‘Focus on the things you can control’: how to cope with radical uncertainty

The Guardian

We aren’t as powerless as the coronavirus pandemic makes us feel. This is how to stay calm, one Post-it at a time

Oliver Burkeman
Sat 28 Mar 2020 12.00 GMT

In 1939, in a sermon preached at Oxford University in the midst of a different global crisis, CS Lewis made a distinction that’s worth revisiting today. It wasn’t the case, he pointed out, that the outbreak of war had rendered human life suddenly fragile; rather, it was that people were suddenly realising it always had been. “The war creates no absolutely new situation,” Lewis said. “It simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal.”

In this time of acute collective anxiety, this sort of insight might not bring much peace of mind on its own. But it is a crucial first step, because it suggests that something about our gut-churning feelings of helplessness – the sense that we’re facing an absolutely horrible, unprecedented emergency, which we’ll surely lack the personal resilience to cope with – isn’t wholly accurate. And it implies that we might be much better than we think at dealing with radical uncertainty – because in fact, every hour of every day, we already do.

The special trouble with uncertainty is that it’s a doorway to infinity. When you’ve no idea what tomorrow will bring, it’s easy to fill that gap with fantasy, and the world of fantasy knows no bounds. It’s possible to imagine things getting limitlessly bad. (Most of us are vulnerable to what the psychotherapist Bruce Tift calls “annihilatory panic”: the unconscious belief that there are certain feelings that would literally destroy us if we had to feel them.) Unsurprisingly, this feeds the destructive and self-perpetuating thought pattern that cognitive therapists call “catastrophising”: taking every morsel of bad news as evidence that things are going to be globally, absolutely and eternally terrible. By contrast, when even extremely bad things happen, the situation, however dire, remains finite. An event occurs; it’s over; then the people directly affected can begin to reconfigure their lives.
One overarching strategy for dealing with the experience of intense uncertainty is to do whatever you can to bring yourself back to the world of the finite – to things as they actually are in your own concrete world, and the concrete things you can control. As a first step, try not to see anxious feelings as something you’ve got to get rid of. Lisa Marchiano, a therapist and writer based in Philadelphia, suggests making it your mission “to tolerate uncertainty, rather than having to make it go away. That creates a different frame for thinking about things: all you have to do is tolerate it. Of course, that may be very difficult – but it can get us out of this place where we’re spinning our wheels, trying to fix something it isn’t within our power to fix.”
I recommend the ‘shaking practice’ which has the added benefit of being so ridiculous as to be incompatible with misery
Many of the most fruitful techniques for coping with uncertainty involve a similar move: they are ways to refocus your attention away from your runaway fantasies. If you’re confined to your home at the moment, giving yourself some structure by drawing up an approximate schedule can reconnect you to the texture of the day. (“Even if we hate our jobs, having somewhere to be at 9am is very containing, psychologically,” Marchiano says.) You’ll get a related “grounding” effect by returning to the body through virtually any form of physical exercise. (As a specific antidote to anxious feelings, I highly recommend the “shaking practice” demonstrated by the coach Deepika Sheleff on her website, which is what it sounds like – and has the added benefit of being so ridiculous as to be incompatible with total misery.)

