I can’t count the number of times I’ve thought in the past few weeks, “Okay, when are the grown-ups going to come in and take care of all of this?” …and then realize I am one of these said grown-ups. When things are uncertain, when we are inundated with anxiety-provoking messages, when we are suddenly at home with our kids/spouse/roommates/pets, it’s hard not to feel the anxiety in your body and mind.
The funny thing about anxiety is that it tends to spiral. Feeling anxious about the state of the world can trickle into other areas, like putting unnecessary pressure on ourselves to give our kids the perfect Pinterest-worthy homeschool experience all while we continue to kick ass and take names at our day jobs. Perfectionism is a manifestation of anxiety, and in uncertain times, it may go into turbo drive. Let’s throw ourselves into X, Y, and Z, and maybe it will make the anxiety go away, right?
Breaking The Cycle of Anxiety
Yes, a break, literally right now – take a deep breath in through your nose and hold it in your tummy like a balloon for four seconds, and then exhale as slowly as possible. Relax your jaw, let your shoulders drop away from your ears. Breathe again.
Now, to circle back to our main question – how can we be productive when all of this is going on? The answer: we probably won’t be as productive as we usually are. And that’s okay. In fact, therapists would argue that not being as productive as you ‘normally’ would be is a good thing.
Anxiety and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an empirically-supported therapeutic approach that can be remarkably useful in a variety of instances, but it feels particularly appropriate right now. When we are faced with bad feelings, it is natural to want to get away from them as quickly as possible. We tend to get creative in how we avoid these negative feelings, doing things like diving into work, hiding under a veil of perfectionism, or self-soothing with alcohol or drugs (to name a few). ACT is about accepting the feelings as they come, and instead of trying to make them go away, we make space for them.
It kind of reminds me of playing hide-and-seek as a kid. From the second the seeker begins counting, the anxiety starts – it’s time to find a spot, you have to find a spot, and it has to be a good one so they can’t find you! You eventually find a hiding spot, and for a brief moment, there’s relief – until reality hits. You don’t know when or how, but you know that eventually, you will get found. The longer you are hiding, the more the anxiety mounts, and ironically, the only way to find relief is to be found.
When we hide from negative feelings, instead of relief, we tend to get more anxious.
In his book The Happiness Trap, Dr. Russ Harris talks about making space for negative feelings, like anxiety, termed expansion. There are four steps to expansion: (1) observe your body and note uncomfortable sensations, (2) breathe into and around the sensation in your body, (3) create space and give the uncomfortable sensation room to move, and (4) allow the sensation to be there.
There is a lot of uncertainty right now, and it is a very natural response to want to avoid the scary feelings like anxiety and dive right back into what we know. It’s normal to hold ourselves to the same standard we usually do, expecting to focus and get things done at work. It’s normal to get frustrated with ourselves when we fall short of these standards.
But it’s not business as usual and you should remind yourself that it’s okay to feel your anxiety. The oddly comforting thing about our current situation is that literally everyone on the planet is in the same boat. We are all facing the same uncertainty; we are all scared; we are all a little anxious.
Accepting that you are an imperfect human who feels things, giving yourself space from analyzing and acting when your body and mind ask for it, allowing the uncomfortable sensations to be – these are gifts you can give yourself right now that can make a meaningful difference.