Are you wondering why so many people who don’t have COVID-19, or even know anyone who has been diagnosed are seeing a spike in feelings of anxiety? It’s not just because of the many changes in our communities and around the world since the pandemic began: over 26 million Americans were out of work, K-12 schools and universities nationwide closed overnight and many of us spent weeks or months inside our homes and yards not socializing. However,change and stress are not the main sources that fuel anxiety, they are simply kindling. The real lighter fluid and gasoline is UNCERTAINTY.
When is school going to start back up? What is that going to be like? Will students really wear a mask all day? How long until we REALLY know how this disease affects people? What if someone I care about gets COVID-19 and dies? What if I test positive for COVID-19 and have to stay home for 14 days?
All of these are valid concerns and questions. It is normal to feel some anxiety in new situations,like starting a new school year, a new job, moving to a new place or living through a worldwide pandemic for the first time. Uncertainty lies underneath all of these situations and questions. We often think, “If I have answers and information I can be prepared, and my anxiety will calm down.” It might, for like a minute. But that doesn’t prevent uncertainty popping up in other areas of our life, on a regular basis. (More on that in my next post).
Anxiety serves a very important function of protecting us. It’s the feeling that tells us we should put our seat belt on when we get into a car or wash our hands after touching common surfaces in public.
However, for some of us, anxiety has too much power and control in our lives. It acts as a bossy, know-it-all alarm and yells loudly about horrible, scary things that could (but are not likely to) happen and that is when it becomes problematic. It often starts with one worry or concern and quickly spirals into 10 worries or more. Remember, ANXIETY LOVES UNCERTAINTY. It feeds on it and grows exponentially like Mentos dropped in a Coke bottle:
“What if people don’t wear masks and I get sick? What if I spread it to my sweet old neighbor (who I have never talked to or met) who walks her dog and she dies and its my fault? What if all my friends get COVID-19 from me and then they don’t want to be my friend anymore? Who am I going to sit with at lunch? What if we don’t ever go back to school?!!! How am I going to get into college and get a good job? What if this pandemic never ends…?” And on and on it spirals.
Anxious thoughts often have a small grain of truth in them and frequently center around a possible, but unlikely, scenario or chain of events.
So, what can we do to handle so much uncertainty in our lives and manage out of control anxiety? It starts with externalizing the anxious thoughts and worry, (it’s not you, it’s the anxiety that hangs out with you) predicting when it will show up and creating phrases to say back to and refute the worry.
Example: “Listen anxiety, I knew you were going to show up when I went to school today, but none of the bad things you predict EVER happen. I don’t need you right now, you can go away.”
When we predict the anxiety, we won’t feel blindsided by it and we already know it’s anxiety overreacting. In my next post, I will go into more detail about how to access the resources within ourselves we all have to manage bossy, know-it-all anxious thoughts and retrain our brain to be more helpful and accurate instead of a Chicken Little alarm clock.
In my last post, Flexible Thinking Part 1, I reviewed what flexible thinking is and its benefits. Over the last few months, we have all been “thrown in the deep end” of flexible thinking as the COVID-19 pandemic has required us to make adjustments. Flexible thinking, or the ability to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations, helped us transition to distance learning, working, shopping, and socializing.
In this post, I briefly highlight how flexible thinking can improve and help reduce feelings of depression and anxiety:
Depression tells us things will never change and reduces hope for the future. Flexible thinking applied to depression recognizes the opportunity each day and, in each situation, to do something different and breaks down negative feedback loops.
Anxiety feeds on possible, but unlikely, scenarios playing out in our lives and the lives of those we care about. Flexible thinking reminds anxious minds they have the resources around and within them to solve current and future problems and to create solutions to those problems. In short, flexible thinking focuses on “possibilities rather than deficiencies.”
What can we do to increase and improve our mental flexibility?
Engaging in mindfulness activities, (think deep breathing, meditation and guided imagery) yoga, aerobics and relaxation techniques have all been shown to increase executive functions and mental flexibility. Research has also shown we can also enable flexible thinking through positive affect (positive emotions such as cheerfulness, pride and energy and their expression), openness to experience and self-control.
