Published On: September 2, 2020
Reviewed On: September 2, 2020
Updated On: November 2, 2023
We all know that there are many things out of our control. These things range from mundane issues like the weather to exceptional events like a global pandemic or world conflicts. Depending on the degree of the issue, they all have a level of impact on our lives. Often, we are told to focus on matters that we can more easily control, like our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. 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 when a certain crisis overshadows 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.
Expert Insight“It can feel easier (and natural) to avoid feelings like fear and sadness, but we know that leaning into the discomfort and seeking support is ultimately a more effective way of overcoming our worries, so long as our need for immediate safety has already been met.”
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.
Expert Insight“Our brains are hardwired with an alert warning system. This system is super helpful when we are unsafe, as it alerts us to the threat and tells us to either fight, run, or freeze. Unfortunately, this alert system is not very specific and has a hard time knowing the difference between real vs. perceived danger. Working with a therapist can be supportive to understand our triggers, and learn what helps us move through our anxiety”
For example, the coronavirus pandemic created unprecedented levels of uncertainty as it affected almost every aspect of our lives. Many of us felt particularly uneasy and our minds were occupied with many questions we didn’t have answers to: when will we go back into quarantine? Will we wear masks forever? Will we ever find a vaccine? By merely questions like these, we trigger our “fight or flight” response, contributing to our anxiety. The same goes for world events, such as the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It can be anxiety provoking when we aren’t equipped with information about how the situation will advance; it’s understandable that our minds might spiral. The more we ruminate on uncertain aspects, however, 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. In-person or online 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.
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.
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 behavior 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 and our best course of action is to acknowledge that we are not always going to be in control of some of those changes. Focusing on our own physical safety and on what we actually can control is the best use of our energy.
When it seems like things are erupting around you and you feel anxiety creeping in, make an effort to keep to healthy habits. Listen to your body and nourish yourself with what you need. Try to exercise, even if it’s just thirty minutes a day, eat clean, whole foods, and get enough sleep. Consider engaging in stress relieving activities such as yoga or meditation. These small habits can help you feel like you have a bit more control over your life.
Expert Insight“It can help to have a set of daily meditation vows to recite during the day and when you are feeling out of control in your surroundings. Find a mantra that works best for you, and remember, you may not be able to control much, but you can control how you show up and take care of yourself and your loved ones.”
Anxiety and stress often go hand in hand and can sometimes feel all encompassing. Here are some actionable strategies from Talkspace therapist Bisma Anwar LMHC to keep moving forward in a healthy way.
If it starts to feel like your micro-level anxiety is getting out of control, let yourself ask for help. Speaking to a friend or loved one about what you’re going through can help you unburden your mind. Talking to others will help you sift through your anxieties and worries into comprehensible thoughts, which will help you approach them properly. Opening up and sharing your concerns can lead others to do the same and you might even learn that they themselves are dealing with similar thought patterns as you.
If you rather speak to someone outside of your everyday circle, consider speaking with a therapist. Therapy is an incredibly helpful tool that can help you work through your feelings. Psychologists are experts at helping people cope with stress and anxiety. Your therapist will take the time to get to know your individual concerns and background and will be able to come up with actionable strategies to help you reduce anxiety and set you on a path to feeling more in control.
Ashley Ertel, LCSW, is a Nationally Board Certified Licensed Clinical Social Worker. She has over a decade of experience specializing in trauma and depression, working primarily with first responders, military personnel, and veterans, and sexual assault survivors.