How to limit your anxiety about events beyond your control

Lesley Alderman, LCSW, is a Brooklyn-based psychotherapist.

A patient of mine showed up for her virtual psychotherapy session last week looking tired. She had always been ambitious and concerned about injustice. During this session, she sighed as she recalled a meeting where her colleagues complained about unfair treatment. She said: “I don’t know why they bother to get upset, when it feels like nothing matters.”

I was concerned about his disengagement. But then a colleague also seemed exhausted. She had spent the pandemic helping her third and fourth graders in school remotely while trying to keep her small business going. She told me: “I haven’t followed the war in Ukraine at all, I just don’t have the bandwidth.

To an unusual degree, people are tired.

In the spring of 2020, right at the start of the pandemic, the question my patients asked was, “When do you think things will get back to normal?” Now no one talks to me about getting back to normal. There is a tacit recognition that the chaos we are experiencing could be with us for a long time.

Patients who had been preoccupied with national and global events and visibly frightened during the pandemic now seem exhausted. The murder of George Floyd was horrific and mass shootings are becoming more common. Now, it feels like we’re all in a relentless game of molestation, but in this case rodents are existential threats.

I notice that many of my patients suffer from an optimism deficit and are overwhelmed on important matters beyond their control.

I call it “hope fatigue”.

People are tired of hoping that the pandemic will end, the war in Ukraine will be over, the mass shootings can be controlled, and our government can deal with these urgent crises. Two in 10 Americans said they trust the government in Washington to do the right thing “almost always” or “most of the time” in a 2022 Pew Research Center poll.

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The symptoms of this fatigue are anxiety, disconnection or abandonment.

“People are struggling a lot – covid has hurt us a lot. And now they’re not sure about the state of the world,” said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon who has studied the psychology of risk and decision-making for more than 60 years. .

Therapists struggle to help. We try to instill a sense of hope in our patients: that they can feel better, that they have agency, that their catastrophic thoughts can exaggerate reality. But when a patient laments climate change and wonders if they should have children, that’s a challenge.

It is sometimes tempting to empathize with them, but it is not productive. I try to validate their concern and then explore what it means to them personally.

Our nervous system was not designed for this

Many of the issues threaten our basic sense of security. Will my community be decimated by fires, are my children safe at school, could there be a nuclear war?

“I see a lot of people ‘going through life’ but, since they don’t know what to do with life, how to protect themselves, how to have control over anything or make a difference in anything either, how to have fun, they slip into a kind of detachment,” said psychologist Judy Levitz, founding director of the Center for the Study of Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy in New York.

Humans need to feel like they have some degree of control. When you take away a person’s sense of security, depression and anxiety can set in. Our nervous system was simply not designed to deal with so many crises at once.

It’s no wonder 33% of Americans reported symptoms of depression and anxiety this summer, compared to just 11% who reported these symptoms in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s Household Pulse Survey. and Prevention.

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Dwelling on problems that seem impossible to solve can lead to anxiety paralysis, but there is hope.

“Just because you can’t solve a problem doesn’t mean you should ignore it,” said Slovic, whose website The Arithmetic of Compassion highlights barriers to humanitarian decision-making. . “We are not helpless.”

This is part of the advice I give to my patients.

Take a break from the news. Doomscrolling can be addictive and amplify the tragic nature of events. In one study, researchers found that those who were immersed in news of the Boston Marathon bombing for several hours a day in the week after the event experienced higher acute stress than people who were at the scene. . “We suspect that the graphic nature of the coverage and the repetition of these images triggered intense distress,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, lead author of the study and a distinguished professor of psychological sciences, public health and medicine at the ‘University of California. in Irvin.

I advise patients who feel depressed by headlines to read the news only once a day, turn off alerts on their phones, and, if possible, check social media sparingly.

Take care of yourself. I tell my patients: “You have to be in good physical shape to face the current turbulence. This means building your resilience by taking care of your nervous system (sleep well, eat well, exercise wisely) and engage in vital activities.

Focus on the present. Make a habit of anchoring yourself here and now. Worrying about the future is pointless.

Try a breathing exercise. Taking a few deep breaths – for example, inhaling to five and exhaling to five – will help calm your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) and reduce your anxiety.

When I offer deep breathing exercises, some of my patients may be skeptical, as if I’m offering some kind of new-age gibberish. But I remind them that the exercises are based on science. They usually report that at the very least, the breath gives them something to do when they feel their heart rate increase.

Think about your victories. Remind yourself of what’s working well in your own life – whether it’s your job, your friendships, or the uplifting array of houseplants you’ve grown during the pandemic.

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Be your own therapist. Ask yourself, why am I specifically feeling hopeless and why? Being able to put into words what is depressing you can help you feel less overwhelmed by emotions and better able to process information rationally.

Take action. Worrying doesn’t help mental health, but taking action does. Look around in your community. Perhaps your local playground would benefit from a basketball court, or your church or synagogue could sponsor a refugee family. When people engage with local issues, they get a boost of optimism.

Join a friend. Choose a cause. There are hundreds of nonprofit organizations dedicated to addressing some of the world’s most stubborn challenges. Give money to an inspiring organization or volunteer.

Slovic offers this advice: “Think about what you can do rather than what you can’t.”

Are you a mental health professional who would like to contribute to this column? E-mail [email protected].

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