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The right way to fret, worry, and stress out

This article is based on a video by Yevgeniya Streletskaya, a psychiatrist and therapist. She talks about how to stay calm and deal with stressful situations, whether they be an unplanned pregnancy, running late for a flight, or the coronavirus pandemic that has sent shockwaves around the world.

Photo by Finn on Unsplash

Where to begin?

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has developed a special set of instructions to help you stress out more effectively. Let’s suppose you’ve encountered a situation in your life that is causing you to worry a great deal. We’re talking about a major problem — like the coronavirus pandemic, running late for a flight, or your girlfriend possibly being pregnant — that you’re completely unprepared for. How can you alleviate your anxiety? Let’s unpack this problem.

1. Find the root of your worries

The first step you need to take when you encounter a challenge in life is to figure out exactly what you’re concerned about. Pinpoint the thoughts that are going through your head and making you anxious and formulate them as clearly and concisely as possible. It’s best to write them down.

2. Determine whether you can change what’s going on

Establish whether there’s anything you can do to get out of the bad situation right now. If it turns out there’s nothing you can do, then there’s no point in worrying. In this case, you have to force yourself to stop fretting and turn your attention to something else.

If, however, you see that it’s possible to take quick action, then you have to figure out which steps to take first. This requires finding the information you need, outlining the different options, and prioritizing them based on what you can actually do right now and what you can do later. In other words, make a plan.

The crux of anxiety

The main purpose of worrying is to stop worrying. Our life consists of periods without challenges, during which we have zero anxiety, and real everyday situations where anxiety is necessary.

This can be compared to feeling full and hungry: when you’re full, you don’t think about food at all, but when you’re starving, your hunger serves as motivation to find sustenance. It’s the same thing with anxiety. Anxiety tells us what we’re stressed out about and helps us find a solution and take actions to make the problem disappear.

As soon as our difficulties are solved, our anxiety dissipates. For anxious people, however, this state of agitation sometimes persists, lingers on, and doesn’t stop. In this case, you either can’t find an answer to the question “What should I do?” or you sink into an anxious state without noticing it and then stay submerged in it for a very long time. Either way, it’s unproductive.

The right way to make use of anxiety

Let’s recall the playbook for worrying in a helpful way: find the root of the problem and then think about possible solutions and what you can do about it right now. Now let’s walk through each step in more detail and sketch out the ground rules for countering anxiety.

1. Formulate the cause of your worries clearly and correctly

Recognize why you’re agitated and make note of the thoughts that are stressing you out. If you’re concerned about coronavirus, don’t just write, “I’m worried about coronavirus.” You should understand exactly what is bothering you. Usually it’s not just one thought, but several.

Here are a few examples: “I’m worried that I might catch it and get sick,” “I’m worried that, if I get sick, I won’t know what to do,” “I won’t know how to treat the illness, so it will get really serious,” “I’ll end up in the hospital, and the treatment there will be bad because there isn’t enough medication or equipment and I’ll get an incompetent doctor,” or “I’m worried that my loved ones might get sick. I’ll feel helpless, I won’t know what to do, and I’ll start feeling guilty that I couldn’t protect them.”

You might also have worries about work: “My standard of living could worsen, I could run out of money, we could fall into poverty, or something disastrous could happen to my job.” Anxiety could also be caused by the idea that the post-pandemic world won’t be the same as it was before.

If you’re concerned that your girlfriend might get pregnant, and you’re not ready to have kids, then don’t just write, “I’m afraid she’ll get pregnant.” Formulate your thoughts in a clear and detailed way: “I’m worried that she might have to get an abortion, but what if abortion is a murder?” “I’m concerned about how I’ll feel or whether I’ll feel guilty if she turns out to be pregnant,” “How much responsibility do I personally bear for this situation?” “What if this negatively impacts our relationship?”

Do you see how many questions fence us in? They’re questions we need to find an answer to.

