Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Being Stable in an Unstable World

Three steps towards reducing stress in an unstable world.

Key points

  • People can learn how to cope with an unstable environment by stabilizing their sense of self.
  • It is important to avoid lying to yourself if you want to be more stable and less anxious.
  • Identifying and practicing core values and personal traits consistently adds to emotional stability.
Feeling unsteady?
Source: PublicDomainPictures/Pixabay

COVID-19, social unrest, and political instability have destabilized our world and most individuals are experiencing increased stress and anxiety. For many, this is associated with self-destructive behaviors such as overeating, substance abuse, and in the extreme, suicidal behaviors. Following are three steps to reducing stress and anxiety associated with a stressful environment by stabilizing yourself from within.

Step 1: Self-Honesty

One of the best ways to increase your stress level is to lie to yourself. While this may seem self-evident, it is very common for people to lie to themselves. One of the most common forms of this is believing what one wants to believe rather than believing what is true. In the example below Sheila wants to believe that going to a party and drinking the night before her final examinations at her college will not have a negative effect on her performance.

Sheila struggled with a decision the night before her exams. There was a party that she really wanted to go to, but deep down she knew that she would benefit from staying sober and reviewing her notes. She decided to go to the party but keep the drinking light and leave early so that she could review her notes before bed.

When Shelia got to the party, she did enjoy herself. But she could not stop this annoying part of her brain that worried about her examinations. The worrying part got louder as the evening went on.

When she got back to her room, she tried to study but she was also sleepy from the alcohol that she consumed at the party. So she told herself that she would get up early and review her notes. The part of her that was worried about passing the examinations got louder.

When she woke, she had a headache. She fell back asleep and woke up just in time to go to the examination. She was very anxious at this point because she knew that her preparation was suboptimal. She did not get to do her final review. Her anxiety grew after she took the test and continued until she got her grade.

Sheila was dishonest with herself about the fact that going to a party the night before an examination will compromise performance. She lied to herself that she could go to the party and not compromise her performance. She ignored all the signs that she was being compromised as she attended the party. She got increasingly anxious. Her sense of self also got increasingly unstable as she pit the sensible part of her against the childish part.

Had Sheila been honest with herself, she would have passed up the party and performed her best on her examination. This strategy would have minimized her anxiety and maximized her performance. The first step is a commitment to being honest with yourself.

Step 2: Take Personal Inventory

The next step is to review for yourself the traits in a person that you value most. Personal/emotional stability is achieved when your thinking and behavior consistently reflect these traits. Intelligent, thoughtful, generous, athletic, mindful, etc. are examples of such traits.

This step builds upon the first step: self-honesty. It is not enough to represent oneself as being consistent in the chosen traits, one must think and act in concert with traits as consistently as possible.

Step 3: Use Every Opportunity Available to Express Your Most Valued Traits

Personal stability requires consistency in thought, ethics, and behavior. This requires consistent application of the traits you select in every possible situation.

If you value being a cautious person, you might be very cautious about COVID-19 exposure. You should treat every situation with maximal caution. For example, mask-wearing, handwashing, social distancing, etc. While you probably will still worry about being sick, you will not worry that you have been careless and not protected yourself enough.

If you value being a socially conscientious environmentalist, then you should minimize trash and carbon emissions at every possible opportunity and never use energy or unrecyclable products. Inconsistent application, such as insisting that others drive electric vehicles while driving a gas-powered sports car on weekends causes conflict between one’s ethics (minimizing environmental impact) and indulging in driving a sports car on nice days. This pits the environmental part of the self against the thrill-seeking part. This conflict destabilizes the sense of self and increases anxiety. This often is associated with a sense of being a phony and fear of being found out.

Consistent practice of minimizing carbon and non-recyclable products is associated with a strongly internally validated sense of being a conservationist and a good citizen. This reduces stress and increases confidence about being able to follow through with objectives while garnering admiration from others. Other forms of thrill-seeking can then be sought that do not conflict with conservationist values.

Consistency vs. Rigidity

Consistency of expression of valued personal traits does not require behavioral rigidity. Healthy personal coping requires the use of flexibility, a core coping mechanism, for optimal function. The traits that are being expressed, such as generosity, thoughtfulness, spirituality, etc., can be expressed in many different ways. This allows for flexible and consistent expression of these traits in different situations. Application of this is illustrated below.

Jack wanted to express thoughtfulness to as many people as possible in order to stabilize and strengthen this personal trait but he didn’t want to treat everyone the same. So he made coffee for his wife in the morning. He gave a large tip to the person who served his lunch. He gave up his taxicab to a stranger on crutches. He was able to flexibly tailor his expression of thoughtful to almost anyone in any situation. This strengthened his sense of being a thoughtful person and made him feel more worthy and more confident.

We are living in chaotic times and will be for some time to come. Almost all of these events are beyond your control. Bringing stability to your life under these circumstances requires stabilization of the self.

More from Daniel S. Lobel Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today