Written by : Karen Cassiday, Ph.D. 

5 Tools to Beat Anxiety During Tumultuous Times

If you’ve seen the news lately, it certainly seems like prejudice, murder, terrorism and disasters—both natural and political—are getting the upper hand. 

Maintaining your peace of mind and an optimistic outlook can be a daunting challenge when the news presents one negative image after another, accompanied by the commentary of an ever-changing roster of very angry people.

As a clinician and researcher who specializes in anxiety, I can tell you there is hope—even in these difficult times. You do not have to allow terrible world events to produce chronic worry if you follow these science-based tips.

1. Adopt an optimistic attitude

Research has shown that attitude is much more important than circumstance. The important thing is to look for joy in life, even during difficult or uncertain times. Optimism is the attitude that says “good things are going to happen,” and “my efforts mean something.” It is also the belief that good triumphs over evil and that loves prevails.

These may sound like sugary truisms, but research shows that people who are slightly overly optimistic have the mental health advantage. Every situation has both a negative and a positive spin. I challenge you to try taking the positive spin and look for the silver lining next time you read or hear bad news instead of imagining the worst-case scenario.

2. Act on that optimism

Go further by imagining what you can do to make a situation better and then take action to address that problem. You alone are not going to end terrorism or world hunger, but you can donate to a charity that addresses national or world issues, vote in an election, host a block party for your neighborhood to increase a sense of community and solidarity or volunteer your time to a cause that works to alleviate suffering or create societal change.

Taking action reminds you that you are not a powerless victim in a tragic world, but instead that you are an agent of change and someone who lives to create a better future. Gandhi said it well: “Be the change you wish to see.”

3. Look for hope

Humans are hard-wired to process fear-related information first (and blow it out of proportion as well). This is what makes it easy for mass media and social media to sell news that focuses on tragedy, disaster and human frailty. You can counter this tendency by seeking out news that reminds you of people’s capacity for greatness and compassion.

  • Don’t just go on a media fast. Seek out news and stories that celebrate or promote compassion, gratitude and good humor. Subscribe to news feeds and blogs that focus on good things that happen in the world and share them with others.
  • Elicit optimism and good humor from others by asking questions such as “What is the funniest thing that happened to you this week?” or “What is the best thing that happened to you today?”
  • Take the time each day to write down at least three things that you are grateful for that happened during the preceding 24 hours. This practice has been proven to help alleviate depression if you do it regularly. Taking the time to be grateful is especially effective when you encounter tragic news because it reminds you of what is good and precious about your life.
  • Get active in your religious or spiritual community. Research shows that when you regularly participate in a religious community, you have the advantage of receiving spiritual comfort and community support. In addition, spiritual practices enhance your ability to find meaning in tragedy and upheaval and feel connected to mankind, which makes us more resilient in the face of hardship.  

4. Cultivate compassion

Compassion allows you to reverse the angst caused by negative world events, increase positive emotions, increase positive perceptions of others and improve your ability to manage stress. Compassion is so powerful; don’t let it go to waste. Learn to be kind toward yourself and others—even those you might strongly disagree with.

The best way to learn to be compassionate is to mindfully meditate upon wholeheartedly loving everyone and to engage in acts of compassion in which you strive to live the golden rule: “Treat others as you wish to be treated.”

Compassion also means being kind even when the other person is annoying, fails to treat you well or misunderstands your good intentions. Compassion helps you view the world as your opportunity to express love rather than the place that is likely to harm you and destroy those you love.

5. Embrace uncertainty by living in the present

The only moment you really have to live is the present. Worry will misdirect you into feeling as though you are headed for a frightening future. If you want to avoid worry by embracing uncertainty, then you need to learn to slow down, take a breath and take in the full experience of the present moment without judgment. 

For example, you hear a podcast about a terrorist attack while driving in your car and then you mentally slow down to notice the warmth of the sun on your face, the sound of the traffic outside your car, the solid feel of the steering wheel, the smell of your latte and the tightness in your chest from listening to the news.

This simple act allows you to return from the netherworld of your worry into the reality of the present. It allows you to live more fully and consciously instead of becoming preoccupied with worry. You can train yourself to notice that even though the news is bad, there are many good and beautiful things happening in your immediate presence just waiting for you to notice and savor them. Mindful awareness allows you to cultivate a calm curiosity about the full experience of the moment instead of being overwhelmed by the scary information you hear and reacting with alarm. 

Lastly, remind yourself of the truth: Our planet has survived terrible disasters of both the natural and manmade kind before. The beauty of being human is the ability to forgive, love and carry on despite disaster. Resilient and joyful people are those who embrace uncertainty by choosing to live in the present with hope and compassion for everyone.

Listen to our podcast with Dr. Karen Cassiday: Managing Negative Thinking

Read more by Dr. Karen Cassiday: 6 Steps to Win the War Against Worry

Karen Cassiday, Ph.D., is president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and a leading expert on the treatment of anxiety. Find out more about Karen here.

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