2. Learn to tell yourself “Stop!”

Think about what can you do in the given situation. If the answer is “nothing,” stop worrying and direct your attention somewhere else. What is this magic formula, you ask? How are you supposed to instantly quit worrying? It involves a useful technique developed in cognitive-behavioral therapy called “thought stopping.”

Now, you’ve realized there’s nothing you can do or you’ve already done everything you can. This is the point when you need to stop worrying. You start doing something else but then suddenly realize that the anxiety is back: it has walled you in on all sides and is causing your mind to race with troubled thoughts.

As soon as you notice this, you have to tell yourself “Stop!” and switch your attention over to something else. The anxiety might return another 15 times or more in the next half-hour, but you have to persevere and continue switching to something else. In this way, you are training your brain not to chase the anxiety along its neural pathways. When you stop making use of these pathways, they will gradually fade.

3. Choose something to switch to

People with anxiety are vulnerable to a big risk: they might turn their attention to another thought that is also fraught with worry. For example, they might stop stressing out about coronavirus, but start thinking about their relationship with their boss or fretting over their physical fitness when they’re not in the best shape. In this way, the anxiety just shifts from one area to another. You can’t let this happen!

Anxiety is a big, obnoxious, annoying, and clingy disorder. The reason for this is that anxiety constantly migrates from one topic to another, and we have to burn it out, scrub it from every nook and cranny, to make the worries disappear once and for all. Remember that you have to turn your attention to not another worry, but something positive, or just nothing at all.

Paying attention to “nothing” is a Buddhist technique. If you decide to switch to thinking about nothing, then you need to focus on the present moment, not the past or the future. Once you’ve caught yourself worrying and told yourself to stop, you start to focus on what is happening to you at that moment and just observe yourself non-judgmentally.

Let’s say you’re doing the dishes when a recent conversation with your boss, coronavirus, or being in bad shape pops into your head. In that case, you just say to yourself, “I’m doing the dishes,” and note a variety of details, such as how the warm evening light is diffused around your kitchen, the pleasant squeak of clean plates, and the warm water washing over your hands. You can listen to the kids playing and laughing in the next room and the gentle voice of your sweetheart. You focus on what you see, hear, smell, and feel. You can even concentrate on your anxiety.

4. Learn to think positively

Make a list of useful and enjoyable activities. You could divide them into the four main happiness hormones: oxytocin, endorphin, serotonin, and dopamine.

Oxytocin is responsible for tenderness and intimacy. Examples include playing with kids, hugs, giving a massage, and cuddling while watching a movie.

Endorphins are associated with a light and stimulating sensation of pain. You can produce them by stretching, squatting, running, or any other physical activity that involves a bit of a challenge.

Serotonin increases our self-esteem. Serotonin levels can be raised by, for example, charitable efforts.

Dopamine is produced when we achieve goals. Generally speaking, it is directly connected to self-improvement, so you can generate it through exercise, studying a foreign language, or learning something new.

You could just as well use different categories to split up your list of enjoyable activities. Some of them will involve chatting with friends, others will involve hobbies, and a third category may be related to improving your health, spiritual development, or making progress at work. There are many options, and they’re yours to choose from. The important thing is that all these activities make you happy.

Where does anxiety usually lie in wait for us?

For the most part, anxiety arises in everyday situations that require decisive and purposeful action. This is precisely why your answer to the question “Is there anything I can do in this situation?” will be “yes” in most cases.

In prehistoric times, anxiety demanded only one action from early humans: flee. As a result, when we get worried nowadays, we feel like running off somewhere. The impulse to take action arises immediately, but often we don’t understand where to run and what to do. Everything turns into a big fuss.

If we have a clear idea about what to do, then anxiety doesn’t rear its head; instead, we just act. But what our current reality requires from us, first and foremost, is understanding. More often than not, we have to find missing information before we can answer the question “What should I do?” When we lack information, we don’t have an answer, and so we get anxious.

