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The Power of Responding to Anxiety with "I Wonder?"

Approaching uncertainty with curiosity can help you combat hopelessness.

August de Richelieu/Pexels
Source: August de Richelieu/Pexels

Like so many other families, mine recently experienced a scare: We were exposed to someone who was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID. While the person we were exposed to awaited the results of their COVID test, we felt compelled to quarantine. We didn’t want to send the kids to school or soccer or anywhere else until we knew for sure that we hadn’t been exposed.

We are among the fortunate few who’ve had in-person public school since September. And all four of us have gotten used to the kids being in school. So when I learned that we’d have to quarantine, at least for several days, and maybe for many more, I panicked. My husband and I have tight work schedules, based entirely around the hours our sons are in school, that we carry out with military-like precision. And our kids, particularly our older son, really love being in school in person. I worried that quarantining was going to feel like March again, when I was barely working thanks to online schooling and my kids were a mess.

When I told my kids about the quarantine, Matty, my older son, burst into tears. He bemoaned the fact that he’d be stuck at home, watching his friends at school on the computer. I put on a brave face but inwardly felt just like he did, believing that this would in fact be “the worst thing ever.” My younger son Sam reflected a bit on this new development and eventually said, “I wonder what virtual school will be like?”

At 6 years old, Sam was able to access a tried-and-true Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) strategy that I, despite my age and therapeutic expertise, was not: He approached an uncertain upcoming event with curiosity, rather than accepting a terrible outcome as a foregone conclusion.

Approach with curiosity. How many times since COVID began have I forgotten all about this strategy, and instead assumed that the very worst was going to happen? How many times have I been consumed with dread, without actually knowing how something was going to turn out? Reflecting on the past 8 months, I can identify many situations that I expected would end in catastrophe but that turned out much more OK than I’d anticipated. Take last week’s brief foray into remote schooling, for example: Sam, ever the optimist, “loved” it, while Matty found it tolerable (as long as there was Halloween candy waiting for him on the other side). Which was far better than I’d anticipated.

I don’t mean to suggest that catastrophe won’t occur. It has occurred, for many of us, many times over since this virus began. But it’s also possible that what you fear most will not happen. Leaving yourself open to that possibility—however slight—can keep you from sliding down into a pit of dread and despair. And if you’re not despairing, you’re far more likely to come up with effective ways for coping with the situation in question, whether it’s devising a schedule for quarantine school days or figuring out how you can safely see school friends outdoors for your kid’s birthday.

Approaching uncertainty with curiosity will be especially important for all of us as we head into the holidays. This year, sadly, we can’t uphold many of our beloved family holiday traditions. But does this automatically mean that the holidays will be an unmitigated disaster? Is it perhaps possible that we can engineer new traditions that, while not the same as our old ones, will be welcome, and maybe even a little bit fun?

As the holidays draw near, and cases continue to rise, try, if you can, to take a page from Sam’s playbook. Tack the phrase “I wonder…” in front of your feared outcomes (as in, “I wonder what it will be like spending Thanksgiving at our house?”). Merely adding those two simple words can go a long way toward helping you keep hopelessness at bay.

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