As I’m writing, I’m jiggling my leg. I’m jiggling my leg because I had more coffee than usual. I had more coffee than usual because I had trouble getting to sleep last night, and so I’m very tired. I had trouble getting to sleep last night and so I’m very tired because my worries of the past year (COVID worries, mostly) have been compounded by worries about the stability of our country. It’s like the children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie (Numeroff, 2015) in which giving a mouse a cookie leads to a whole series of unintended events; but instead of a nice cartoon mouse, the initiating event was an attempted coup of the United States government on January 6th, 2021.
If the themes running through both my personal conversations and counseling sessions are any indication, I’m not the only one who is giving nighttime anxiety a cookie. And if you, too, are feeling stressed by the world around you, you are not alone if you are having a leg that jiggles or an extra cup of coffee or initial onset insomnia (or any other kind of insomnia), or myriad other anxiety responses.
So first, as I would say to any of my clients, I want to validate your experience. Attempted coups are stressful. COVID is stressful. It’s okay if you are stressed.
Now Inauguration Day is coming, and with it, uncertainty. There is uncertainty about potential violence, upheaval, what the future of our government is, and how it will impact each of us. Polarized media outlets and social media platforms have furthered uncertainty by calling facts into question. Uncertainty is hard. Generally, our brains don’t love it and work hard to avoid it.
What do we do with this stress and uncertainty, you may ask? We can’t get rid of the stress. We can’t get rid of uncertainty. What we can control is how we approach it. This includes the basics, like breathing (always breathe first), keeping a schedule, getting outside, and moving your body. And also:
View your stress response as adaptive. As Kelly McGonigal addressed in her 2013 TED Talk, the way we understand or appraise stress changes our physiological response to it. Those who view stress as helpful have less blood vessel tension (McGonigal, 2013). We can rise to the challenge through our body's response to stress.
This doesn’t mean viewing the stress of COVID or governmental unrest as a positive; it means that viewing your own stress response as a positive can change your body’s response to it. Your body is preparing to manage the difficulty, and that’s adaptive. Thanks, body.
When you can’t get rid of the stressor, changing your viewpoint may be the next best thing—something that is in your control. How do you think about your own response to stress? Write down the following statement and fill in the blank: "My body's response to stress helps me to _____." For me, my body's stress response enables me to validate my emotions, and feel prepared to do something about them.
Channel your stress response into action. Your body is responding to stress. You’ve considered the above and realized your body is doing what it is supposed to. Now, what do you do with this pumped-up feeling?
Channel it. Letting it stew could increase the feelings of helplessness towards the Big Problems. So turn your body’s preparation for a challenge towards a challenge. You pick the challenge. If you’re a COVID researcher or a government employee in the Capitol, your challenge may be the Big Problems. If you're not able to directly address national events, channeling your stress response may involve addressing a more local or personal challenge (and these are valuable too): going to exercise, diving into a work task, planning a healthy meal, playing with your child (or pet), bringing up social justice issues in your school district or town, checking in on a neighbor, organizing donations to a food pantry... or writing a blog post about stress.
Tolerate the uncertainty and discomfort. Instead of trying to solve the uncertainty of the Inauguration and major national events on your own, or run away from them, or avoid them entirely… you can work to tolerate the uncertainty.
You don’t want to do that, I know. I don’t want to do that either. But when life has plunked you in the middle of a lake and you are swimming to shore, tolerating the discomfort in your muscles is necessary to get to the other side. You can build your tolerance for discomfort and uncertainty by accepting the reality that's in front of you.
It can be difficult to adjust to the twists and turns we face, but you can spend your energy fighting reality or you can spend your energy adapting to it. Try to name the thing that you are tolerating out loud, either to yourself or to a friend. For example, "I am tolerating anxiety about the Inauguration."
Engage in your life. Step outside of watching the news or scrolling on your phone (unless you are scrolling to read this article on your phone, in which case you can wait a few sentences to stop scrolling). Set aside the barrage or media to fully engage in an activity.
What is meaningful to you in your daily life? What activities make you feel alive, and connected to your identity? Go do that thing, if you can. Participate in an online church service, if you are religious. Stomp around on a muddy trail, if you're a nature-lover. Bake cookies for your friends, if you're kitchen-inclined. Interact with that person who brings you joy, with COVID-safe precautions or from a distance. (Socializing and caring for others can also build our stress-related resilience (McGonigal, 2013)).
The events of 2020 and 2021 are important. Your life, your activities, and your relationships are important too. They are occurring alongside these events, which we have heard over and over are “unprecedented.”
As long as events continue to be unprecedented, we are going to need to pick up our tools and coping strategies to keep moving forward. Even in the midst of a barrage of violence (man-made and virus-made), even in the midst of uncertainty in the days before the Inauguration, we can grow our resilience. I know I feel more resilient, after taking my own advice (something we therapists do not always do). Maybe tonight we can get some sleep.
McGonigal, K. (2013, September). How to make stress your friend [Video]. TED Conferences. https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
Numeroff, L. J. (2015). If you give a mouse a cookie. HarperCollins.