It’s important to learn how to find, analyze, organize, and process information, and then transform it into our opinion. After that, all we have to do is take the first step to test the correctness and adequacy of the knowledge we received based on our experience.

How should we deal with information?

There are three sources of information: the media, people, and highly specialized resources. To be sure, sources can be reliable and trustworthy. After coming in contact with such sources, we gain a clear and practical understanding of how to act — that’s the main criterion. Untruthful sources cause us to feel even more anxious and confused. They don’t help us escape the chaos and structure reality; rather, they just stir up emotions, like anxiety or aggression. The purpose of such resources is simply to “hype” things up, cause a furor, and play on it.

Information can be categorized based on its purpose: strategic (where we’re going and why), tactical (what our route will look like), and operational (how to implement the action at each stage).

In the case concerning the abortion, strategic questions include: “Should I get an abortion or not?” “Why don’t I want kids?” “How much responsibility does a man bear?” “Is abortion a murder?” These are universal, long-term, existential questions.

A tactical question is “What should I do?” This includes, for example, which actions you should take or whether you should take medicine now or wait for the test results in a little while. If your girlfriend gets pregnant, then which abortion method should she choose: medication or operation? Tactical questions may involve a conversation with your girlfriend in which you can discuss things in detail and work together to solve the problem.

Operational issues in this situation would include finding a good clinic, the doctor’s phone number, and other details. These are a series of clear steps that must be taken once a choice has been made.

How do we choose the right sources of information?

It is a good idea to combine sources as well as separate trustworthy information from untrustworthy. How do we do this?

If we are searching for information about health and medicine, then we should get our bearings only from official sources: the World Health Organization (WHO), the health department, and media sources that value their reputation. Your selection of sources should not include anonymous blogs or pages on social media. It’s best not to look for information about the menstrual cycle on forums for pregnant women. Use official, conventional, medical, time-honored information.

Furthermore, it’s important to learn how to clearly distinguish opinion from fact. Facts are always unbiased and can be confirmed at any time, while opinions are just judgments that usually express an evaluation like good or bad, right or wrong, like or dislike. Avoid information that cannot be verified. Several reliable sources provide trustworthy data.

When you find information, you have to analyze and systematize it. Which parts of this information do you need, and which do you not? Remember that you are served only by information that automatically gives rise to a clear series of actions.

If you’re someone who is prone to anxiety, then you may develop the bad habit of constantly jumping from source to source, but that isn’t productive. You’ll think you’re decreasing your stress and calming yourself down, but endless searching is useless. As soon as you understand what you need to do, stop. Remember: anxiety wanes once you start to solve your problem bit by bit.

How should you determine what to do right now?

If it turns out there’s nothing you can do right now, then start planning what can actually be done and when, and then stop worrying and switch to the technique described earlier.

Let’s use coronavirus as an example. You familiarize yourself with the information from the official sources: WHO and your country’s health department. This allows you to find clear and specific answers to your questions, like what preventive measures to take and what to do if you get sick.

Next, you process your questions about work separately. If you’re an employee and you’re just forced to sit at home now, then the situation is not up to you. You just have to stop fretting.

If you’re a freelancer and you’ve been experiencing concerns about your job for a while, then now is the time to start improving your professional skills or searching for vacancies that appeal to you.

If you’ve switched to working remotely, then focus on doing your job well and maintaining your current income level. As soon as you start accomplishing tasks instead of worrying, the anxiety will go away.

What can you do if you’re concerned about your parents’ health? Just talk to them and make sure they know what preventative measures to take and are making use of them.

If you have a plan, then you already know what to do: for example, taking vitamins C and D every day, keeping your room well-ventilated, self-isolating more, and wearing a mask and gloves when you go outside. You have done everything you can to protect yourself, so the only thing left to do is stop worrying and switch to positive thinking.

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Pavel Tokarev

Pavel Tokarev

Founder of INLINGO Gamedev Outsourcing Studio