Maybe David Bowie said it best—”Ch-ch-changes…” Or maybe, it’s just that the past year plus has been full of changes for all of us, with a ton of uncertainty tossed on top.
Or maybe, it’s because I recently celebrated a milestone birthday, during which I took some time to reflect on the past year. One thing I know—change is the only constant and it’s happening ALL the time. Another thing I know—change can really trigger our anxiety.
We spent the last year in a heightened state of worry. We worried about our health, the health of others, both physically and mentally. We worried about our livelihoods and how they were going. We worried about the children in our lives and if they were going to be okay. Worry became such a part of our lives that it felt “normal.” How did this impact our bodies?
When we are worried, our fight or flight system is activated. This happens out of our awareness. It has an evolutionary purpose—when there was a perceived threat, our body had to figure out if it needed to fight it or run from it. While today’s threats may be very different, the body’s reaction is the same.
Here’s what happens: a perceived threat occurs (let’s say a car honks, startling you); your sympathetic nervous system activates and initially you freeze, so you can survey the situation. Then you quickly determine if you need to fight (or move towards) the threat or flee (run away). Sometimes, our best defense is to stay still and let the moment pass.
This past year, our sympathetic nervous systems have been in overdrive. What’s the risk in this? Well, it can lead to burnout. We may feel more fatigued, less motivated, generally just meh.
And the changes keep coming. While it is exciting that the world we know is re-opening, it can trigger a new kind of fear for many. What can I expect when I go back to work/school/camp? Is the vaccine effective? Should I get the vaccine? Do I need a mask or not? The questions keep coming. The worry persists.
Anxiety is triggered by uncertainty. These continue to be uncertain times, so feeling anxious isn’t surprising. It’s important, though, to think about what you can do.
Control what you can
There is a lot that is happening beyond your control, yet we tend to spend time trying to change those things. We expend a lot of wasted energy in this way. Take the time to focus on what you CAN control. It may take some time to identify what these things are and once you do, put your energies there.
Our sympathetic nervous system keeps us more activated and “speedy.” In order to help it reset, we have to slow down. Focus on your breathing as a first step in making this shift. Incorporate some mindfulness or meditation to help, as well.
Identify what your boundaries are and express them to others. Not ready for hugs? Let people know. Still want to wear your mask? Go for it. Your boundaries do not have to be the same as others. Stand up for what works for you.
Be sure to find the things you enjoy doing and DO THEM. You may not be ready to jump all in, and start doing the smaller things that make you smile. The more you expose yourself to these things, the greater comfort you will have when bigger things come your way.
It is totally understandable that we are all continuing to feel worried and overwhelmed. The news keeps changing and that shift makes us feel ungrounded and uncertain. As you work on ways to manage your anxiety, those shifts will feel less scary and you’ll be able to manage them more effectively.