A fact I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: People would rather give themselves electric shocks than be left alone with their thoughts.
That was the takeaway of a study published a few years ago — or a few hundred, depending on how you measure — and treated, in a wave of headlines, with a sort of can-you-believe-it mixture of amusement and grim resignation. Haha, our brains are so broken.
I can absolutely believe it. Right now? I’d take the shocks, no question. Cutting down on doomscrolling is always a good idea, but even when you put down your phone and close out of all your problematic tabs, you’re still left with your own head. For a lot of us, it’s not a great place to be lately.
But while we may not be able to treat the cause of our existential dread, we can treat the symptom. When all this [gestures broadly] just feels like too much to take on, a system can help you organize, calm, and control your anxious thoughts. Here are three options to choose from.
The circle of concern: On Forge, Brain Pennie explains a tool he’s adopted from Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Picture two concentric circles (or grab a piece of paper and draw them, if you’re a visual person). The inner circle is your “circle of influence,” or all the things in your life that are within your control — what you do, what you read, what you say. The outer ring surrounding it is your “circle of concern,” or things outside your control, like other people’s reactions. The election results are in your circle of concern; your vote and volunteer efforts are in your circle of influence. The pandemic is in your circle of concern; wearing a mask is in your circle of influence.
These categories aren’t static, Pennie writes: “The circles shrink or expand depending on where we put our focus and effort. If we obsess over external events — the worldwide death toll or how the disease will impact the economy — our minds will go into overdrive, and we’ll only be expanding our circle of concern.” But the more mental effort you devote to the things in your circle of influence, the more in control you’ll actually be.
Use the ‘Circle of Concern’ to Reframe Your Fears in Uncertain Times
A visual to remind you what’s in your control
The Bento framework: Yancey Strickler’s strategy for making it through a crisis is based on what he calls “active awareness,” or the ability to act according to a big-picture plan beyond your own immediate needs. The Bento framework (short for Beyond Near Term Orientation) divides life into four quadrants: “now me,” or what you need in this moment; “now us,” or what the people around you need; “future me;” and “future us.”
Passive awareness means reacting to that first quadrant, Strickler explains, but active awareness is taking the other three into account. “Passive awareness tells us to stock up on frozen foods,” he writes. “Active awareness says don’t forget seeds and soil.” Cultivating your own active awareness means looking to a hypothetical future, imagining yourself as someone who’s in a pretty good place, and asking your future self: What did I do to get here? Treat the answers you come up with as a roadmap to guide your decisions in the here and now.
What Your Future Self Needs You to Do Right Now
Use the ‘bento’ framework to think beyond the present moment, even in a crisis
The scientific method: This is one you probably already know from middle-school science class. You gather your information, make a hypothesis, test that hypothesis, and draw a conclusion. But as Emily PG Erickson writes, it’s a great way to impose a sense of agency over a chaotic situation — in her case, the pandemic school year. “My hypothesis is that if I support self-regulation and social-emotional skills, my children will have a good experience in school,” she writes. Each week, after noting how her kids are doing, “I’ll share these observations with their teachers and with my husband. Together, we’ll iterate.”
Treat this time as your own experiment. Collect data on what works for you and what doesn’t, what amplifies your anxiety, and what makes you feel okay. You’re not just surviving. You’re adapting based on what you learn. You’re iterating.