How to Remain Present When Anxious

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Today I realized something. I miss driving my car. I miss making plans. Going out for dinner or lunch. Taking my kids to the park. I miss people. I miss dropping my kids off at school. I miss picking them up from school. I miss missing them while they’re in school. I miss my freedom. I miss my ordinary life. Most of all, I miss myself in the context of all those things.

I’ve always been a turn-lemons-into-lemonade kind of girl. I don’t have to work too hard to make any situation look like a good one, searching for the positives in even the most hopeless situations. So when I first understood that I’d be quarantined indefinitely, I thought, Great! I don’t have to do my makeup and hair or wear anything uncomfortable for a while. My kids and I get to spend quality time together. I’ll have an opportunity to work on my patience. This will only be for two weeks. Things will go back to normal before I know it. It could be worse. I’m young and healthy. Everything will be okay.

There’s nothing wrong with being an optimist. I’m sure it’s helped me get through some pretty tough times. But the problem isn’t that I’m an optimist; it’s that I often jump to being positive before anything has happened. Because when I do this, it’s an attempt to avoid my anxiety about the situation. When I jump straight to optimism, I don’t honor the effect of the situation on my life. By immediately taking on an it-could-be-worse attitude, I fail to honor how crappy things are. Yes, of course, history has proven that things could always be worse. With everything going on right now, I find myself constantly thinking about the people who went through the Holocaust; of course, my current situation is nowhere near as bad as what they must have experienced. However, limiting my response to, “It’s not that bad” might be a way of bypassing how hard it actually is. When we push ourselves to only focus on the positive, we make it harder to deal with the present.

Let’s say it together: “This sucks! I miss my life. I can’t wait to take it for granted again.” 

Today, my five-year-old sadly asked me, “When am I going back to school, mommy?” I could feel my throat closing up and the tears begin to surface. I didn’t try to make it better. I didn’t turn it into lemonade. I said, “I don’t know, boo. I know it’s hard and you miss school. I miss it, too.” It felt good to feel what I was feeling, and to honor her sadness and loss. For that moment, I threw away the untruthful positivity. In that moment we owned our current circumstance, and by owning it I could feel a sense of peace.

As I go through this difficult situation, I’m going to try my hardest to look at the facts (not my anxious projections of either extreme), be honest with myself, and be honest with my kids and family. Because I’ve found that a funny thing happens when you’re honest with yourself. You no longer stare at the vodka bottle wondering if 12pm is too early to start drinking. You no longer invest all of your happiness into a positive outcome you have no control over. Instead, you work on being present and accountable for what you do have control over here and now. When I was determined to stay positive and happy, I automatically created emotional distance from those having a hard time. I stayed fully clear of the news and avoided any reports that contradicted my rosy outlook. But the truth is, no one really knows the long-term effects of Coronavirus on the economy, our lives, our children, and our communities. Neither the optimists nor the pessimists know anything for certain. What we do know is what’s happening today, and what we can do about it is use our best thinking and isolate ourselves.

I know it’s a hell of a lot easier to be present and mindful when we’re in an awesome situation. When life is going well, it comes pretty naturally to feel good about it. But when our circumstances go south is when things get shaken up. That’s when we might find ourselves going into extreme negativity, positivity, or denial. That’s when we might start wandering away from the present moment and trying to live in the future or the past. It’s hard to stay here, now, and be in the process. Trust me, I know. But what if instead of hiding or counting on something to relieve us of our anxiety, we learn to tolerate it, manage it, and try to be our best, most thoughtful selves while we’re in it? What if we hold ourselves accountable to being a resource for ourselves, our families, and our friends?

I’m not being optimistic when I say that it’s amazing how we’ve essentially shut down the world to help the people who are most vulnerable to this virus. I understand that people are dying, losing their jobs, trying to work and care for kids at home. I understand that the market is a volatile disaster, and that people are sick and anxious. Those are facts. All of that is happening. But at the same time, people are also adapting, helping others, being there for each other, thinking of solutions, walking outside, FaceTiming, keeping in contact with their loved ones, playing with their children, finding time to relax, finding humor, and reaching out to people in need. Those are facts, too. It’s not either everything sucks and the world is a disaster or everything is awesome and rainbows with sunshine. It’s that some things suck; some things hurt; some things are boring and seem unfair. And some things are awesome, fun, and joyful. That’s life. So, during this time, instead of trying to deny, avoid, and stay endlessly positive to run away from my anxiety, I’m going to remain present and accountable, digesting the good, the bad, and the beautiful. Once I do that, then I can decide what the best next step is for me.

For those who are having an extremely tough time right now, it’s okay to not be okay. The strength of your character doesn’t develop when you’re being happy and joyful. It comes in times like this. It comes when you feel like your head is going to burst from the tension, but you make the decision not to do something crazy. It comes with the ability to think about what is and then decide how you’re going to manage it. It comes with being thoughtful in the world, even in the midst of a shit-storm of despair.

Let’s not just focus on getting through this; instead, let’s focus on being in this process and thinking about what we can do. Let’s bring ourselves to a different place, without needing the world to change in order for us to get back to being clear and level-headed. No matter what’s happening, we can get through it. Maybe we’ll be changed in significant ways; maybe not. But focusing on how we can be a resource to the people in our lives now is key. We can’t change what’s going on in the world right now. We can only do our part. We can make the choice to be the calm within the storm, or create more stress and anxiety in our lives. It’s all in our hands. For now, I personally choose to admit the things I miss, while finding purpose and meaning in the present. I’m being thoughtful and considerate, putting my usual life on hold to keep others safe and alive. This is a choice we’re all collectively making, for the benefit of humanity. I’m not sure what’s more important than that.

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Talk soon,

Dr. Ilene

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