It’s a simple fact that many things are out of our control. These things range from mundane issues like the weather to exceptional events like, well, a global pandemic, and they have a profound impact on our lives. Often, we are told to focus on things that we can more easily control, like our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. This is what we learn from the Serenity Prayer — “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” But is it possible to fully escape the anxious mood that surrounds us?
As much as we try to keep our heads down and avoid too much exposure to fear-mongering headlines, we are ultimately social creatures who are concerned and curious about the world. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Our interest in political and ethical issues keeps us responsibly engaged in wider systems. If we were only concerned with ourselves, we would likely see less positive change occur in our communities. As poet Emma Lazarus put it, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.”
In order to be empowered by macro events (i.e. occurrences affecting large populations all at once), rather than derailed, researchers say we need to make peace with uncertainty and challenge our outcome predictions. We also need to increase our tolerance of fear, as avoiding uncomfortable topics often causes more anxiety in the long run.
Accept the Uncertainty
By its very nature, anxiety often brings with it speculation, or worry about the future. From an evolutionary perspective, anxiety helps us protect against dangers from foreseeing possible threats and outcomes. The more uncertain the future is, the more anxious we become. This is why people often find comfort in routines and are content with predictable outcomes; we feel more protected when our anticipation is not amped.
The opposite is true when the world feels particularly in flux.
The coronavirus pandemic created unprecedented levels of uncertainty as it affected almost every aspect of our lives. Many of us are feeling particularly uneasy and our minds are occupied with many questions we don’t have answers to: will we go back into quarantine this autumn? Will we wear masks forever? Will we ever find a vaccine? By merely asking these questions, we trigger our “fight or flight” response, contributing to our anxiety. The more we ruminate on uncertain aspects, the more we lose our ability to adequately assess their threat level. The fog of uncertainty engulfs every fear — it can be paralyzing.
If you notice your thoughts are having a “pile on” effect, stop and investigate the validity and threat that each one really poses — you might be stressing yourself out over nothing. Therapy can be helpful for untangling any “what ifs” you may have and accepting that uncertainty is everywhere. The only thing truly promised in life is the present.
Find Hope Where You Can
Not only do we often dwell on uncertainty, but we also tend to arrive at scary conclusions. Research has shown that highly anxious individuals are more likely to identify negative outcomes if there’s even a slight chance that things could go poorly. According to the theory of emotions, when anticipation combines with fear we often imagine doom rather than hope and, conversely, hope is the result of anticipation and joy.
So what does this tell us? Essentially, many of us are naturally pre-programmed to assume the worst. When world events are uncertain, we instinctively think that things are going downhill. But what if we could find hope for the future? Making the switch involves accepting that we can’t know what the future will bring, and can allow us to move forward with a positive mindset.
Step Outside the Avoidance Cycle
Avoidance is another natural reaction to overwhelming feelings of fear. In a study on public reactions to terror attacks, researchers found that avoiding certain situations gave people an illusion of control and safety. This avoidance can begin a cycle that reinforces a fallacy of control, fostering the false belief that our avoidant actions are keeping us safe. Avoidance prevents us from confronting our worries and bearing the discomfort of experiencing fear. We can become more afraid of fear itself than even of the original threat.
The most commonly recommended treatment for anyone stuck in an avoidant cycle is exposure therapy. In a safe and structured environment, you will sit with the feeling of fear and break the conscious, or subconscious, assumption that your avoidant action is keeping you safe. A therapist can help you figure out how disruptive your behaviour has become.
As you navigate the impact of macro-level world events on your individual life, try to differentiate whether your mind is playing tricks on you or if it’s functioning to keep you safe. Ideally, you should strive to reach a place of acceptance — the world is constantly changing and we are just along for the ride.