Anxiety Is Our New Normal. Surrendering to It Is Not.
“Pretending that life is ‘alright’ when it isn’t? That is an ADHD coping mechanism that actually increases anxiety. The first step toward finding calm is naming the uncomfortable feeling you are experiencing — loudly.”
Please don’t tell me that living through a pandemic is our “new normal.”
Am I wrong to cringe when I see people driving in masks and gloves? Am I wrong to heave a sad sigh as I cross the street to avoid a neighbor walking her dog? Am I wrong to lament the empty road without cars, the closed restaurants, and the kids sequestered to their own yards? It’s not normal, and it’s not okay.
Perhaps the phrase “new normal” is meant to comfort me, suggesting that I can adapt and learn to live in quarantine. But I don’t want to get used to this.
People can grow accustomed to living in grueling situations. After Hurricane Andrew hit my city, we lived on lockdown without electricity, water, or traffic lights in 90-degree heat for more than three weeks. The National Guard patrolled our streets. Downed trees blocked our roads. Destroyed landmarks caused a lost sense of direction.
I refused to accept that as “normal.” It was exhausting, stressful, and frightening. The only thing I found comforting were my husband’s words: “This is temporary. Life will return to normal. The trees will grow back.”
Worst-Case-Scenario Thinking with ADHD
Pretending that life is “alright as it is” when it isn’t? That increases anxiety. According to mental health experts, the first step toward finding calm is naming the uncomfortable feeling you are experiencing — loudly.
When I allow a threat to frighten me, I lose the cognitive ability to rationalize, realize, recognize, and manage my feelings. I lose sight of the fact that I have the power to not let that happen.
I frighten easily. With ADHD, my creative mind goes to unimaginable places. When a real threat is close, instead of making an action plan to control what I can, my mind automatically ventures into the worst-case scenario.
After years of acknowledgment, awareness, and practice, I now know how to control my thoughts the moment I feel them moving into fear, anxiety, and panic. Here is my personal practice.
How to Calm Anxiety: Name Your Fear
Denial is counterproductive.
The quickest way to find relief from fear, anxiety, or worry is to name what you’re feeling — label it, say it out loud, or write it down. Labeling is an incredibly effective way to manage what you’re feeling. It sounds simple, but it’s not usually the first response, especially when you have ADHD. We are more likely to run away from the feelings of discomfort than we are to acknowledge them. Pretending that a threat or discomfort doesn’t exist is a temporary and unhelpful fix; squashed emotions appear unexpectedly and rip us up eventually.
Strength of character comes from naming your discomfort, rather than running from it. If you name it, you can manage it. Talk to a non-judgmental friend about your thoughts. If that doesn’t work, write in a journal. Spill your guts. Labeling thoughts gets them out of your head.
How to Calm Anxiety: Acknowledge Your Emotions
Panic is contagious. Fear is everywhere. If I turn on the news or dare step outside, I’m sure the zombie apocalypse has arrived.
Sadly, I’m now accustomed to managing my anxiety from hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, tornadoes, school shootings, and terrorist attacks. But those are isolated incidents. After sadness passes, I can separate myself from those events. Now, there is no escape from the cloud raining down anxiety upon us. This pandemic has taken my fears global.
Pandemics are not new, but never before has our society experienced anything like this. The range of emotions we feel is intense. Like traveling through the stages of grief, we experience denial, anger, bargaining, and sadness — all in an effort to psychologically and emotionally accept what is happening and figure out how we are going to get through it.
How to Calm Anxiety: Stay in the Present
My ADHD imagination quickly jumps to the future, imagining the worst possible outcomes. The only way I can remain calm is to snap myself out of thinking about the future and return to the present moment. Mindfulness activities help. I stay grounded by taking a walk, sitting in nature looking at the trees, smelling a pleasant fragrance, or repeating a mantra like “I’m fine. I have everything I need. I am strong enough to handle this.”
How to Calm Anxiety: Stop Fooling Yourself
At times, pretending to be “fine” is healthy behavior. An emotional breakdown in front of your children (when they’re already scared) isn’t a healthy way to express your fears. But when you’re with your spouse, partner, or friends, it’s appropriate to share your frightening thoughts.
Growing up with ADHD, many of us developed coping mechanisms that worked for years but don’t do any good now. Namely, we often pretend we’re fine when we’re not. Everyone needs a trustworthy, supportive person to whom they can unload their darkest fears.
How to Calm Anxiety: Reclaim Control
Acceptance is empowering. When I paint a clear picture of what I’m feeling, when I stay in the present moment and follow the protocol for remaining healthy, I feel calmer and in control. In this crisis, there are things we can do to protect ourselves. Focus on those things.
I feel in control when I wash my hands for 30 seconds (20 seconds doesn’t cut it for me). I feel in control when I eat nutritious meals, exercise daily in the sunshine, keep my home sanitized, and stay 6 feet away from people on the street. When I reclaim control, I can relinquish my fears.
How to Calm Anxiety: Beware the News
Washing my hands and disinfecting my door handles are smart and productive reactions to the threat of the day. But obsessing over the news, reading endless articles, and watching non-stop television reports is harmful to my mental health. The only news stories I watch or articles I read are those that help me take better care of my family and myself.
Absorbing too much news and information, I’ve found, causes subconscious negative thoughts that reappear when you least expect them. The connection isn’t always obvious. The 6 pm news might not bother you at 6:30 pm, but it might be the reason you’re staring at the ceiling at 3 am. Limit your news consumption to once in the morning and none at night.
How to Calm Anxiety: Resist the Crowd Mentality
As I keep 6 feet away from people on the street, family members who don’t live in my home, and the fantastic workers who deliver my groceries, I also distance myself from the messages of the masses. I don’t have to jump into the chaos. I can educate myself, but I don’t have to get mentally sucked in. I can take a step back.
The thought that’s supposed to comfort me — “We’re all in this together” — only scares me more. I go to a darker place. What? Everyone in the whole world can get sick? Millions of people are suffering. And I’m supposed to stay calm? Really? The only people I am in this with are my family members and, even then, we each hold a unique, personal perspective.
The global suffering that profoundly saddens me will overwhelm me if I succumb to it. I have to take care of my family and myself. I feel guilty when I admit that I’m enjoying the quality moments my family can share now that we have so much time together. Give yourself permission to enjoy those precious moments while also looking for ways to help those who are struggling.
How to Calm Anxiety: Get Spiritual
Let’s face it: something universal is happening. Skip this one if it doesn’t talk to you, but for me, spirituality gets me through the toughest times. A spiritual mantra replaces my negative thought process. Prayer is a source of comfort and surrender. Calm is the result of surrendering to a Higher Power. Prayer allows me the time and space to question whether there is some global lesson I need to learn. Could this time improve my perspective on life? Could I use this struggle to become a better person? I know it’s hard to imagine, but could I — and the world somehow — transform this “new normal” into a better version of the old normal?
These are questions worth asking until we find the answer hiding somewhere under all of that anxiety.
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Updated on April 24, 2020