I state the obvious with you here: The world is in a state of high anxiety. These are seriously scary times and our poor nervous systems are struggling to process the New Normal that Covid-19 has plunged us into.
To make things even scarier, we are a generation unaccustomed to dealing with fear and anxiety. Since the 1950s we’ve either medicated our anxiety into submission or masked it with self-help hacks and Don’t Worry Be Happy BandAids. Which has only made us more anxious. Despite there being more tools for dealing with anxiety than ever before, Americans are getting more anxious year on year (even before the corona crisis).
In my book First, We Make the Beast Beautiful, I explain that a good, ooooh, 80 per cent of our anxious pain derives from being anxious about being anxious. We feel we shouldn’t be feeling fear or anxiety, so we come down on ourselves when we do, which just adds more anxiety to the equation. And then, of course, we get anxious about being anxious about being anxious. And on it goes in a horrible, never-ending spiral.
The salve, I argue, is to simply… do anxiety once.
Instead of fearing the fear, we see it for what it is, and do it once, skipping the anxious-about-being-anxious spin cycle. Of the countless tips and wisdoms I researched over the seven years it took to write the book, this one snippet has probably resonated the most with readers around the world.
So how can we put it into practice at a time when we truly can’t afford to make our anxiety any worse?
The first step is to acknowledge that fear is an entirely appropriate response to these existential times. Like, fully normal and healthy. We almost need to walk around (within the four walls of our homes!) repeating out loud, it’s okay to feel anxious, it’s right to feel frightened for our lives! Frankly, it is unhealthy – and dangerous – if you are not feeling scared and anxious at the moment. Humans have an inbuilt anxious response in our gnarly old amygdala for a reason – it tells us when we are in danger, turning on various hormones and synapses to prepare us to fight or flee the threat.
Now, once we can see the necessary biology of what’s going on in our brains and endocrine systems we can then allow the emotions to pass through and do their thing – which is mostly to spring us into action. I’ve found it super helpful to share with people that even a panic attack only lasts 20-30 minutes. When we know this we can sit in it, listen to what it’s warning us about, and let the hormones that have built up release as they need to.
To enable this release, however, the fear and anxiety must be used or expressed outward, and not blocked or denied. This is key! When a deer is being chased by a tiger, the deer’s fear builds up to a point that ensures it reacts with agility and urgency. The hormones and energy are released as the deer bolts to safety. We need to do the same – release built-up emotion. If we try to block it by telling ourselves that we should just be coping better, or if we fear the fear and descend into that anxious-about-being-anxious spiral, these appropriate and healthy emotions build up in our system and we become, as they say, a bundle of nervous energy. And possibly a danger to ourselves and loved ones as we also become unable to spring into action.
Right now, the best thing we can do is accept it’s right to feel scared and talk to each other (including to children) about our feelings, naming them, pointing to them as important. But then also to ensure we release them. Exercise is a super effective way to do this. If you are able to leave your house, walk off your anxiety when you feel it build. Or dance it out in your lounge room. Like, literally, shake it off! Do it together with your kids or your housemates.
Another vitally effective technique is to turn your fear into action. Even simple stuff like setting up a sterilisation bucket for any credit cards or phone cases coming in from outside the house, cooking nutritious food, or formulating a morning routine for your household that includes exercise and meditation will help. In coming months we might want to transfer our fear into online campaigning for better health care for all.
I work to the idea that our anxiety, when framed with stupidly simple techniques like just doing the damn thing once (but properly with no denial) can become a beautiful superpower. I reckon it’s an idea worth playing with as we face this uncertain future together.
Sarah is talking many things anxiety via regular Instagram Live posts if you would like to continue the conversation.