The shutdown has been anxiety provoking enough, but now as states begin to re-open the fear of what comes next means the pressure of uncertainty will not go away anytime soon.
Anxiety results when our beliefs are challenged by uncertainty. The beliefs we hold about ourselves are the most susceptible to this challenge. The uncertainty of many of our futures as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may lead us to question things we believe about ourselves more than anything we’ve encountered before.
I explore this in my new book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis. Here’s an excerpt:
I know a woman who has run right into the conflict of uncertainty and belief that the crisis has forced on her. She is a tremendous success in business but comes from a very poor background. Her identity is intimately tied up in her story about this achievement.
She was the first in her family to go to college and bought her first house as a single woman. Her old world family expects women to get married and have children, not careers, so her rise in business not only defines her, it sets her apart. She believes she has overcome expectations and blazed a trail for others.
Another belief she holds, the story she tells herself when things are very quiet, quiet enough to entertain doubt, is that if she stops moving up in her career she will end up back in poverty. She believes she must forge onward, even to the detriment of her health, to be able to support her family. She has saved a ton of money. She has demonstrated marketable skills.
There is no way that if her career were interrupted she would end up destitute. Yet even though this story doesn’t stand up to reason, she believes it. It, too, defines her.
The uncertainty of the present crisis and its impact on the business for which she works means that layoffs are imminent. She may soon be without work. She’s a valuable employee with great responsibility, but who knows?
Uncertainty exposes and assaults her belief that she is one failure away from ruin. Terrible anxiety is the result.
In a case like this anxiety feeds on itself. She works harder. She puts in longer hours. Even though because of the stay at home order she now works from home, sometimes her only contact with her family for hours is when she yells “shut up!” down the hall. She’s afraid that if the sounds of children playing or arguing are heard in the background of a conference call other attendees on the call will take her less seriously. They might think she’s not giving her all.
Uncertainty and belief have led her away from the bonding experience some families are having in the crisis. She’s not sitting down for family dinners. She’s not exploring new interests with her children. She keeps putting off hobbies she set aside for years, even though this would be a perfect time to pursue them. She’s not contacting old friends on social media. Her belief meets uncertainty and she only works harder, ever afraid.
Her belief has claws in her now that uncertainty has exposed it. Her anxiety levels are too extreme for anyone to survive for long without breaking.
Even this deep into uncertainty my friend believes she can still direct what happens in her life. She fears the crisis will wrestle control from her. This hardens her belief that if she loses control she will end up back in poverty. None of this is true, but her identity clings to it and anxiety worsens as her sense of self breaks.
What lies at the core of her problem is that her sense of self is entirely wrapped up in beliefs instead of a rational investigation of her present circumstances. As we explored in the chapter on meditation, she is dragging the past into the present and pushing the doubts and fears she encounters into the future. Of course, the future is uncertain.
It would help her to examine her beliefs as they influence her behavior in these unforeseen circumstances. It would help her to explore some of the techniques outlined in this book. In meditation she could inventory her beliefs and label each one positive or negative. That could reveal which beliefs are true and which ones are patently false.
She may realize that she is in a much better place than she believes she is.
Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis is available wherever books are sold.
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