There’s no harm in a little distraction, if you can manage it. But one of the most intriguing insights of Buddhist psychology is that focusing on discomfort is even more effective. In another demonstration of the power of returning to concrete reality, if you spend a few moments paying attention as closely as possible to the physical sensations you’re experiencing at this very moment, you’ll probably find them much easier to tolerate. The meditation teacher Kenneth Folk frames this as a matter of “attentional bandwidth”: your capacity to pay attention is strictly limited – and so the more of it you manage to dedicate to the experience you’re having, the less remains available for dwelling on how unpleasant it is. (Complement this with the powerfully calming 4-7-8 breathing technique: breathe in through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of seven, then exhale through your mouth, emptying the lungs as fully as possible, for a count of eight.)
Meanwhile, as your to-do list isn’t going anywhere – depending on your situation, it may just have become unfeasibly longer – you’ll need a way to get things done in the presence of uncertainty, and here, too, a short-range, down-to-earth, finitude-focused approach is likely to the most effective. Even at the best of times, it’s a good idea to limit the number of tasks you’re working on at any given moment to three or four, seeing them through to completion before embarking on others; and in times of high stress, it may be worth reducing that limit to one. Pick a task, write it on a Post-it, position it somewhere prominent, then do that task; for that moment, it’s the only goal you need to worry about accomplishing. Then repeat. Soon, you’ll accumulate a pleasing number of Post-its, a testament to all the constructive stuff you’ve managed to get done.
Silver linings: how to stay positive during the coronavirus crisis
As the anxiety abates a little, it may even become possible to glimpse the profound truth that, as Marchiano puts it, “a crisis can heighten the opportunity to find meaning, to get clear about what matters most”. What’s your role here? There’s solace to be found in figuring out what this moment demands from you, then doing it as well as you can. It may not look like anything heroic from the outside. (“Maybe it’s just making sure the kids stay on top of their schoolwork, or doing your job as a clerk in a grocery store,” Marchiano says.) It won’t change the fact that nobody knows what tomorrow holds. But, then again, nobody has ever known what tomorrow held – yet life has always gone on, including its most uplifting forms. As Lewis said: “If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun.”

The meditation teacher Jack Kornfield explores Buddhist paths to peace of mind amid the pandemic in a Tim Ferriss Show podcast: tim.blog/podcast

Ten Percent Happier, a podcast and meditation app, has a free sanity guide: tenpercent.com/coronavirussanityguide

The Insight Timer app offers a vast collection of free guided meditations for anxiety, stress and much more: insighttimer.com

Andrew Weil demonstrates a speedy intervention for bodily calm, the 4-7-8 breathing technique, on his website: drweil.com

Three Jungian analysts discuss the deeper meanings and unexpected opportunities of the coronavirus outbreak in their podcast, thisjungianlife.com

The Unwinding Anxiety app, developed by American psychiatric researcher Judson Brewer, adapts traditional mindfulness practices to target the modern epidemic of anxiety: unwindinganxiety.com.

What is the science behind fear?

Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT) October 29, 2015 

  • Humans are born with two fears, the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises 
  • Most fears are learned fears 
  • Fear can increase dopamine in thrill seekers

(CNN)”I’ll huff, and I’ll puff and blow your house down,” calls out the deranged writer Jack Torrance, hunting down his wife and son, in Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1980 horror movie, “The Shining.” And as he takes a breath, he brings an axe down on the bathroom door and starts to hack away. At the same time you hear Shelly Duvall, who plays his wife, scream from the other side. Torrance, played by Jack Nicholson, splits enough of a hole in the door to push his head through. “Here’s Johnny!” It is one of the most heart pounding moments in cinema, and while some find watching the movie stressful, others will relish it watching it over and over again. Sponsor content by HungaryThere’s always something new happening in Budapest, so there’s never a bad time to visit.Fear is an adaptive behavior that we have to help identify threats. It is an ability that has allowed us as humans to survive predators and natural disasters. 

Innate fears

We are born with only two innate fears: the fear of falling and the fear of loud sounds. A 1960 study evaluated depth perception among 6- to14-month-old infants, as well as young animals. Researchers placed the subjects on a platform that had plexiglass just beyond its edge to it to see how many of the subjects would actually step over the “visual cliff.” Most of the subjects — both children and animals — didn’t go “over” and step out on to the plexiglass. The fear of falling is an instinct necessary for the survival of many species. When you hear loud sounds, you most likely will react with a fight or flight type response. It’s called “your acoustic startle reflex,” said Seth Norrholm, a translational neuroscientist at Emory University. Norrholm explained that if a sound is loud enough “you’re going to duck down your head. Loud noises typically means startling. That circuitry is innate.” It’s a response we have, that signals something dangerous may be around the corner. ADVERTISINGinRead invented by Teads

