Self-Reflection during COVID-19: tackling the beliefs of anxiety

Even with the craziness and intensity of the current COVID-19 situation, I thought I was fine. Stressed about the state of the world and an uncertain future, sure. Who isn’t? But I thought I was handling and processing it all in a good, thorough, “work through it and be able to function normally” kind of way.

My body, unbeknownst to me, was feeling differently, however. After two weeks of working from home and being sheltered-at-home and shoving those feelings of stress way down deep (under way too much cheese), my body finally cracked. I woke up with a giant rash across my stomach, a rash I instantly recognized because it’s the rash I get when I am extremely stressed.

So apparently I have been carrying far more stress and anxiety than I was willing to admit.

(I should have been able to deduce this fact from the number of empty wine bottles clogging our trash can but alas…)

From last summer, when drinking just one glass of wine at night was the norm. It was a simpler time.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. I am anxious by nature and this is an incredibly stressful time, individually and communally. I should have expected some sort of bodily reaction — both in brain and body. I really am not surprised that I am feeling a heightened sense of anxiety.

Identify what beliefs are giving rise to that emotion.

#1

Anxiety is kind of an umbrella term for a group of feelings like dread, worry, and nervousness, and is often, but not always, accompanied by depression. A general distinction of anxiety is that it is often felt in the face of uncertainty. Fear, by contrast, is generally a response to a specific threat, or the possibility of a specific harm. Anxiety is more the feeling that arises when we don’t know how everything will turn out but recognize that some as-yet-unnamed bad thing could happen. And we are powerless to stop it.

The primary beliefs of anxiety seem to be:

  • The future (immediate or distant) is uncertain.
  • Something bad could happen.

Identify what is making those beliefs “feel” good or bad.

#2

Much like the beliefs of anxiety, what makes anxiety feel bad (i.e., what give it a “negative valence”), is our understanding and belief that we can’t control the outcome. So the additional beliefs of anxiety are:

  • I don’t know what is going to happen, so I don’t know what to do to keep the bad things from happening.
  • I am powerless to stop the bad thing, so it is more likely the bad thing will happen.

But what ultimately makes anxiety so nefarious and debilitating is not just those two beliefs, but an additional one:

  • I am not strong enough to handle what bad thing might come my way.

Evaluate whether or not those beliefs are rational.

#3

Again, much like fear, the belief of our powerlessness is partly rational. It is a recognition of being embedded within a system that we help create, have power to change, but cannot overthrow or control entirely. We don’t know what’s going to happen, and we can’t prevent all bad things from happening.

But what’s not true is the belief that we’re not strong enough to handle the bad things that may (will) come. We are stronger than we believe. To paraphrase the almighty sage Pinterest: we have survived everything we’ve been through so far — there is every reason to believe we will survive what comes next.

So while the beliefs of our relative powerlessness are rational (in part), our belief that we can’t handle whatever bad may come is not. That’s the belief we can, and should, make a concerted effort to change.

Create and speak out loud new, additional or replacement but still truer, beliefs.

#4

I think with anxiety, the best belief we can cultivate or work towards is the belief in our own resilience. If we believe that we are resilient, then we will feel more sure that we will be able to handle whatever bad things might be coming. We cannot prevent all the bad things, yes, but we can handle them. Believing in our own resiliency will help neutralize our anxiety by making the uncertain potential bad things feel less threatening.

I love the way Maine de Biran (and others) characterize the real: The real is what “resists”. We can resist. We do resist, because we are already real. And we will continue to resist in the ways we have already demonstrated our realness through the way we have navigated and survived the past struggles and vicissitudes of our lives. We have “resisted” being overcome by difficulties, by bad things, by struggles. And we will continue to do so in the face of new difficulties.

I think there are three things we can do to resist anxiety, regarding beliefs — one is to create and speak new ones to ourselves about our own resiliency until they become “real”; the second is to remind ourselves of all the good things that are possible outcomes of our uncertainty; and the third is to focus on the ways we can increase our feelings of resiliency. For me, that process looks like this:

  1. Cultivate this cluster of true beliefs:
    1. The future is uncertain.
    2. The things that are coming are both good and bad.
    3. I cannot prevent all the bad things that could happen.
    4. I am resilient and can handle whatever bad things might be coming.
    5. I have survived a lot of toxic environments, times of want, and need. I will be able to do so in the future.
    6. There are things I can do now to make my present better and healthier, which will help make me even more resilient to whatever comes in the future.
    7. There are many good things that could also come out of this time, for my relationships, my work, and my personal growth. (I am keeping most of these for me alone.)
  2. Increase my feelings of resiliency by:
    1. Remembering the friends and family who have come through for me when I needed them.
    2. Making a list of my personal and personality strengths and how they will help me handle new difficulties.
    3. Remembering that my husband is strong in ways I am not and that we have handled and can handle anything together. Affirm my belief in us and why that is plenty.

And for anyone who wants to learn how to build or foster resiliency, there are some great ideas here.

And finally, if you’re looking for a bit of music to take you out of the uncertainty of the future, here are two minutes of (poorly technical, but deeply felt) Bach.

Bach’s Prelude in C Major

On your own: Dealing with beliefs of anxiety

  1. Acknowledge and name what you are feeling: anxiety.
  2. Acknowledge that part of what makes anxiety feel bad is that we don’t feel as though we are strong enough to handle what bad may come out of the uncertainty.
  3. Say out loud: “The idea that I am not resilient is false.”
  4. Make a list of the ways you have shown resiliency — what struggles have you overcome? What situations have you persevered through?
  5. Write down and speak out loud to yourself (every day) the new belief: “I am resilient and will be able to handle and survive the hard things that come out of this uncertainty.”
  6. Affirm your beliefs in the people around you who will help you through difficult times.
  7. Write down and speak out loud the good things that could come out of this uncertainty. Remind yourself to believe that those potential good things are just as potentially real as the potential bad things.
  8. Make a list of the ways you can increase your resiliency today and in this time of waiting.

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