In case you haven’t consumed news in the past few weeks, months, or years, there are some bad things happening. From political strife to deeply troubling breaches of moral behavior, the world seems to be going mad and this has caused naturally anxious people like me to become even more uneasy. In fact, more and more people – especially teenagers – are beginning to describe themselves as having anxiety with each passing year. From this has developed a question that has certainly been in the back of many people’s minds.
How am I supposed to stay calm when the world around me is anything but?
The short answer is, modify your attitude and behaviors.
Up until very recently, I was quite skeptical towards optimists and the concept of optimism. The world is a place where a lot of unfair things happen, I thought, and optimists are just blind to the realities of the world. As a child, my mother didn’t always enjoy my complaining and would order me to read a poem that she kept by her desk.
The poem was “Attitude” by Charles Swindoll and it said, in part:
“The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life… The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past. We cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it.”
We’ve all likely heard this concept of life being 10% what happens and 90% how we react, but how many of us have applied it to our lives?
Our brain is really good at noticing the negative parts of a situation because it’s wired to do identify obstacles to our survival. It tells us that we need to have command over what is happening arounds us , and thus an insatiable desire to feel comfortable and in control develops. If that need isn’t met, we become stressed, anxious, angry, or any other word that is synonymous with pain.
So now that I’ve set the stage – we’re in pain – let’s talk about how to navigate that in healthy ways.
Shift the focus from yourself to others
We all have voices in our heads that reveal our inner thoughts. Those voices are, quite frankly, rude and obnoxious. If they were to manifest as a real person who followed us around all day, whispering about how we’re not smart enough or how we don’t deserve happiness, we would punch them in the face.
After my mom passed away when I was 13 years old, I became isolated and selfish. This was the first time in my life that I really started to notice and listen to those inner thoughts. And they were telling me that I should be mad because this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. God shouldn’t have been punishing me. Me, me, me. Meanwhile, I didn’t consider the toll it took on my dad or anyone else in my family. I wanted my mom back, and I lashed out at those who were just trying to help and love me through that difficult time.
Most individuals with depression are that way because they are, unintentionally, focused on themselves and they let those voices of self-deprecation and self-doubt take over. Depressed people think about how things affect them, and their little rude inner voices are working in overdrive to process and magnify the negative components of these things. If left unchecked, it’s how some people end up turning to suicide.
In uncertain times, or times of pain, we immediately think of the things, people, or opportunities that we’re about to lose. Meanwhile, those optimists (who, again, I used to hate) are focused on others and how the world is affecting those they love. Further, they think of the things, people, or opportunities that the supposed loss will allow them to actually gain. It’s a simple switch in mentality, but it has to be intentional.
As the baby of my family, I had an unofficial immunity to most trouble. My siblings complained about it, and they were right. I could blame others and the likely result was that I would get away with things. Taking responsibility is hard. If there was a list of fun things to do, taking responsibility will be pretty far down underneath something like sitting in front of kids who have discovered how fun it is to kick the seat backs on an airplane.
Attempting to stay out of trouble as an adult by shifting blame and refusing to take responsibility for your own improvement is one of the quickest ways to lose friends, get fired, or wind up dead or in jail (the opposite of #goals). This also applies to how we should act when the world around us becomes increasingly unstable. The Bystander Effect explains the concept of a group failing to take action because they assume someone else will. Which leads me to my next strategy….
Own your response
I love to dream about a better world to the point that I often find myself thinking in terms of my ideal world rather than how the world actually operates. I understand that resolving to change the world is an overwhelming task that requires determination, confidence, and probably some naivety. But I also believe that every single person has the power to change the world because they have the power to change themselves.
It’s often said of politics that “change starts at the local level,” and the same can be said about the overall condition of the world. We each have a responsibility to take actions that reflect our respective visions for the world. If you wish politics was less divisive, practice being less divisive in your own language. If you believe the world needs more generosity, become a more generous person. And if you believe drivers need to chill out a little, try your best to hold in the road rage when someone cuts in front of you without a blinker. Yes, I’m now writing to myself…
Simply put, anxiety often comes from feeling like you can’t do anything. You can’t always control the events happening around you, but you have 100% ownership over how you respond to them. Keep that poem with you if need be.
Meditate on gratitude
I’m terrible at traditional meditation because I hate the idea of sitting quietly for 30 minutes and having no thoughts like some mountaintop monk. What I discovered, however, is that there are different kinds of meditation, and my version of it is not about being quiet and zen.
Instead, what I’ve made a habit of doing – especially in the challenging seasons of life – is reflecting on a few specific things I’m thankful for. By specific, I don’t mean the quick list we say before Thanksgiving dinner because we’re hungry and not interested in letting anything get in the way of those mashed potatoes. Specific means that you reflect on how thankful you are for your grandmother always baking cookies when you come over despite a disability that makes it hard for her to bend over at the oven. But because she’s an awesome grandma, she does it for you anyways and you’re thankful for how selfless she is.
Practicing gratitude for the blessings you possess makes it hard to feel upset about the things you lack. You can’t feel thankful and angry, sad, anxious, etc at the same time.
These are the strategies that have allowed me to feel better about an increasingly stressful world. They aren’t perfect, but I hope you can use them to find some relief. Oh yeah, and maybe try reducing how much time you spend on social media. But more on that in a later post…