Learned fears

Most fear is learned. Spiders, snakes, the dark — these are called natural fears, developed at a young age, influenced by our environment and culture. So a young child isn’t automatically scared of spiders, but builds on cues from his parents. “You get evidence from your parents and your environment that you need to be scared of these things,” said Norrholm. While the fear itself is learned, though, humans seem to be predisposed to fear certain things like spiders and snakes because of evolution. “Back in our ancestral age … young children learned not to pick up snakes and spiders because they’re venomous,” said Norrholm. In fact, studies have found that when asked to pick out spiders and snakes from a collection of pictures, both preschoolers and adults react more quickly than when asked to pick out non-threatening items — like flowers — from the same collection. That’s believed to happen because of the bias we have carried toward them throughout time. As we get older, fears are developed because of association. Norrholm compares it to a combat veteran who survives an encounter with an IED that was hidden in a shopping bag. If that vet is redeployed and sees another shopping bag, “he has a fight or flight response. Here, an association has been made between the cue and the fear outcome.” It’s the same exact response a child has to scary Halloween decorations. “It’s about context,” said Norrholm. A young child may not know that a skeleton is a scary, until his parents say over and over how skeleton decorations are spooky. 

How does the brain process fear? 

When presented with something that scares you, your brain reacts with its fight or flight response. For example, if you see a snake while hiking, there are two roadways for your brain, said Norrholm. First is the low road that represents your brains sensory systems in the brain’s amygdala. It’s “what you see, smell, hear,” and signals to the brain that this is something to fear. It’s the adrenaline response that tells your heart to beat faster and your body to sweat. Almost simultaneously, there’s a high road reaction. “That goes through your higher cortical center in you brain. The high road says ‘I’ve seen this kind of snake before, and I don’t have to worry’,” said Norrholm. Think of it as the reasoning response that overrides the low road. “There is some evidence to suggest that thrill-seeking is like anything pleasurable — gambling, eating, — it releases dopamine,” said Norrholm. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control our brain’s reward and pleasure centers. “We know that the more you reward something, the more that they do it,” said Norrholm. And the more that thrill-seekers seek out the dangerous behavior, the better they are able to engage the cortical high road, and provide the rational context that the thrill-seeking behavior isn’t dangerous. Extreme sports athletes are a great example of this: They continue their dangerous behavior because each time they do it, they survive, Norrholm said.There are some people who genuinely seem to enjoy being scared. “We know there are some basic individual differences in how people are wired,” said Glenn Sparks, a communications professor at Purdue University. Sparks specializes in the cognitive and emotional impact of the media, particularly horror movies. “Some people are wired to seek out highly sensational experiences.” When they are exposed to that kind of experience “they get the adrenaline rush,” said Sparks. He likens those who enjoy watching horror movies to people who like riding roller coasters.And Sparks says thrill seeking seems to have a gender bias. “Men have been socialized not to show signs of distress, but to conquer it. For females it is much more acceptable to show signs of distress.” Studies show we can overcome some of our fears by continued exposure to them. By constantly exposing ourselves to our fears, whether it extreme sports, horror movies, or snake and spiders, our tolerance for them will grow, said Sparks. But, remember, that being frightened isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, it’s been a survival mechanism for humans for millions of years.

Tricks of Anxiety – Living in Fear and Forgetting what we know.

written by Matt PappasMarch 13, 2017

No matter what situation we find ourselves in, if its even remotely stressful in any way, or possibly could be stressful, anxiety will take that and run with it. We have to be constantly on our game to either head off anxiety before it starts or minimize its effect on us once it begins to try to assert it’s power.

One of the things that anxiety is so good at it, is being versatile. By constantly changing its tactics on the fly, we have to stay vigilant on our own behalf and fight this battle against a relentless foe.

Make no mistake though, friends, anxiety is not unbeatable!

If you remember back to a previous trick we talked about in this series, anxiety wants us to think that every situation is going to turn out awful, and be the worst thing we have ever experienced. Which brings us to the next trick, an off shoot of that tactic is that anxiety also wants us to live in fear.

Living in fear is no way to live if we want to have a peaceful, happy, life full of contentment. Anxiety loves nothing more than to not allow that to happen, and it will try to use fear to its advantage. That’s one thing about anxiety, it pulls no punches and leaves no stone unturned; no tactic is off the table. 

