge is always met with careful thought, not hysteria. Where obstacles are encountered with determined action, not selfish panic. Where we realize that we are one, global, interconnected body and the kindness you do for me is also done for yourself
What are you choosing in this moment?
There’s a big difference between taking something seriously and worrying about it. While it might seem like simple semantics, understanding and living the contrast can result in a big, positive uplift in your day-to-day life, your peace of mind and your health.
The fear-mongering headlines are everywhere these days and they’re impossible to ignore. But you have choices in the way you respond to the current coronavirus outbreak. To be clear, the situation is serious and requires serious responses. Worry and anxiety, however, are not serious responses.
Fear is a natural response to a real and present danger. You have perceived something that you interpret as an imminent threat and it demands an immediate decision about your next action. Are you going to turn-tail and run? Or are you going to stand your ground and fight back? Because of the immediacy of the threat we’re forced to quickly choose which action we’re going to take and then get on with it.
Worry and anxiety, though, arise as we respond to perceived threats that are more vague, hard to define or somewhere off in the future. Instead of taking some kind of definitive and results-oriented action, we muddle and catastrophize about what might happen to us and what, if anything, we should do.
There’s a real satisfaction in taking decisive action as it helps us feel more in control of the situation. When the appropriate action isn’t clear, it leaves us feeling helpless and out of control.
COVID-19 lies somewhere in between the two. There’s no doubt that it represents a potential threat to our personal health, to the health of loved ones and to our daily lives. But the threat to you, personally, is uncertain and the actions that we, as individuals can take are limited.
In situations like this, our habitual response is to worry and become anxious. But worry and anxiety not only contribute nothing towards a solution, they can actually make the situation worse. It’s well-proven that chronic anxiety can weaken the immune system. And this is exactly the time when we want those particular defenses to be as robust as possible.
So what is an appropriate response?
In a previous blog I talked about worry versus problem-solving.
While many confirmed worriers claim that their anxiety IS a means of problem solving, there’s a huge difference. When you’re worrying, your thoughts are going in circles. The same worry that occupied you yesterday is filling your mental windshield again today and no progress has been made. You always end up back where you started and the lack of progress can make the situation seem even more desperate.
Genuine problem-solving, on the other hand, always feels like progress. Where you are today is at least a few yards down the road from where you were yesterday. You have ideas, you try them out, measure the results and then adjust your tactics. Worry and problem solving both consume energy. But where anxiety leaves you drained and empty, problem solving leaves you feeling satisfied and accomplished.
Coronavirus, powerful as it might be, is actually pretty easy to defend against. The health experts are doing a great job of informing us how to act and I’m not going to repeat that advice here. Just take the actions they’re recommending. Make a list, check off every item as you do it. Be thorough. And then you’re done.
Once you’ve taken those actions, you can relax, have a snooze, go for a walk… If your movements are restricted, take the opportunity to give yourself a mini-vacation. Are there books you’ve been meaning to read? Is there some binge-watching you’d like to do? There are literally thousands of online courses available today and it’s impossible to catch COVID-19 over the internet.
What about the knitting, gardening, painting, writing, stamp collecting you’ve been telling yourself you’ll get to one day. You’ve likely heard it said that ‘Oneday’ isn’t a day of the week. But this may be as close to the ‘one day’ you’ve been waiting for as it gets.
The point is, you can do anything except worry. Because from that point on, any anxiety that you expend is a complete waste and only makes you feel terrible, raises your blood pressure and weakens your immune system.
I’m sure you’re familiar with that delightful little piece called “The Serenity Prayer.” Written by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s, it truly encompasses the perfect approach to our current situation:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
There is no doubt that the coronavirus outbreak is an urgent situation that we all need to take seriously. But treating a state of affairs as serious is very different than worrying about it. Taking it seriously uncovers real actions that can contribute to a solution. Worrying about it feels awful, accomplishes nothing and makes us even more vulnerable to the threat
"Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming 'Wow! What a Ride!'" - Hunter S. Thompson
In his live seminars, Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books and author of The Success Principles, has a wonderful demonstration. He holds up a $100 bill and asks if anyone in the audience would like it. Then he waits.
Many raise their hand. Some call out that they want the money. But almost no one actually comes up to the stage to get the money. On the rare occasion that someone does, he gives it to them and they sit down, $100 richer for their efforts.
Jack then points out that the person with the money did something no one else did – they took the necessary action to get the hundred dollars.
How often have you thought about stepping up and taking action, but then stopped yourself for one reason or another? When Canfield asks the audience why they didn’t just come up and take the bill, the answers are typically:
The question isn't 'what are we going to do,' the question is 'what aren't we going to do?'
— Ferris Bueller
Let’s say you live to be 85.
That’s a nice fat number. It’s certainly a number that would have the people attending your funeral console your survivors by saying, “(s)he lived a full, long life!”
Long, for sure. But full?
85 years is about 31,000 days. I’ve gone through about 24,000 of them so far and way too many were spent waiting. Waiting for conditions to be just right. Waiting for reassurance, inspiration, the right timing, the economy to improve, the kids to leave home, the rain to stop, a clear set of instructions, the alignment of the planets.
But I realize now that I wasn’t waiting. I was hiding. Avoiding action in case I made a mistake. In case I would be judged poorly.
In stark contrast, Greta Thunberg stormed out of the gate and began making a serious impact on the world at the age of 16. Nelson Mandela was a force to be reckoned with until he took sick at 85.
Okay, these two might be exceptions but it’s safe to say that most of us are in a position to make a difference from age 20 to 70. 50 years, 18,250 days. 18,250 opportunities to do something remarkable, to make a difference, to make your own, or someone else’s life better.
Your impact doesn’t have to be global – those people are rare. But the ripples that your life creates when it drops into the universal pond have the potential to positively affect so many people!
Whatever you choose to do – give it all you’ve got. No holding back. If you’re a bricklayer, lay those bricks as if each one was gold. If you’re a gardener, prune those shrubs like they’re the gardens of Versailles. No matter what you do, do it as if God Himself had asked you to.
People who are consistently successful get up and do what needs to be done. They start something. Then they learn from their mistakes, make corrections and try again. In this process they build momentum and either achieve their goals or something even better than they dreamed.
Where is the list of dreams you wrote 10 years ago? Grant yourself the permission and the courage to update it. Today.
Look back at that list of excuses that Jack Canfield’s audience offers. How many are you using to avoid action on those things you dream about? How often has part of you wanted to get on with life’s exciting adventure, but another part held you back, waiting for a better time, waiting for more instructions or concerned that someone else might judge you?
The only people who know exactly how tomorrow and the next day are going to turn out are dead. I’ve discovered that I prefer the suspense.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die – for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
— George Bernard Shaw