Just a few months ago, you were excitedly planning a summer vacation, and the only strategizing required to go grocery shopping was jotting down a list, not donning gloves and a mask. As you’ve been adjusting to the “new normal” triggered by the pandemic, the once-mundane rituals of life now produce extreme anxiety. And questions no one has the answers to — How will we get through this? What will life look like a few months from now? — send your stress levels soaring.
One of the many challenges that makes anxiety surrounding COVID-19 unique is the deluge of worries coming at us all at once, observes psychologist Robert L. Leahy, Ph.D., author of The Worry Cure ($13.29, Amazon). While we’ve evolved to focus on one challenge at a time, our brain isn’t equipped to multitask on such a scale, as everything from concern for our loved ones to financial uncertainty causes intrusive fears to hijack our thoughts. Notes Leahy, “This supercharged stress affects the parts of the brain that control abstract thinking, making productive worry, or problem-solving, increasingly difficult.”
But there is good news: “Simply recognizing that we’re all grappling with this fear together can help us fight the tunnel vision that fear causes and direct our focus back to the strengths we have within us,” assures therapist Kathleen Smith, Ph.D., author of Everything Isn’t Terrible. Read on to learn how to overcome anxiety and doubt by unleashing the power of hope and courage.
“What if things don’t get better?”
You’ve surmounted countless challenges in your life — but so many dramatic changes have made dread of the future eclipse your optimism. “Our anxiety muscle is being worked on a ‘fear treadmill’ 24 hours a day,” notes Saundra Dalton-Smith, M.D., author of Sacred Rest. “When our brain starts meditating on the negative, that pattern is hard to break, making us feel like we have no control.”
Hold one word close to your heart.
Jot down one uplifting word, such as peace, hope, or love, and picture what that looks like to you, urges Dr. Dalton-Smith. Peace, for example, may be the image of the beach you visited with your family as a kid. When you’re uncertain about the future, say this word and reset by taking comfort in the things you are sure of: “I know I’m loved; I know I’m a good friend; I know we’ll return to that beach; we’ll get through this.”
“What if I run out of money?”
In what feels like the blink of an eye, you’ve watched your investments dwindle and had to deep-dive into your savings. “Will I still have enough to retire? Will I still be able to support my family?”
“We all have a fraught relationship with money, and when we’re stressed, those emotional fault lines amplify fear,” says financial psychologist Moira Somers, Ph.D. “We question ourselves and our capacity to recover.”
Redefine the idea of abundance.
When we’re triggered into seeing scarcity, that’s all we see, notes Somers. “Looking for evidence of other kinds of abundance, such as loving family and friends, sparks gratitude and frees us from the terror tunnel vision.” And while it may seem counterintuitive, one of the fastest ways to escape the grip of financial fear is to give to others — be it your time or talents. It instantly redirects focus and boosts hope.
“What if I get laid off or can’t find a new job?”
Though your job seems safe for now, your husband was laid off a few months ago, and you feel almost paralyzed with concern for what’s ahead. “Normal anxiety is adaptive, which means it motivates us to plan, but when our system is flooded with worry, it becomes overwhelming and we freeze,” explains Dr. Dalton-Smith. “It’s like being confronted by a bear in the woods and trying not to frighten it.”
Build resilience with ‘creative rest.’
To regroup after a setback, “it’s vital to take time for creative rest — the restoration we feel when we appreciate beauty, be it a virtual museum tour or spending time in your backyard,” says Dr. Dalton-Smith. Not only does this spark activity in the creative side of your brain, helping you plan your next step and keep moving, it also boosts self-esteem, ensuring you start this new chapter confident in your strengths.
“What if someone I love gets sick?”
You watch the news every night, and while the number of those infected with the virus is thankfully decreasing, you can’t help but worry that you or someone you love could still get sick. “This is a fear we’ve never faced before, because it doesn’t just affect us as individuals — it’s a collective risk to our family and society at large,” says psychologist Randi McCabe, Ph.D., author of 10 Simple Solutions to Panic. These concentric circles of worry quickly ripple out, making us feel helpless.
Find strength in compassion.
Pinpoint what you can control, urges Smith. “A clear list — from what time you’ll turn off the news at night to when you’ll exercise—calms health fears.” And when you’re afraid for others? Ask yourself, “How can I show them I care? and How might my anxiety get in the way of that?”
For example, your worry for them may lead you to scold your parents for, say, leaving the house too often. “Just recognizing this helps you find ways to show compassion instead of fear, and focus on relationships, not what-ifs, tightening the bonds that will get us through this stronger than ever.”
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.