How to Stay Sane When the World Seems Crazy
Stop and take a breath. The world will keep spinning.
By Allie Volpe
· Published March 23, 2020Updated March 30, 2020
Our constant, relentless exposure to news and headlines has a way of inspiring near-constant dread. As distressing news continually filters to the top of our feeds, phones and TVs, it isn’t uncommon to feel more than a little nervous about the state of the world.
And often, many people are. Over 50 percent of Americans want to stay informed on current events but say following the news is a source of stress, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2019 “Stress In America” survey. More broadly, Americans are among the world’s most stressed people, with 55 percent of adults saying they experiencing stress during “a lot of the day” prior, according to a Gallup poll.
It’s easy to turn on the news and believe the world is ending. When a large-scale news event — say, a pandemic — affects many groups, people want to discuss it more widely and frequently, said Dr. Kathleen Smith, a therapist and author of “Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.”
This constant conversation can lead to a snowballing of negative thoughts. Catastrophizing, or a pattern of thinking that jumps to the worst-case scenario, is an evolutionary response to threat, Dr. Smith said.
“Humans are able to imagine the worst-case scenario, which is a trait most other animals do not have,” she said. “That ability to do that and plan ahead has helped us survive. It has gotten in the way because we have a lot of reality-based problems today that need solving.”
There are ways to cope when things are rough — and ways to remind yourself the world will keep on spinning.
Why we catastrophize
“When people catastrophize, in many ways, it’s a maladaptive way of trying to regain control,” said Dr. David Rosmarin, the founder and director of the Center for Anxiety and an assistant professor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
We try to regulate our emotions when life feels out of control, Dr. Rosmarin said. But anticipating ultimate doom and gloom as a means of taking control in uncertain times is not particularly effective. Jumping to worst-case scenarios breeds poor decision-making, he said: People tend to adopt a “who cares” attitude, which can contribute to hopelessness and despair.
Sometimes the catastrophic thoughts can become self-fulfilling prophecies, Dr. Smith said. For example: A widespread panic about a toilet paper shortage indeed resulted in a mass of shoppers rushing to buy toilet paper, thus creating a shortage. “We think we need to fix the problem, whether it’s based in reality or not,” she said.
Although recent history may paint a tumultuous picture, we live in relatively safe times, Dr. Rosmarin said. Less than a century ago, he said, real, consistent threats of war were a reality in ways to which we’re now unaccustomed. (And constant news updates weren’t even present to perpetually stoke fear.)
Because of that general feeling of security, we’re not used to dealing with uncertainty, Dr. Rosmarin said. To better accept the unknown, we have to relinquish control, he said, and maintain trust that the powers that be are working to solve large-scale issues — which is what we subconsciously do any time we use public transit and airplanes, for example.
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“When the cabin door to the cockpit closes and I’m not the one inside,” he said, “I’m happy because I don’t know how to fly a plane and you don’t want me flying a plane.”
Stick to the facts
Anxiety makes us feel powerless, said Dr. Steven Stosny, a therapist who coined the term “Headline Stress Disorder,” or the feeling of stress borne from the news. A sense of powerlessness then breeds fear that we won’t be able to handle the consequences of a terrible event, whether unemployment or sickness. However, we tend to exaggerate the severity of the threat and underestimate our ability to cope, he said.
“We cope better than we think we will,” he said. “And that’s survival.”
Instead of feeling powerless, evaluate what you know to be true in this moment — and don’t exaggerate — to help ground you. Think: I have my health, I have my family, I can still make delicious meals.
Take stock of your reality by asking yourself straightforward questions, like, “What are my responsibilities to myself, my family and the larger community?” and “What reality-based problems do I need to solve today?” Dr. Smith suggested.
“To me, that’s being very responsible because you’re responding to reality and not the nightmare, which is easy to,” she said. “If you jump to the worst-case scenario it doesn’t equip you to help yourself in any way. You freeze up because it becomes unmanageable.”
Avoid all-or-nothing thinking
When news and facts are constantly changing, it can be easy to jump to conclusions and fill in the blanks, Dr. Smith said. However, we shouldn’t rush to process current events with black-and-white thinking. Absolutist, or all-or-nothing, thinking, isn’t a healthy way to cope, and is common among those with depression, researchers found in 2018.
To avoid this thought pattern, give the circumstance nuance. Just because a handful of events were canceled, for example, doesn’t mean the world is tumbling into isolation — it means our leaders care about our safety and are taking precautions. Dr. Smith suggests writing down such nervous thoughts or giving anxiety a name. “I call my anxiety Carl,” she said. “Carl says the world is probably going to end — and that makes me go, Carl probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Sometimes adding a little bit of humor can help.”
Take care of yourself
Research has shown anxiety impacts our decision-making skills, and in frenzied times, you want to make the most informed decisions for yourself and your family. Keep yourself in tiptop shape with elements of self-care: Studies have shown that exercise, deep sleep and social interactions — even if it’s just a phone call or video chat — diminish stress and anxiety. You may also want to step back from social media or find ways to make the experience less nerve-racking.
Perhaps most importantly, cut yourself some slack.
“Don’t beat yourself up for worrying,” Dr. Stosny said. “That’s only going to make you worry more.”
Even if group gatherings aren’t feasible, take part in one-on-one video hangouts, FaceTime calls and text threads, Dr. Rosmarin suggested. “Just because we’re socially segregated doesn’t mean we need to be socially isolated.”
But remember to turn off the tech eventually. In times of crisis, Dr. Rosmarin advised avoiding phones and other news sources at least an hour before bed.
Donate or volunteer with an organization you feel is making positive contributions, whether locally, nationally or internationally. Not only does volunteer work lower the risk of depression and gives participants a sense of purpose, it also may reduce stress levels.
“Anything you do proactively will help,” Dr. Stosny said. “It helps ward off some of the powerlessness or anxiety, even if it’s small.”
And it’s OK if those charitable efforts end with a virtual happy hour or dessert as a reward.
A version of this article appears in print on March 30, 2020, Section B, Page 5of the New York edition with the headline: Staying Sane When the World Seems Crazy. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
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