Last week, before everyone was told to go home and stay there, I met some friends for dinner. One longtime friend had just picked up her daughter from the airport: Her university had closed down for the foreseeable future and she didn’t know what was next.
The Mom asked me if I had any sage advice for a young person in these strange times. I don’t know how profound it is, but I simply told her to try to relax and not focus too much on the parts of the world you can’t control.
I think this is true for all of us. And here’s the reality: We can’t control very much at all!
It can take a lot of practice to put this advice into action. One thing that really helps me is to draw some lines and simply stop worrying about things on the “other side” of that line. For example, when I fly, lots of things are outside of my control.
I get to the airport early. I can control that. I check in and hand over my luggage. Then I draw a line. I’m checked in and now it’s the airline’s job to get me where I’m going. I think of it like a big black box. I can’t predict snowstorms, power outages, broken planes, or pilot no-shows. All I know is that I’ve put myself into the system and now someone else has to get me where I’m going.
I actually joke about this. I refer to it as placing myself into the loving arms of the airline. For me, that’s just a code phrase to accept that this is out of my control. And I’ve had all those delays mentioned above, plus more. But I have never NOT been delivered eventually to my destination.
It’s very good practice to stop regularly when you start to feel anxiety bubbling up in your chest and ask, “Is this inside my control or outside my control?” Almost always, the answer is outside.
Remember: Anxiety is a type of worry that has started to grow a life of its own. And worry is always about something that might or could go wrong. You need to slow down and ask whether anything has actually gone wrong. You need to take reasonable precautions, but not let a concern grow bigger than the facts support.
In these particularly worrisome times, it always helps to follow the simple recipe that is guaranteed to reduce stress every day: Breath, meditate, and move.
Breath: Take three to five slow, deep breaths. Ideally, you will be sitting or lying down. Place your hands on your heart. This is like a self hug. It puts you in touch with your breath and your heartbeat. You get a visceral sense that you are alive. You can feel the life inside your body, and it helps you relax and feel safe.
Meditate: Take time every day to sit quietly and just enjoy the world. You might need to start with a meditation app. (There are about a million to choose from.) Meditation has a long list of benefits. In addition to lowering your heartrate, it will increase your focus, reduce your stress, and help you think more clearly. Start with five minutes a day and work up to fifteen or twenty.
Move: Do something. Take a walk. Watch the sun set (or rise). Do yoga. Go weed the garden. Anything except sitting in front of the television obsessing about the bad news! Anything that engages your body and your mind will help to keep your mind from wandering down the path to anxiety.
Here’s three more bonus tips. You might not believe them, but they work. First, smile! Research shows that the act of smiling helps to increase actual happiness. As my friend Patrick Schwerdtfeger says, “The road to being is through doing.”
Second, turn off the news. Well, at least turn it down. Watching or reading just a little news is good. It keeps you informed. But watching LOTS of news is always depressing. Again, there’s research on this. Don’t do things that help you obsess!
Third, watch a comedy – or ten. Really. Laugh. Enjoy yourself. Delve into a world with pratfalls and happy endings. Laughing also has endless benefits. Choose to do this and you will be rewarded.
No matter what mix you choose, please believe that your are not alone. Lots of people are feeling anxiety. Lots of people are struggling. And if the economy slips as badly as some suspect, this anxiety will spread. So, realize that you are not alone. Support the people around you – and let them support you!
Good luck. Hang in there. This too shall pass.