Expert advice for 6 kinds of anxious thoughts

Try these comforting strategies when world events leave you feeling overwhelmed.
Published 6 April 2020

If you’ve found yourself wrestling with worried thoughts recently, the first thing to know is that you’re not alone. When world events turn stressful, widespread changes in sleep behaviours, eating patterns, and levels of anxiety often follow.

To a certain extent, anxiety can be protective—our hard-wired fear responses help keep humans safe from danger, says Kate L. Goldhaber, PhD, an Associate Professor of psychiatry and behavioural neurosciences at Loyola University Medical Center. The best case scenario, she continues, is that worries don’t stop us, but rather help us decide what to do next.

Read on as Goldhaber and other leading experts share empowering advice on how to manage six kinds of anxious thoughts—and keep your health goals front and centre.

“I’m scared of getting sick.”

No one knows for sure what the future will bring, so it’s normal to think about the negative possibilities, says Jenna Duffecy, PhD, an Associate Professor of clinical psychiatry and Director of cognitive behavioural therapy services and research at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Feelings of helplessness can arise when negative outcomes feel beyond one’s control, she says. For this reason, it can help to include positive outcomes in thinking, as well—and the things you can try today to help make them happen, Duffecy says. Some measures that might soothe health-related worries include prepping nourishing meals, incorporating physical activity into your schedule, sticking to social distancing, and developing daily practices for mental wellness. Focusing on factors you can control can help you feel empowered. Another approach to shutting down fearful thoughts: Hold an inner dialogue with the anxious feeling, says New York City-based clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael, PhD. Start by acknowledging it, she suggests. Try something like, “OK, I hear you—you're telling me you’re really worried about coronavirus.” Then continue the dialogue to outline next steps: “Should we think about handwashing? At what times does handwashing make sense? What feels realistic and grounded?” More planning, less panic.

“My brain feels too wired for sleep.”

It’s understandable if sweet dreams are in short supply lately. In addition to having a lot on your mind, you may feel restless from being cooped at home so much, or maybe your overall schedule has been thrown into disarray with major shifts in work and family life, Goldhaber says. Her advice: Assess your new normal and reset the stage for a good night’s sleep. For starters, decide on a regular schedule for sleeping and waking that works for your current reality. And though spending long hours at home can make this tricky, try to limit your bed to its central purpose. That’s because if your body associates “bed” with watching TV, eating, talking on the phone, and other waking activities, restful sleep can become harder, Goldhaber says. Finally, it may help to ease your body into sleep mode each night instead of abruptly stopping what you’re doing and trying to fall asleep. A hot bath, breathing exercises, light reading, and meditation using an app like Headspace are all great ways to unwind.

“I’m worried about my loved ones.”

As a caring person, of course you’re concerned for others’ safety right now. But if you’re finding yourself overwhelmed with worry for the people you care about—your brother-in-law the emergency nurse, your thirty-something niece who regularly rides public transport in a major city—it may help to recognise that every adult deserves the right to make decisions that are best for them, Carmichael says. Step back from your worry and focus on their capabilities. This will move you closer to respect for their choices. Remembering that we’re already quite skilled at managing some level of uncertainty in the world can also help to keep us grounded, Duffecy says. After all, there’s uncertainty every time we drive a car or walk into the street; the major difference is that we’re used to it (which explains why putting on a seatbelt feels so automatic). So, you don’t have to stop caring to stop worrying. Continue to call, text, and video-chat your loved ones. Just do your best to keep the interactions positive and respectful.

“The news is freaking me out, but I can't stop watching the news.”

With 24/7 coverage of events, it’s tempting to stay glued to the TV, tablet, or smartphone. The downside is that nonstop news may actually fuel our stress responses, says William F. Wright, MD, FAPA, a psychiatrist with Atrium Health in Charlotte, North Carolina. Instead, he recommends doing a news check just twice a day: once in the morning for overnight developments, and again in the early evening for stories that broke during the day. This will keep you informed without making you worry over every news notification. If you’re concerned you might miss something important—such as a major public-health advisory—appoint a friend in advance to give you a heads up. This can help create space for other priorities in your life, Carmichael says.

“I haven't been exercising or eating right, and that makes me feel worse.”

Straying from healthy goals rarely feels great. But it may help to shift your thinking if you’ve gone a few days without tracking your meals or working out, Carmichael says. To start, give yourself kudos for recognising that you’ve crossed your healthy boundaries. Try a self-talk statement like, “This isn't where I feel I belong, so let me congratulate myself on being willing and able to name it.” The next step Carmichael recommends is resetting with an activity that makes you feel like you’re turning a new page. Maybe you play your favourite upbeat song. Maybe you treat yourself to a hot shower and an outfit change. Consider that your “snap out of it” moment—and your cue to restart your pattern of healthy choices. You got this!

“I feel like I’m not doing enough to help.”

Here’s the thing about saving the world: Simply by staying home and following public-health advisories, you’re making powerful strides toward protecting the lives of others, Duffecy says. So, take a moment to recognise your contribution to the global effort. If you have the desire and means to do more, consider community-based giving, where the impact is likely to be immediate. Donate to support hospitality workers or other impacted businesses in your community; phone your neighbours who need support; and connect virtually with friends who also need a little kindness. With all that’s happening in the world, now is a time to practice self-compassion, Goldhaber says. Take care of yourself today, and give yourself generous space to manage whatever tomorrow has in store.