Don’t Try to Fix Anything Right Now

In times of crisis, the best thing you can do for yourself is learn to live with uncertainty

Mother using her phone looking anxious with her children present.
Mother using her phone looking anxious with her children present.

IIt’s been a little fascinating and a little concerning to see just how many of us have turned into anxiety-fueled experts as pandemic anxiety has taken hold over the past week. My social media feed is now full of new epidemiologists, homeschool specialists, and armchair psychologists, all offering solutions for how to survive social isolation or educate a bored child.

Right now, we’re all getting creative with our plans for how to make it through the day. But as much as we may pretend to have things under control, none of our fretful grasping for solutions can answer the big questions: What’s going to happen? When will life go back to normal? Will it ever?

I often tell my therapy clients that as a general rule, humans are terrible at dealing with uncertainty. Even those of us who don’t identify as Type-A, always-in-control planners still draw comfort from knowing what’s ahead — and, often, spiral when we realize we don’t.

But the ability to sit with uncertainty isn’t just a valuable asset. In these unpredictable times, it’s a necessity. It’s what keeps us from trying (and failing) to control everyone else’s behavior. Or trying (and failing) to motivate the people around you, or calm them down, or get them to take your unsolicited advice.

Here are two steps you can take to cultivate a skill that’s never been more vital.

Recognize your anxious fixing

In times of distress, your anxiety wants you to solve problems as quickly as possible. When the world is burning, it’s normal to run to the closest fire and stomp the hell out of it.

But then there’s another fire to put out, and another one next to it, and another. Anxious fixing is attempting to take on the impossible task of extinguishing them all. The trouble with this approach is it doesn’t get you to where you want to be: someplace stable.

Of course I’m not saying you shouldn’t fight toward small victories. Right now, cooped up at home, those can feel like the only way to get through the day. Sign the kids up for a virtual art class if it gives you a much-needed break for a few hours. Cook enough soup to feed a small army if it helps you channel some of your stress. But notice when you start falling into the mental trap of believing you can fully problem-solve your way out of a pandemic.

Identifying your own anxious fixing requires you to sit with a little bit of discomfort. It’s uncomfortable to accept this new reality as something that we can’t bend to our will. But this temporary discomfort, this willingness to not fully fight against the anxiety you feel in the moment, can help you achieve long-term calm when facing the unknown.

Work on your cognitive flexibility

Cognitive flexibility is perhaps one of the greatest tools to have in a time of uncertainty. There are two components to cognitive flexibility: one, being able to change how you think about a problem, and two, being able to let go of solutions that aren’t working.

Rigid thinking is the opposite of cognitive flexibility. And the more anxious you are, the more difficult it is to acknowledge that the square peg just doesn’t fit in the round hole. Let’s say, for example, that someone decided that running three miles a day is the key to maintaining their mental health during the pandemic. But if they can’t seem to hit this distance each day, or if running doesn’t actually make them feel better, they need to be able to pivot toward alternative solutions.

To increase your cognitive flexibility, you can ask yourself two questions: What am I doing, and how effective has it been? If your attempts haven’t been effective, consider a different solution, or challenge yourself to think differently about the problem. Over time, it will become easier to change course. You’ll also be kinder to yourself as you navigate a crisis. People who focus on responding nimbly to the reality of the day can better sit with the uncertainty of tomorrow.

You can’t control the future, but you can begin to work on the version of yourself that you carry into that future. Ask yourself, “Who do I want to be three months from now? How would I be responding to scary events, or anxious people?” This self-focus is its own form of doomsday prepping, one that is probably more useful than moving into the woods or hiring a psychic.

This preparation can feel like slow and boring work. It requires you to show up every day and try to be the most mature, least reactive version of yourself. It asks you to recognize how your anxious fixing gets in the way of flexible thinking and creative solutions.

No one knows when things will get better, but this much is certain: any effort to manage your anxiety and do your best thinking will not go to waste. Your stockpiled food may expire, and your to-do list may become irrelevant, but you can always work on being a resource to your future self.

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.

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