With the coronavirus (COVID-19) causing anxiety among all of us, the uncertainty about what’s to come is weighing heavy. Simply fretting about the future is a weight on our shoulders — but there are ways to lighten this “anticipatory anxiety,” promises Alice Boyes, PhD, author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit. “The small actions we take today to shift ourselves into a more positive mind-set work as investments in a lower-stress future.”
Taking such steps begins with understanding where stress really comes from. “We all struggle with forces outside ourselves that we believe are causing our anxiety, such as work projects or domestic to-do’s,” observes psychologist Amy Johnson, PhD, author of The Little Book of Big Change. “But stress is actually a feeling from within us that we attach to something out in the world.” For example, when we go into a busy day convinced it’ll be challenging, our mind labels this feeling “stress” — in other words, we’re deciding ahead of time which tasks are going to trigger an uptick in tension.
Fortunately, it’s easy to halt this self-sabotaging cycle. “Just as tension starts as negative thoughts, thinking positively can banish it before it starts,” reveals Johnson. “If we see stress for what it is — just a feeling — then we won’t worry about it as much, increasing our sense of control over the future.” Read on for the easy strategies proven to boost your happiness and thwart “tomorrow stress” today.
Anticipating bad news? Create a cushion.
Your company’s relocation has been in the works for months. All signs point to a transfer to a new office that would double your commute, and just thinking about it makes you feel as if it’s already happened. “We evolved to fill in the blanks and play out worst-case scenarios when we don’t know exactly what will happen,” says Johnson. In fact, most of us live in a state of “low grade” fear because of the uncertainty we feel every day.
“Stress is exacerbated when we don’t have enough soothing outlets, or ‘cushions,’ to help us cope,” says Boyes, explaining that a “cushion” can be anything you find comforting, from walking to journaling. During this activity, try shifting your focus from your dread of an upcoming challenge to something potentially positive about it, like how the quarantine is giving you time to catch up on your reading list. Adopting a silver-linings outlook instantly tempers your anxiety.
Afraid of failure? Play this memory game.
When you feel like you won’t measure up, the stress can affect your outlook. “Worry narrows our focus, making it impossible to see positive outcomes,” says Johnson. “If you’re doubting how you’re going to handle a task well, something is more likely to go wrong because it’s the only possibility you can imagine.”
“Think back to a time when you expected a situation to head south, but it ended up being a success,” urges Johnson. For example, picture a meeting with your boss that you thought would be critical but was actually full of praise. Indeed, studies show 85 percent of our worries never end up happening. Recalling an instance when your negative expectations were not met serves as a reminder that any present or future self-doubt is unwarranted.
Feeling overwhelmed? Ask three questions.
Finishing a big project is dialing up your anxiety. “If you go into a situation already thinking you’re in over your head, your mind starts reeling,” says Johnson. This mentality can inhibit your ability to effectively handle new situations with confidence.
Ask yourself, What’s the best outcome? What’s the worst? And what’s the most realistic?, suggests Boyes, who explains that this strategy helps you develop “cognitive flexibility,” or the ability to consider multiple scenarios at the same time, which studies show significantly reduces anxiety. “It’s a great way to train yourself to handle many versions of the same situation, so you begin to believe that whatever happens, you do have the tools to handle it.”
Worried about a big change? Imagine the future as fluid.
As newly minted empty nesters, you and your husband are selling the house you’ve lived in for more than 25 years and moving into a smaller, more manageable space. You know it’s the right decision, but the thought of starting fresh is filling you with angst. When we anticipate being stressed about something specific that we have scheduled and marked off on the calendar, such as a big move or a retirement date, “our stress feels immovable,” says Johnson. “It’s as if it were set in stone long before the day actually arrives.”
Instead of looking at stress as a massive obstacle, imagine it as flowing water, urges Johnson. “All experiences are fluid,” she says. “Thinking of life like this allays anxiety.” If you’re moving, for example, envision your worries (like, I’m not ready for this change) floating away. When folks in one study pictured their apprehensions drifting off, 77 percent recovered from depression after six months. Taking a few moments to tap this mindful approach when you feel tension ticking up will help you avoid dwelling on stressors and approach the future joyously and courageously.
This article originally appeared in our print magazine.