As we consistently engage in flexible thinking, we can have more control over our thoughts and responses, reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, frustration and stress, meet our goals and successfully navigate the changing circumstances in our everyday lives and interpersonal relationships.
Emerald Robertson, M.S.Ed., ACMHC, NCC
Kashdan, T. B., & Rottenberg, J. (2010). Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 865-878.
Running a social skills group for kids ages 7-11 has taught
me a lot about the benefits of flexible thinking. Flexible thinking in kids
produces turn taking, transitioning smoothly to new activities, and the ability
to adapt mentally, emotionally and behaviorally to a variety of situations.
Flexible thinking in adults also enables mental, emotional,
and behavioral adaptability. It is the ability to consider situations from
multiple perspectives, include context clues to inform decision making, manage
rising emotional responses in appropriate ways, problem solve, and balance and
prioritize competing desires and goals. Flexible thinking also allows for
spontaneity in our romantic relationships that can increase excitement and
Flexible thinking looks like letting someone else pick the
restaurant for dinner, cancelling plans to be with a friend or spouse who’s had
a difficult day, finding solutions to problems instead of ruminating on the
endless escalating spiral of “what if…” scenarios, truly listening to
understand what others are saying, and not telling your boss what you really
think of them when they take credit for your work during the company meeting.
Inflexible or rigid thinking in adults is often manifest in
all or nothing (Black and White) perspectives and doesn’t allow for nuances and
mitigating circumstances. Doing something because, “That’s how we have always
done it” is an example of rigid thinking. Other examples include not listening
to other’s ideas, struggling to consider the feelings and experiences of
others, and obliviousness to opportunities around us because we are locked into
our self-appointed expectations, rules or ideas about how something is
“supposed to be.”
There is a popular Huffington
Post article (“Reasons my
son is crying will crack you up!”) that is unknowingly
highlighting inflexible and rigid thinking. In each of these pictures, the
child is having an emotional meltdown because they are stuck on one thought and
the associated feeling so deeply, they become overwhelmed, abandon all reason
and rebuff efforts to console them; for example, “He wouldn’t fit through the
doggy door. Note the open-door right beside him.” With toddlers and adults
alike, inflexible thinking can lead to unhelpful and stressful situations.
As a caution, let’s be clear that not all rigid thinking is
unhelpful. There are areas in life that being inflexible is necessary and
protective. With regards to physical safety and personal and emotional
boundaries, it is advantageous to be rigid.
We all have times where we utilize both flexible and rigid
thinking, the important part is to identify where we, as adults, teens or kids,
could benefit from more flexible thinking.
Is there an issue with your friends or spouse
that keeps coming up, how could you change your perspective or response in the
situation to increase connection with that person?
What could be a different way to address the
issue? What about that issue is the real problem?
Could any of these same questions be applied to
work relationships and circumstances?
You need to be a pipe cleaner.
Here is a visual way to conceptualize flexible thinking. During
one of my first weeks running the aforementioned social skills group I came
across an activity highlighting the importance of and difference between
flexible and rigid thinking using a popsicle stick, a pipe cleaner and a piece
A popsicle stick is sturdy but rigid. Attempts
to bend the popsicle stick typically result in it breaking. Not helpful.
Pipe cleaners are soft and fuzzy on the outside,
come in multiple colors, bend easily, hold their shape and have sturdy wire in
the middle: the creative options are endless. They are so adaptable they can
bend to whatever the situation requires while maintaining their inner core
(read: personal values and goals).
A piece of yarn can barely hold any shape at
all, it’s too flexible. It can’t stand up for itself or hold a boundary and can
be easily manipulated with no resistance.
Thinking like a pipe cleaner allows flexibility, adjusting,
shifting, adapting and changing as needed without compromising our values. What
areas in your life are you like a pipe cleaner? Are there some relationships,
situations or events where you are more like a popsicle stick? Which of these
scenarios or people would benefit from you being more like a pipe cleaner?
Look for Flexible Thinking Part 2: Mental Health, where I
will review how flexible thinking impacts and effects our mental health.