How to Stay Calm When the World Is in Chaos

We don't have to feel terrified all the time.

Posted Jan 08, 2020

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The word of the year for 2020 will undoubtedly be “fear.”  We are living in a time of anxiety; our daily lives are changing from moment to moment.  Never, in nearly three decades of being a psychotherapist, have I seen such rampant, chronic, and intense fear in the people walking through my office door.  Even those who are not naturally anxious now feel anxious. My clients are melting down from all the things to worry about. 

Some days, it can feel like we just want to put on a Hazmat suit and zip ourselves up, shut out all the scary things happening. Viruses, climate horrors, the economy, war, inaccessible healthcare, religious and racial violence, terrorism ... and all of it happening without any faith in our leadership--without any sense that there are grown ups in charge.  We want to know what’s going on; we feel guilty for ignoring the truth, and so we unzip our suits and turn on the news. Once again, we become overwhelmed, afraid, outraged, horrified, and feel helpless. And so, we zip up again—hide, deny, avoid, compartmentalize, rationalize, and try to protect ourselves from what feels overwhelming and unfixable. Or we double down and watch and read until we’re sick with bad news. Back and forth we go, without any real solution, or relief. 

To feel afraid right now is natural, and to some degree, realistic. There’s no way to be a citizen of this planet without being inundated by constant and very real threats to our own existence.  If we’re upset by what’s happening, it’s because we’re connected to reality. The answer is not to put on rose-colored glasses and convince ourselves that all is well.  All is not well, but living in denial or delusion is not a solution. But how do we maintain a sense of inner peace or well-being in a world that is legitimately so broken?

Who Do We Want to Be?

First, it’s important to acknowledge our feeling of fear and helplessness, and to remind ourselves, with kindness and patience, that it’s okay to be afraid. But acknowledgment is not enough. We also need to ask ourselves, Who do we want to be in this world the way it is? How do we want to dance with this world we’re now presented with?  No matter what’s going on in our external world, we need to live with a sense of intention. Are we living our own life from a place of peace ... or violence? Are we being the change we long for ... part of the problem or the solution? It behooves us to take care of our own side of the street and be extra-conscious of what we’re offering this planet in distress, and what we're contributing to the people in it, no matter what chaos is transpiring elsewhere.

Choices

It’s also important to investigate what we’re doing to ourselves that contributes to our fear. Are we, in some way, exacerbating our own anxiety, ingesting fear when we ultimately want to calm down? Are we watching and reading too much news? What kind of news gives us the best chance at feeling calm? Do we feel better when we read the paper as opposed to getting our news on television? Simultaneously, it’s important to examine how the people in our life impact our level of fear. It’s wise to remove ourselves from those who ratchet up our anxiety or encourage hopelessness. If we can’t remove ourselves, we can inform others of our intention to opt out of the conversations that intensify our distress. The company we keep, and how it affects us, is of utmost importance in times like this.

Action

Another step we can take to promote internal well-being is to initiate action, no matter how small or large—to do something that feels positive. This time feels frightening, in part, because of our sense of powerlessness. Doing anything that gives us a sense of agency … donating ten dollars to firefighters in Australia, calling our congress person, giving up plastic straws, all of it can in fact help us feel calmer and more in control of our lives. 

Uncertainty

As human beings, we abhor uncertainty. Even negative certainty, knowing that things will go wrong, is sometimes preferable to not knowing what's going to happen. When the future feels profoundly uncertain, as it does now, we react by filling in the uncertainty with negative certainties ... what if scenarios and potential disasters. We convince ourselves of a catastrophic future. As odd as it seems, the certainty of a catastrophic future feels more tolerable than not knowing what's to come. But we can control this mental habit, and deliberately stop ourselves from creating disastrous what if narratives, refrain from our tendency to catastrophizing.  Simultaneously, we can bring our attention back to this moment, now; we can feel our feet on the floor and acknowledge that, in this moment, we are actually okay, our survival is not at risk.  And, we can remind ourselves that the only truth right now is that we don’t know what the future will hold. What the future will bring has a lot to do with how we behave in this moment.  But still, the only real truth is uncertainty.

Meditation

This is a time, if ever there was one, to add a daily meditation practice to your life. When the external world is frightening, the thoughts in our mind are usually equally, if not more frightening. Meditation is a time when we pull the lens back and witness our thoughts, but without believing the content of the thoughts and without being identified with them. We create a safe shore from which to look out (without judgment) at the choppy waters of our own thoughts. Meditation, however you practice it—on a formal meditation cushion, at your desk, or on the bus, can serve as a real break from our anxiety, a stepping away from and dis-identifying from our fearful thoughts.  Sitting down and spending a few minutes consciously breathing and witnessing our own thoughts, as simple as it may be, is one of the kindest things we can do for ourselves just now.

An unexpected thing happens when we step back and just watch our thoughts, we discover a presence, a felt sense of well-being, within us. In this presence, no matter what’s happening in our external reality, no matter what our thoughts are telling us or what the news is telling us, we are well, whole, and fundamentally okay. It’s a beautiful side benefit of meditation: Under all the thoughts, there is a place, an experience of calmness in which we really are well.

Help

Feeling peaceful in a world such as ours is not easy, and often we can’t do it alone. Now is a time to consider asking for help. We can talk to a counselor, close friend, therapist, spiritual advisor. We’re all in this together; we can help each other even when we feel like we can’t help ourselves, or the world. 

Remember too, the only thing that ever stays the same is change. As wild as this ride is at present, it is the ride for now. This too shall pass. The only thing that's 100 percent certain is that our world will change.