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4 Tools For Coping During Uncertainty

For most of us, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about levels of uncertainty never before experienced in our lifetime. However, for those with anxiety disorders, high levels of uncertainty are the norm. As a psychologist who specializes in evidence-based treatment for anxiety, I want to share some tools that are helpful for coping in uncertain times. These steps, which include clarifying control, challenging unhelpful thoughts, and reducing excessive safety behaviors, are detailed below.

Tool #1 --Become aware of what you can and cannot control about a situation. The current restrictions and guidelines related to COVID-19 can make it feel like there’s little that we can do to effect change. This is a valid way to feel during an event of this magnitude. However, it’s important both to practice acceptance of what you can’t control and to be deliberate about how you address what you can control. For example, as a parent, you may not have influence over when your child goes back to school or how their curriculum is implemented. But you can provide them with love and a sense of safety during a scary time. In fact, it may be liberating to  embrace that this is a time for all of us to prioritize caring. By accepting the aspects that are out of your control, you can devote your energy to those that are.

Tool #2- -You may be experiencing an uptick in negative thoughts about the future. Hearing a cough in the grocery store may lead to concerns about the presence of the virus and increased worries about future health. These are natural reactions in the face of a new threat, and it means that your brain is doing its job.  Challenging these thoughts does not mean that you refute them completely, as we can’t predict the future; however, it opens up space for the possibility that they may not be true. As we often say in our clinic, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Additionally, using compassionate language with yourself, such as, “My brain is just trying to keep me safe” can create some distance between your thoughts and your reactions to the thoughts.

Tool #3 -In the face of uncertainty, individuals may feel compelled to engage in excessively cautious behavior in an effort to mitigate risk. While it may provide temporary relief to engage in these behaviors, over time it can actually make us more rather than less anxious. Each time that you increase these safety behaviors, you are telling your brain that the situation is threatening. Therefore, this tool involves limiting your safety or information-seeking behaviors (checking for symptoms, excessively cleaning, researching) to a moderate level.  

Tool #4 --Finally, there’s no shame in finding a therapist to help with your anxiety. Many clinics are currently offering therapy services via telehealth. 

Dr. Amy Mariaskin is Director and Clinical Psychologist of the Nashville OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center.