The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
Here’s a tip I received once about handling anxiety, which has served me well over the years, and which I hope is useful for those who, understandably, might be feeling stressed and overwhelmed as a result of the outbreak of Coronavirus.
Basically, the advice given to me was to make a “date” with an anxious thought I was having at the time, a thought that was looping around my brain, that was pulling me more and more inward, was draining my mental energy, and distracting and distancing me from being present to anything good and replenishing in my life.
But while I knew this anxious thought was harming my well-being, I could not shake it, could not be rid of it no matter how hard I tried. In fact, the harder I tried not to think about the thought, the more entrenched it became. By battling the anxious thought, trying to defeat it, I was actually helping it to win, making it stronger and more a part of me. I was giving it too much power and too much fuel to fester. But following the “dating” directive given to me, I was able to finally break its hold.
The first step was to welcome the thought when it returned. Instead of panic and frustration, I greeted it with cordiality, even good humor. I accepted its arrival as natural, just like any of the countless other thoughts we have each day. Then, however, I made a decision to take control.
I talked with it (in my mind, but if you are alone, you can address such a thought aloud), saying, more or less, “I hear you, and yes, what you are telling me is troubling and anxiety-producing. I accept that. And I know you have a good reason to be coming back again and again. But I have so much to do right now, and I really don’t have the time to think about you so much. So how about this, in a few weeks, when things calm down in my life, when my responsibilities lessen, when I am stronger, when I can really make time for you and give you all the attention you deserve, we’ll meet up. Agreed. Good. I look forward to thinking about you on our date down the road.”
I know it sounds a bit bizarre, but it worked then and it continues to work for me. However, it does not mean an anxious thought immediately stops coming back – they are pests and it often requires one to repeat the “dating” process before it takes effect – i.e. a reduction of the thought, and a lessening of its ability to upset. But just the mere change in attitude, moving toward acceptance rather than resistance, is monumental in feeling better, moment to moment. And, as has been the case in my life, seldom, actually never, have I kept a date with the anxious thought, mainly because things improved and I forgot about it…and in turn it forgot about me.
Jason Kurtz, who has contributed in the past to this column, is a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City, author of the memoir Follow the Joy, and an award-winning playwright. Here’s what he says about the power of acceptance to ease anxiety.
Whenever we feel a large, uncomfortable emotion, like anxiety, our impulse is to want to avoid or repress the feeling. Unfortunately, when we do this, the feeling doesn’t get processed and, instead, accumulates and grows and eventually becomes overwhelming. Consequently, it’s important to develop the ability to face and feel our emotions. It goes against our impulses, but simply acknowledging a feeling, can help it lessen and subside.
In terms of the Coronavirus, it is scary. It is cause for anxiety. There is no doubt.
The other day, after watching the news too long on television and hearing more and more about its spread and quarantines and such, I felt panic gripping me, and with it the start of a looping thought. Luckily, I have a back yard, and I went outside, where I have a vegetable garden bed. And I stood there, slowing my breath, calming myself, and made a date with the anxious thought. We set a time to meet back at the vegetable garden, in a few months, on a sunny morning, when my tomato plants will be flush with green leaves and need to be trellised to hold the emerging fruit, when my garlic is ripe and ready to be plucked, when my peppers are thickening at the base in preparation for a bounty of spicy treats, and my basil, row upon row, is bursting with color and scent.
I saw it all, a garden alive with life. And it is there, in the future, where I will have my date with my Coronavirus anxiety. But I have a feeling, it will not show up.
C’est la vie.