Coping with Catastrophe, COVID-19, and Elections

Uncertainty breeds anxiety, but we are powerful not powerless.

Posted Sep 15, 2020

I live in Oregon, where we have been devastated by unbridled wildfires and suffocating walls of smoke for the last week. Countless people have lost family, friends, animals, and homes. If you haven't been affected directly by these events — mourning your own personal losses, living with toxic air quality, or being on high alert for possible evacuation — you know someone who has or you've seen the news.

Feelings of anxiety, stress, sadness, and overwhelm spread through our natural empathy for others. Furthermore, we know that uncertainty of anticipated threat breeds anxiety.1 The uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, the upcoming 2020 election, and the recent slew of nature-related disasters including the West Coast wildfires and Hurricane Laura in Louisiana have merged to create an enormous, undifferentiated, suffocating fog of anxiety. I have found a few things to be helpful right now, perhaps you can find them helpful too:

1. Name your feelings and give yourself permission to feel them.

When we are able to take a moment to identify our feelings, ask ourselves what they might be about, and not avoid feeling them, we are using a very powerful form of emotional regulation. Simply naming our feelings engages our prefrontal cortex, the "manager" of our brain that helps us manage our plans, goals, and... you guessed it, our emotions. We increase our sense of control and reduce uncertainty by naming a feeling instead of being uncertain about what it is that is happening (don't worry too much about getting the feeling "right" and using a list of words can help. You can try this one from the Hoffman Institute). The process can look something like this: How am I feeling right now? I feel _____. And that's okay. Our ability to identify our feelings is one of the most powerful tools we have for coping with stress in a resilient way.2 

2. Be mindful of the effect news, social media, and other people have on you.

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon in which other people's emotions and energy triggers similar emotions and energy in ourselves.3 This can occur with or without our knowledge. Emotional contagion can be inadvertent, such as when our friend or loved one's stress about the world makes us more stressed, or even intentional, such as when a news or social media caption is written in a way to elicit negative emotions that lead us to consume these things to reduce our discomfort. This can become a vicious cycle of negative reinforcement; for example, our behavior of consuming news is reinforced, or made more likely to happen in the future, because when we read or watch the news, our immediate anxiety caused by "not knowing" what could have happened in the last few minutes goes away... that is, until we turn off the news, begin feeling anxious again, and check the news to relieve our anxiety. And so it goes. This variable schedule of reinforcement is spelled out in the film Social Dilemma on Netflix. You can practice being aware of the urge and habit to automatically turn to something like the news or social media, and instead, name your feelings and give yourself permission to feel them.

3. Focus on what you can control and take action.

It can be hard not to feel out of control and powerless when there indeed are so many factors affecting us that seem outside of our control. Focusing on what we can do within our sphere of influence helps us feel more engaged and empowered. Imagine your brain creating a list of things you can't control. When you look at that huge list, of course it feels real and believable that you "aren't in control." If we keep revisiting the list of things we can't control, the more and more it gets reinforced that we aren't in control. However, what if we intentionally create a list of things we can control? Well, when we look at that list, the more real and believable that it becomes that we are in control. This isn't a matter of whether the glass is half full or half empty - the point is that the glass is both half full and half empty. We are both in control and not in control. But just like focusing on the glass being half empty creates a certain type of energy and emotion in us (perhaps defeat and anxiety) and focusing on the glass being half full creates a different type of energy and emotion (perhaps strength and gratitude), focusing on either what we can control or what we can't control changes our experience and mindset in an immense way. Our feelings change based on how we choose to see things, and seeing this changes how much control we feel we have over our feelings. Next, take action! Nothing makes us feel more like we are in the driver's seat than actually getting in the driver's seat and driving. When we take action on the things we have control over, we are proving to ourselves that we are powerful in our sphere of influence, and not powerless. 

Name your feelings and give yourself permission to feel them. Be mindful of the effect news, social media, and other people have on you. Focus on what you can control and take action.

I hope you find this article to be helpful and take good care of yourself and then others.

References

Barsade, S. G. (2002). The ripple effect: Emotional contagion and its influence on group behavior. Administrative science quarterly, 47(4), 644-675.3

Grupe, D. W., & Nitschke, J. B. (2013). Uncertainty and anticipation in anxiety: an integrated neurobiological and psychological perspective. Nature reviews. Neuroscience, 14(7), 488–501. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn35241

Torre, J. B., & Lieberman, M. D. (2018). Putting feelings into words: Affect labeling as implicit emotion regulation. Emotion Review, 10(2), 116-124.2