Fear in itself is not a bad thing, we are all born with this healthy instinct. It’s there to alert us of danger and to help keep us safe. If we happen to come up on a wild animal while going out on a walk, fear will cause to keep our distance.  If there is unsafe part of town that is known to be dangerous at night, fear (and good common sense) keeps us from going there.

Fear is not rational or irrational, logical or illogical, valid or invalid. Fear is simply something we experience. It can definitely be intense at times, yes, but it’s still simply an experience*. If we analyze and focus on fear all the time, we give it more power than it needs to have.  That’s where it leads to anxiety and where the confusion can set in; what we think is fear, is actually anxiety. We end up feeding the monster of anxiety, through fear, when we may not even realize we are doing it.

Fears of the unknown, a fear of death, contamination fear, a fear of flying, catastrophic fear, a fear of success, and a fear of failure are all commonly noted as a “fear” yet they are actually experienced as the emotion of anxiety. – Psychology Today

living in fear - tricks of anixety - surviving my past - don't believe the lie

The fear of fear, if you will, is where things get out of control and where anxiety takes over. We get so worried about something, completely dreading it in every way, and anticipating the worst, that it consumes us. This is where we have to use logic to break down the situation, and see it for what it is. By analyzing what we are fearful of, we can see that it’s actually anxiety that has us feeling so miserable and scared.

Be careful though not to confuse analyzing with dwelling. Dwelling on the fear of something can cause us to dread it, and that dread is where anxiety loves to live within us.

  • Take the time to look at what you are dreading, is it really a fear or is it anxiety.
  • Logically work through the scenario in your mind and you’ll immediately begin to strip anxiety of its power. Write it out if you want, or talk to someone you can trust to get their input too.
  • Then once you do that, don’t dwell on it any longer. Decide on a course of action and run with it. Dwelling too much on what we already worked through can cause even more anxiety, and that’s the last thing we need when we just took its power away.

Where does this take us as survivors of abuse?

As survivors, we had every right to be afraid as children. Someone was using us for their own sadistic pleasures and selfish wants and we couldn’t stop them. That fear was absolutely justified because of the trauma. It’s also justified after the fact, in that it’s okay to be fearful of potentially bad situations or people. We just need to be careful not to let fear run our lives to the point of thinking that every one we come in contact with or any thing that we do is going to be dangerous.

Doing that is where anxiety takes over, because it’s simply not logical to think that just because we were abused, as horrific as it was, that every single person is out to get us now as adults. I say that very delicately and kindly. 

If we give into that feeling, we are cheating ourselves out of good, healthy, relationships of all types. By doing that, we are reinforcing negative thoughts about who we are and what we are capable of handling.  Our self-confidence, which may already be in question because of the abuse alone, is lowered even more. Our self-esteem, which again may be low as the result of the past, can sink to even greater depths.

Isn’t that what we are fighting against as adult survivors? To not live in fear of future repeating the past? That’s why we put in all the hard work of healing, to not dwell on so much negativity and fear that it turns into a situation where we are unknowingly feeding the monster of anxiety.

Know this friends; we don’t have to live in fear, we don’t have to let anxiety continue to control us, confuse us, and invalidate us. We have the power to take anxiety’s power away if we just believe in ourselves and use our wise mind to challenge anxiety’s lies and break its chains.


Be sure and catch up on the other articles in this series on Anxiety’s Tricks, what they mean and how we can conquer them.

*Paraphrased from You 1 Anxiety 0 by Jodi Aman. Chapter 4 – Section 4.

  • Pictures courtesy of Pixabay. Social Media images created by Matt Pappas using Canva
  • Jodi Aman approves this series on Surviving My Past and the weekly Periscope Videos. I encourage you to check out her book and get your copy via her website or on Amazon

Blogger-Podcaster-Author-Advocate for Mental Health. Matt is survivor of childhood sexual abuse & narcissistic abuse. This blog exists to inspire all who have survived the trauma of abuse, and those living with Dissociation, Anxiety, & PTSD. You are not alone. You are worth healing. There is Hope for the life that you deserve, one that is not defined by your past.