Updated: Oct 24
Elaine Bontempi, Ph.D.
Life will always present opportunities for fear and worry, but how do we find peace in the midst of chaos? Recently, with the COVID pandemic, rioting, devastating forest fires, political division, layoffs, business closings, additional responsibilities of helping children with online classes while balancing work, etc., many people in the U.S. and around the world are stressed out as their futures are unknown. In general, people have a tendency to fear the unknown, but when there are so many things to consider at once, it has left many people reeling in shock and confusion, not knowing where to turn. As a result of these factors, as well as mandatory lockdowns and social distancing, rates of anxiety, depression, domestic violence, and drug overdoses have skyrocketed. It is hoped that once the election has passed, things will eventually calm down, but some economists have made some pretty bleak economic predictions. So when the world around you is spinning out of control, where do you go to regain a sense of sanity and calm when by all appearances, the world around us has gone mad?
The first thing to remember is that the idea of having control over our environment is really an illusion at best. Psychologists have long known that those who are considered “pessimistic” actually have a better understanding of the control (or lack thereof) that we have over our environment, whereas those who are optimistic often have inflated or unrealistic sense of self control. The latter serves as a protective agent, but it may also prevent us from preparing for uncontrollable changes. Although we cannot always command everything around us we can manage the way we respond to environmental cues. The following are a few suggested strategies you can use to maintain a sense of sanity and calm in a world of unrest.
Change Your Thoughts…
First of all, it is important to get control of your thoughts, and this can be much more difficult than it sounds. Sometimes we are not consciously aware of the thoughts that we are entertaining on a daily basis. Thus, one of the first steps to overcoming anxiety is to become more cognizant of what you are thinking. Do you find yourself entertaining thoughts of fear? Are you entertaining worst case scenarios? Are you mentally pressing the “rewind” button, replaying the negative things others have said about you in your life? In order to stop these negative thoughts, psychologists recommend a process called “Cognitive Thought Stopping.” It involves first becoming aware of your thoughts, and when you identify a negative thought, stop it in its tracks. Strategies for doing this range from saying “no” out loud when you have such thoughts, or even placing a rubber band around your wrist and snapping it when these intrusive thoughts enter into your mind. However, in order to truly overcome negative thoughts, you have to have to replace them with positive ones. Thus, it is a three-step process: a) Identify your thoughts; b) stop the negative thoughts by interrupting your thought processes; and c) replace the negative thoughts with positive ones.
Some people choose to replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations, whereas others have found replacing negative thinking with positive scriptures to be particularly helpful. For example, if you are dealing with fear then you may want to go to the book of Psalms and Isaiah, and mediate on some of these scriptures. They are very calming and include many assurances that God is with you, hears your prayers, and promises that He will give you his peace and strength to overcome difficult times. There are also many scriptures in the New Testament that are good to meditate on when you are fearful or worried about your finances or health.
Another very effective strategy for overcoming fear and worry is to think back to situations in your life where you have been able to overcome particularly challenging times. Although nobody likes revisiting the lowest moments in their life, reflecting on how far you have come since then can be empowering. What lessons did you learn from these difficult trials in your life? What were the strategies you used to overcome these difficult times? Can you use some of the same techniques now? Knowing that you were able to overcome past challenges and difficult times should be reassuring because if you were able to overcome those difficulties you can also overcome whatever it is you are currently facing.
An Attitude of Gratefulness
In addition to shifting our thoughts from negative to positive ones, it is equally important that we adjust our attitudes. Rather than festering on the things we don’t have and developing an attitude of lack and victimhood (which results in resentment or feeling sorry for ourselves), it is important to think about what we do have and adopt an attitude of gratefulness. By focusing on what we don’t have it creates an energetic vibration of fear and worry. This can promote cyclical thought patterns of anxiety and worry, which in turn, can result in debilitating phobias. However, when we focus on gratefulness and the goodness of God and the universe instead, our energy shifts to higher vibrations of thanksgiving, confidence, and hope. This promotes perseverance, which in turn develops character strength and hope, fueling motivation to make the efforts that produce changes (Romans 5:3-5). When we maintain an attitude of gratefulness it also reminds us that we are not alone. We can reflect back to all of the ways in which God has cared for us and provided for our needs in the past, which also gives us a sense of hope for the present and future (Psalms 20, 23, 91; Ephesians 5:20; Philippians 4:19).
