By WENDY MAXWELL
How to fight fear and anxiety
during a pandemic — or anytime
I write this well ahead of its appearance in Mississippi Christian Living, and I have no idea what the circumstances of the metro area, our state or our country may be in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic at the time of publication. But one painful truth has been made abundantly clear over the last many months, and is true no matter our circumstances: Whether we are referring to the pandemic or life in general, we have an inability to control much of anything.
Now this is not really news, but we work hard much of the time at thinking we are in charge of circumstances, other people, and much of life. The truth of our lack of control may understandably bring fear and anxiety. The good news is that while pandemics, other people, and much of day-to-day minutia are out of our control, we can keep the two-headed monster of fear and anxiety from controlling us.
Some basics to start with might seem glaringly obvious, such as limiting your intake of news. As a news junkie myself, I understand the lure, but a 24-hour news cycle is not 24 hours of quality information. Gather relevant information from a qualified source, and then turn it off. Perhaps turn on a favorite sitcom, exercise, or engage in some other enjoyable activity.
Second, take a break from social media, where everything is amplified. I recently had a client tell me she felt more isolated, anxious and overwhelmed as she spent time reading opinion after opinion that felt quite different from hers on social media. Be aware of how much time you are devoting to social media, and monitor your state of mind associated with your social media usage.
In addition, monitor your self-talk. Whether we realize it or not, we have a running commentary going on in our heads all the time. What are you telling yourself? How is it affecting your perspective, your self-concept, your relationships? Unhelpful or unhealthy self-talk can run the gamut from someone who has a bad day and thinks, “My life is ruined,” to someone with a pervasive negative focus or outlook who may tell themselves, “I’ll never be good enough.”
Related to the pandemic, self-talk that may exacerbate stress could sound like, “This will never end.” What can be tricky about our self-talk is that we may start with a fact or real event, but the distortions we apply in our thinking may lead us to feel down, overwhelmed, stressed, anxious and/or depressed. Because there is a nugget of truth at the heart of the distorted, negative self-talk, we may have difficulty identifying it as distorted or negative. This can be challenging to change if your unhealthy or destructive pattern of self-talk is deeply ingrained. You may need to enlist the help and support of a licensed professional if altering your self-talk proves challenging.
Also, let us not forget or underestimate the power of acceptance and thankfulness. Alcoholics Anonymous uses the concept of acceptance in their program, demonstrated by their use of the Serenity Prayer. It states, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
When I accept the reality of not being in control, that in itself can be a powerful tool to combat anxiety, fear, and even anger. Acceptance gives us freedom from trying to micromanage the stuff of life that cannot be managed. Thankfulness can be exceedingly helpful as well to reorient one’s focus. Taking the time to name three things you are thankful for on a daily basis can vastly improve mood, outlook and anxiety.
Finally, remind yourself of the most important truth: While we are not in control, it can be well with our soul because our Sovereign God of the universe is in control. Use this truth and prayer to combat anxiety, fear and negative self-talk, to defend against the unknown, and to ground your thoughts. What is eternal can and should be our most powerful tool to combat fear and anxiety.
Wendy Maxwell, LCSW, is a graduate of the University of Mississippi and The University of Alabama. She has a private counseling practice in Ridgeland focused on treating women and teens with anxiety and depression.