8 ways to feel less anxious about things beyond your control

Advice by Lesley Alderman, LCSW Washington Post September 13th 2022

One of my patients showed up at her virtual psychotherapy session last week looking tired. She had always been ambitious and concerned about injustice. During this session, she sighed when talking about a meeting where her colleagues complained about unfair treatment. She said: “I don’t know why they bother getting upset, when it feels like nothing matters.”

I was concerned by her disengagement. But then a colleague sounded similarly worn down. She had spent the pandemic helping her third and fourth graders with remote school while trying to keep her small business going. She confided to me: “I haven’t followed the war in Ukraine at all, I simply don’t have the bandwidth.”

To an unusual degree, people are weary.

During the spring of 2020, just as the pandemic started, the question my patients asked was, “when do you think things will go back to normal?” Now, no one talks to me about a return to normal. There’s an unspoken recognition that the chaos we are experiencing might be with us for a long time.

Patients who had been concerned about national and world events and visibly frightened during the pandemic, now seem exhausted. The murder of George Floyd was horrific, and mass shootings are increasingly common. Now it feels like we are all in a relentless game of whack-a-mole, but in this case the rodents are existential threats.

I’m noticing that many of my patients are experiencing a deficit of optimism, and are overwhelmedabout important issues that are beyond their control.

I’m calling it “hope fatigue.”

People are tired of hoping that the pandemic will end, that the Ukraine war will be over, that mass shootings can be controlled, and that our government can address these pressing crises. Two in 10 Americans said they trusted the government in Washington to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time” in a 2022 Pew Research Center poll.

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The symptoms of this fatigue are feeling anxious, tuning out or giving up.

“People are having a lot of difficulties — covid has done a number on us. And now they are insecure about the state of the world,” said Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who has been studying the psychology of risk and decision-making for over 60 years.

Therapists are struggling to help. We try to instill a sense of hope in our patients: that they can feel better, that they have agency, that their catastrophic thoughts may be overstating reality. But when a patient laments climate change and questions whether they should have children, it’s a challenge.

It’s tempting, at times, to commiserate with them — but that’s not productive. I try to validate their concern and then explore what this means for them personally.

Our nervous systems were not designed for this

Many of the problems threaten our fundamental sense of security. Will my community be decimated by fires, are my children safe at school, could there be a nuclear war?

“I see a lot of people ‘going through the motions of living’ but, since they don’t know what to make of life, how to keep safe, how to have control over anything or make a difference in anything, how to have fun, they slip into a kind of detachment,” said psychologist Judy Levitz, founding director of the Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Study Center in New York City.

Humans need to feel they have some degree of control. When you take away a person’s sense of safety, depression and anxiety can set in. Our nervous systems were simply not designed to attend to so many crises at once.

It’s no wonder that 33 percent of Americans reported symptoms of depression and anxiety this summer, up from just 11 percent who reported those symptoms in 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Household Pulse Survey.

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Dwelling on issues that seem unfixable can lead to an anxious paralysis, but there’s hope.

“Just because you can’t fix an issue, doesn’t mean that you should ignore it,” said Slovic, whose website, the Arithmetic of Compassion, highlights obstacles to humanitarian decision-making. “We are not helpless.”

This is some of the advice I give my patients.

Take a break from the news. Doomscrolling can be addictive and amplify the tragic nature of events. In one study, researchers found that those who were immersed in the Boston Marathon bombing news for multiple hours a day in the week after the event experienced higher acute stress than individuals who were on the scene. “We speculate that the graphic nature of the coverage and the repetition of those images triggered the intense distress,” said Roxane Cohen Silver, the senior author of the study and a distinguished professor of psychological science, public health and medicine at the University of California at Irvine.

I advise patients who are feeling depressed by the headlines to read the news just once a day, turn off alerts on their phone and, if possible, check social media sparingly.

Take care of yourself. I tell my patients: “You have to be in good fighting shape to cope with the current turbulence.” That means boosting your resilience by taking care of your nervous system (sleep well, eat well, exercise wisely) and engaging in life-affirming activities.

Focus on the present. Get in the habit of anchoring yourself in the here and now. Fretting about the future is not helpful.

Try a breathing exercise. Taking a few deep breaths — for instance, inhaling to the count of five and exhaling to the count of five — will help calm your sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight response) and lower your anxiety.

When I offer deep breathing exercises, some of my patients can be skeptical, as if I am offering some kind of woo-woo, new-age mumbo jumbo. But I remind them the exercises are based in science. They typically report back that at the very least, breathing gives them something to do when they feel their heart rate escalating.

Think about your victories. Remind yourself of what’s working well in your own life — whether it’s your job, friendships, or the uplifting array of houseplants you nurtured during the pandemic.

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Be your own therapist. Ask yourself, what do I specifically feel hopeless about and why? Being able to put into words what’s getting you down can help you feel less flooded by emotions and better able to process the information rationally.

Take action. Worrying doesn’t help one’s mental health, but taking action does. Look around your community. Maybe your local playground would benefit from a basketball court, or your church or synagogue could sponsor a refugee family. When people engage in local issues, they have a renewed sense of optimism.

Join forces with a friend. Pick a cause. There are hundreds of nonprofits dedicated to addressing some of the most tenacious challenges on the planet. Donate money to an inspiring organization or volunteer.

Slovic offers this advice: “Think about what you can do rather than what you can’t.”