Find Your Own Sacred Space…
If you are dealing with anxiety, depression, fear, or tumultuous relationships, it will also be very important that you find a sacred space of your own. A place where you can ground yourself, meditate and pray, clear your head, and set goals for yourself. If you live in the city or are dealing with a crowded house full of children and family members, it may be difficult to find a quiet space. In such cases, your “sacred space” may end up being a quiet room on the other end of the house, or even a closet where you can isolate yourself and take this time to find a moment of calm. If you have an area where you can be outside and get fresh air, sunshine, and surround yourself with nature, this is also a great way to re-align your energy by performing grounding exercises (for more on this see the post on grounding). By practicing grounding, mindfulness activities, meditation and prayer, negative thinking is diverted, and your thoughts shift to more positive things, and the key to overcoming anxiety, depression, and worry is to focus on positive things. King Solomon, considered to be the wisest man of all time, encouraged us to meditate on the teachings of God, as they would bring health, peace, and prosperity (Proverbs 3:1-4). In the New Testament, we are encouraged to focus on things that are good and praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8). Similarly, in 1 John 4:18 we are reminded that focusing on fearful thoughts brings torment, but love is powerful and overcomes fear, so we are urged to focus on love. These scriptures all encourage us not to focus on our own fearful thoughts or the worries of the world, but rather, to focus on God and His promises to us. If we are having anxious thoughts, overcome these by focusing on things that are good, lovely, and pure. For example, focus on the love you have for others in your life such as your children or your pets. Think on things there are good and pure such as the beauty of nature, etc. I have found that mindfulness activities that involve nature are particularly powerful (for more on this see the activity “A Meditative Grounding Activity in Nature.”)
One of the worst things we can do when we are fearful, anxious, or depressed is to stay inactive. Get up and get moving! Simple activities such as taking a walk can be as therapeutic as taking anti-anxiety or antidepressant medication. By walking for 30-40 minutes, there are many physiological changes that occur in our bodies…our heart rates increase, and the stress hormone corticosteroid is reduced. In addition, this simple activity causes our brains to produce the feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. In addition, “the endogenous opioids and endocannabinoids, also increase after walking and other aerobic exercises” (Basso & Suzuki, 2017). In addition to aerobic exercises such as walking, jogging, and swimming, gardening, creating art, or playing music can be extremely therapeutic. All of these activities again, help you to change your thought processes by focusing on positive things, but the physical activity also causes neurochemical changes in our brains that decrease tension, anxiety, and depression.
Examine Your Goals…
When we find ourselves in situations where we feel unhappy or stuck, we need to re-examine our goals. Have we lost sight of our vision for ourselves? Have we been pursuing goals that are not fulfilling? Or have we encountered barriers that prevent us from moving ahead? If so, it is time to consider where we are, where we want to be, and the gap between where we are now and our ideal existence. Like stepping-stones in between the banks of a stream, we can break down our goals of moving head into smaller steps in between. It will be important to break these goals down into small enough mini steps so that we feel energized and confident as we approach each new stepping-stone. Before we know it we will have “crossed the stream” and can look back and see how far we have come.
Create a Reward System…
Another important strategy is to stop every once in a while to look back at your progress. If you are not moving ahead as much as you would like, then you need to re-examine your strategies and perhaps create new ones. I remember when I was working on my Ph.D., it felt sometimes like I was walking through quicksand. The courses were easy enough, but I seemed to encounter one barrier after another with my dissertation research. Not only did I set mini goals along the way, I would frequently take the time to look back at my progress, and if I wasn’t making as much headway as I wanted, I would try new strategies. I also rewarded myself along the way as major milestones were achieved. This built in reward system helped keep motivation going but it also served as a way of checking my performance and progress along the way. This becomes extremely important when you feel that you feel stuck—to be able to make goals for yourself and to reflect back and see your progress. Remember, baby steps are still moving forward, and before you know it you will look backwards and see how far you have come!
Maintain a Strong Support System…
Finally, if you are dealing with spiraling thoughts and emotions you will want to find a support system. Whether that is your best friend, a family member or church/support group, it is important that you find at least one or two people that you can really count on to be there for you, and similarly, make sure that you are equally there for them. During a time of social distancing and lockdowns, a support system may be more difficult to achieve, but thankfully, we have the Internet and plenty of features to keep in touch with one another. Virtual meetings through Zoom, My Meeting Place, Google Hangouts, and Skype are all available to talk with your friends and family members either individually or in groups through the Internet. Facetime and even old-fashioned phone calls can help us feel more connected than texting. It is imperative that you find a support system when you are struggling with fearful thoughts, worry, and depression. If your area is still facing mandatory quarantines and lockdowns, you can search the Internet to find virtual meetings and support groups through community outreach, churches, universities, and even neighborhoods and tribal communities.
Basso, J.C. & Suzuki, W.A. (2017). The effects of acute exercise on mood, cognition, neurophysiology, and neurochemical pathways: A review. Brain Plasticity, 2(2), 127-152.
Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928534/
King James Bible. (n.d.). King James Bible Online. https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/ (Original work published 1769)