How to Settle the Mind During a Crisis
At first only a few voices spoke of positive change after the COVID crisis ends, or at least becomes livable once again. Now one hears a chorus calling for change, much of it from younger people. The main message is about global cooperation and preparing better for the next pandemic. But I think people are pondering personal change, too. In the midst of widespread trepidation, what are the new goals that each of us might start pursuing right now?
The first goal should be a settled mind. Fear is persuasive and panic easily goes viral. At the best of times most people turn their backs on worrisome problems rather than dealing with them directly. But unless you have been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, you can settle your mind and go beyond fear. The first steps to gaining mastery over fear are open to everyone, as follows.
- Sit down and candidly talk about your level of anxiety. Assemble the adults in your family, and perhaps older teenagers. Discuss your feelings in the context of getting past them.
- Don’t dwell on anxious thoughts. When one arises, say to yourself, “This isn’t helping. Go away, I don’t need you.” Talking back to the voice in your head is actually effective.
- Plan rationally for the situation you find yourself in. Problems can be divided into three categories: things you can fix, things you have to put up with, and things you should walk away from. Take each individual issue that faces you, and write down which category it falls into. Most people aggravate their worries through indecision. They vacillate between trying to fix something, putting up with it, and fantasizing about running away from it. Be clear in your reasoning, pick one strategy from the three, then stick to it.
- Empathize with other people’s anxiety, but don’t make it a daily habit. Be helpful and reassuring. If this doesn’t work, you should tune out the most anxious complaints and focus on anything positive that emerges.
- Be creative with your free time. Idle minds are fear’s playground.
- Don’t obsess over the news. Limit your viewing time to short periods two or three times a day. This is a crisis unfolding in slow motion. You don’t have to keep up with it minute by minute.
- Seek consoling and uplifting things to read and listen to.
- Devote some time several times a day to sit quietly, close your eyes, and use deep, regular breathing to reach a settled state inside. If you are patient enough to practice regular meditation, do that.
- Write down a vision of your future as you would like to live it after the crisis passes. Detail all the things you want to achieve and experience.
- Foster hope in your immediate circle, but don’t make it up if you don’t actually feel hopeful.
- Take time every day to do something that makes you smile and laugh.
As you can see, none of these things are mysterious. They are available to everyone, and if you seriously undertake it, the project of defeating fear is more than doable.
At a more inward level, you can also confront the misleading ideas that anxiety fosters, replacing them with positive ideas any time they recur. First, the false ideas that are typically born of fear:
- If I worry, it shows I care.
- I have to worry because others around me don’t seem to.
- By worrying I am fending off the worst things that might happen.
- Sometimes the things I worry about come true, which justifies all the times they do not come true.
- Worrying doesn't hurt anybody, so why not worry?
- The world is hard and life is difficult. It is only healthy to worry.
- I know my worries make me feel bad, but that's the price I am willing to pay.
- A lot of people worry, so I am not alone. At the very least I get a lot of reinforcement on the news and in social media.
- If I worry now, it's a kind of insurance that will help me not be hurt in the future when bad stuff happens.
- Worry shows my family that I love them.
- If my anxiety touches others, they will want to help and take care of me without me having to ask.
Habitual worriers will recognize these familiar thoughts, and all of us entertain some of them in anxious times. But each thought is the product of fear. Clear, positive thoughts should be put in place of them, as follows:
- Despite my worries, I am safe and cared for.
- Any problem is best dealt with when it actually occurs.
- Planning for a bad eventuality should be done once, take very little time, and then left alone.
- If you have coped in the past, you can trust yourself to cope now and tomorrow.
- Worrying is pointless as a way to solve anything. It blocks the part of the mind that actually solves problems.
- If you feel bad from anxiety, your hurt is self-inflicted, and getting out of the hurt involves taking responsibility for your own reactions.
- The people around you do not like you better because you worry about them. They find it a nuisance but do not want to oppose you, so they adapt and put up with it.
- Worrying drives others away.
- Worrying blocks a healthy sense of self because it is basically an expression of insecurity.
- Anxiety doesn't protect you from future hurt. It actually brings hurt into the here and now.
- You are not your fears, but if you accept that you are, personal growth is blocked.
You might even find it helpful to take these two lists and discuss each item with people close to you. The project of overcoming fear knows no specific time and place. In normal times we should be gaining control over fear to the extent we can. Now, however, the need to settle the mind is more urgent than ever.
Reprinted from San Francisco Chronicle with permission
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