What to do when catastrophe seems to loom just around the corner?
Many people are having trouble getting to sleep these days. They’re worried about a possible catastrophe emerging after the US Presidential Election.
This seems like a good time to review what we know about situations where there is the potential for something really bad to happen but the magnitude and nature of that potential catastrophe is somewhat vague (and therefore even more ominous) and the story is receiving a great deal of attention in the news media.
There are many examples of this from recent experience and some lessons to be learned.
Situations like this always take me back to my experience of being in San Francisco during the last big earthquake. Sure there was some damage, but a lot of the fear came from the news stories that night, stories which turned out not to be realistic.
Is there anything to do?
First, it is important to distinguish between possible catastrophes where there is something that you can do to minimize or mitigate the catastrophe and situations where there’s really not anything that you can personally do.
If there’s something that you can do that will have a significant impact and it’s certainly appropriate to plan and take action. But if you can’t think of something to do, you may be dealing with the situation such as the presidential election where there is not much any given individual can do to change the outcome.
The situations that tend to be the most overwhelming emotionally are ones where there is no clear action that any individual can take that will have a big impact on the outcome and the nature of the catastrophe is somewhat vague. Furtively imagined disasters are more frightening than clearly seen negative events.
The first thing that I recommend is that you turn off the “monitors.” By this I mean turning off the news sources that you may be obsessively consulting for the latest news and, most especially, opinion and speculation. Put down the cellphone, or if you can’t do that, turn it off, or put it in a separate room. Remove bookmarks to your favorite news source. Avoid television news. Sign off of listservs or Twitter feeds.
There’s no way that you can achieve any kind of calm in the face of a barrage of information and speculation.
For some people the idea of taking a vacation from things that elicit anxiety can be helpful. Make a conscious decision. I am going on vacation until next Thursday. Ask somebody to “keep watch” who can let you know if something comes up in the media that really needs your attention but otherwise turn off all the monitors. Take a week off if you can, even a long weekend can help. You can always extend the vacation if you like how you feel.
Sometimes the opposite approach works. Rather than scheduling a vacation from worry, if you can’t give up thinking about something entirely, you can schedule time to worry.
Part of the problem with an endless preoccupation with a topic is that our thoughts tend to be poorly formed. We don’t really do a good job of “worrying” or thinking through all of the implications of the anxiety we are having. Instead we run over and over short phrases in our heads.
An antidote to this might be scheduling ½ an hour or an hour to really think through the implications of some anxiety and to figure out what you would do if worst comes to worst. This is especially helpful if the active scheduling that worry time allows you to not worry during the rest of your time. Tell yourself that you have some time set aside for worrying about this and turn to other thoughts.
Other antidotes to chronic anxiety about potential catastrophe include:
- Seek out experiences of wonder and awe. Whether exploring the beauty of nature or art, these can instill within you a sense of connection with life that is a powerful antidote to chronic anxiety and fear.
- Reach out to speak with or seek physical comfort from people who love you. The sense of strong connection and social support can be very reassuring.
- Nurture yourself. Make sure that you are taking care of your physical health. Renew your commitment to exercise and a good diet. You might not be able to ensure sleep but make sure that your giving yourself enough time to rest.