What the People Who Are Holding it Together Know

A therapist’s advice for fighting anxiety in the midst of chaos

Photo: Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

People vary in their ability to adapt in times of stress and uncertainty — from not knowing if we’ll see our families this holiday to not knowing if election results will be definitive.

Some might shut down, isolating and disengaging from the world’s problems. Others tend to lash out or become controlling, trying to force the world around them and the people in it to behave a certain way. But look at almost any group, and you’ll find a few people who seem to be able to hold onto their thinking when others are letting their anxiety run the show. They are able to stay focused on the challenges of the present, as well as who they’d like to be in the midst of chaos. How do they do it?

Those people know one thing: When the world is changing quickly, you don’t need certainty — you just need yourself. Because the “self,” who you are and what you believe, can be a constant among many changing variables. You don’t have to predict the next disaster, or how people will respond to it. You just need to get clearer with yourself about who you’d like to be in this era of uncertainty.

Focus on your present self

People with a more solid sense of self have the capacity to stay objective when they’re anxious. They can see the reality of what’s happening, without catastrophizing or sugarcoating it. They can assess their needs (and the needs of their family and community) without turning into a doomsday prepper or being too cavalier.

By contrast, people with a weaker sense of self tend to have a harder time assessing the needs of the present moment, instead shifting their focus too heavily to the future. While it can be useful to anticipate negative events and plan accordingly, it can turn into worrying about hypothetical problems.

Not surprisingly, these people often find that they have little energy left to solve the reality-based problems of right now. This is how people worry so much about the election results, that they forget to research their options all the way down the ballot. Or they get so anxious about an ambiguous vaccine timeline that they lapse into exhaustion or fatalism, and stop wearing masks or social distancing as vigilantly.

When you find yourself focusing 10 steps ahead of the current problem, it can be useful to ask, “How would I like to be responsible for myself today?” And then dedicate your efforts towards the answer.

Staying focused on reality-based problems can also look like:

  • Gathering facts through reputable news sources.
  • Stay focused on those facts and not the “what-ifs.”
  • Educating yourself about the challenges in your community.
  • Asking loved ones what they need instead of guessing.
  • Identifying the strengths and weaknesses in your problem-solving.

The people with the most solid sense of self are those who can absorb the facts of a challenge, and use them to understand how they need to be responsible for themselves and responsible to others. And a funny thing happens when you can stay focused on the challenges of today: You begin to believe that you can handle whatever the future throws at you.

Find internal stability

When people feel that they can’t predict the future, they are often quick to rely on others to manage their anxiety. This is sometimes called “borrowing self,” because it makes you seem calmer, more capable, and more mature than you really are.

Borrowing self could look like asking a friend to reassure you that 2021 will be a better year than 2020. Maybe you ask your parents who to vote for in a local election, because doing the research yourself is just too overwhelming. Or maybe you ask your partner to stop working for the day so you don’t feel like a slacker.

Borrowing self could also look like:

  • Needing people to agree with your thinking.
  • Trying to force others to make the same choices as you.
  • Following advice without using your own thinking.
  • Adopting beliefs to please people.
  • Needing praise or attention to calm down.

There’s a reason it’s called “borrowing” and not “keeping” — borrowing self is only a temporary relief. It doesn’t teach you how to become more mature or regulate your own emotions. What it does do is make you more reliant on others, and more sensitive to their anxiety. Without a more solid sense of self, you’ll end up being tossed around by turbulent events like a boat without a rudder.

How do you want to act when others are panicking? What’s worth doing, even in times of uncertainty? The more you can understand who you’re trying to be, and what you’d like to do, the more you can practice activating that vision when stress is high.

Building a more solid self also requires you to take more responsibility for your anxiety. You may not have caused your distress, but how you deal with it is up to you. People look for the perfect exercise routine, meditation practice, or therapist, but the truth is that there’s no perfect remedy for anxiety; learning to self-regulate your anxiety is a life-long journey, not a lesson with five easy steps.

The key is to stay curious about what practices could help, and to stay flexible when something doesn’t work as well as you’d like. You’ll be able to navigate a confusing present, and you’ll become 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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