The Age of Anxiety

What a year it’s been so far. A crippling global pandemic, a series of climate-related weather disasters, mass protests in the streets and a painful reckoning with our nation’s racial history. And we haven’t even gotten through the election cycle yet – one that promises to be deeply polarizing, whatever the outcome. 

There are so many unknowns right now – when will we have a vaccine that is safe, when will the economy recover, what happens after the election – that it is very hard to feel grounded. The word I hear a lot these days from clients is “anxious.” We are living in a time of great uncertainty with no easy solutions, and a lot of conflicting “facts,” which only compounds the feelings of stress. Or as one friend said to me recently, “It’s like I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

Keeping a solid emotional footing can be difficult at the best of times. During these crazy pandemic times, it is very challenging and we have to actively look for ways to manage our own anxiety (without heavy doses of tranquilizers). I think one way is to set limits on our exposure to negative news stories, or choose an alternative. “Automatic updates” (or doomscrolling) on our phones serve to keep us permanently on edge, robbing us of any sense of calm, or focused concentration. 

One of my favorite artists over the years is David Byrne. He recently launched a new initiative called Reasons to be Cheerful. It’s an online magazine that he says is “part magazine, part therapy session, part blueprint for a better world.” I suspect it’s as much a remedy for himself as for others. But it’s certainly a tonic in these tumultuous times. They publish interesting news stories about ordinary people solving real-world problems. It’s a good reminder that, while it may feel like the whole world is going to hell, there is also lots of positive stuff going on. Other things that have helped me manage my own anxiety this year:

Sticking to a routine. 

For most of us, any “normal” routine went out the window sometime back in March. Daily schedules and commutes replaced by lockdown, pajamas, Zoom and bedrooms that now double as offices. But even in the midst of all this uncertainty, it’s important to find a routine that works, and stick to it. A routine gives structure to our days and defends it from chaos. It also gives us a sense of accomplishment, no matter how small the task – brush teeth, shower, get dressed, etc. One of the blessings of small children is that they require an inordinate amount of structure, which is both rewarding, and at times, unfeasibly tedious. The world may be ending, but they still need their dinner, bath, books and a regular bedtime. And so do we.

Staying in the moment. 

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Covid-19, it’s that nothing is guaranteed. Not our jobs, not our health, and certainly not any “future plans.” But it was always this way, wasn’t it? It just took for a once-in-a-century virus to remind us of this fact. What this has done for me is to help me slow down, pay more attention to what’s in front of me, and really look at what’s important. Oddly enough, I’ve had some really great connections with people over Zoom, and I think it’s the shared sense of vulnerability, the letting down of our guard that has made this possible. We’re all improvising, all trying to get by, all in the same soup. But in these tiny moments of connection, with family members, friends or colleagues – are some real moments of grace. We can spend so much time planning for some hoped for “future” story – that we sometimes miss the very real moments that are happening right now.

Getting Outside

I’m lucky enough to live in a beautiful part of New Jersey which offers us beaches, woods, parks and trails. And once a day, I will try to get outside, even if it’s only for 30 minutes or so. I can’t run for miles like I used to, but I find that walking helps my mood, and just being in nature seems to reflect problems in a different way. It “turns down the volume” on all the noise around us. Shelli Taylor, CEO at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, gets out on the lake every morning to row. She says, “I’m out there by 6 a.m., I get a good hour of fitness in so that my mind and body are reconnected. Then I can come back to being a servant leader to my people, my guests, and the industry.” 

In his lovely book “Keep Going, ” the author Austin Kleon relates a story about the famously gloomy Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman. In a letter to his daughter, Bergman wrote: “No matter what time you get out of bed, go for a walk and then work. Because the demons hate it when you get out of bed, demons hate fresh air!”

Control the Controllables

Most people like to feel in control. I know I do. However, if the last year has shown us anything, it’s how little control we actually have. Looked at another way, this can be oddly liberating. There is a whole bunch of stuff that I cannot control: what happens if I get sick, if my kids get sick, if my business goes under? Well, those are things I can’t control, and worrying about them won’t make it any less likely to happen. What I can control is doing my best to stay healthy, doing good work, staying calm, showing up for my family and myself. I can actively choose where to spend my time and attention, rather than have it be hijacked. I can choose to create something of value, rather than complain. Right now, it’s a beautiful fall day and the colors outside are starting to pop, and I am choosing to enjoy it. 

Wherever you are today, I hope you are too.

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