As if the last two years weren’t enough, you mean we have a war now too?
It seems like the storms just keep on coming. We’ve had significant and consistent threats to normalcy and stability in our daily lives since at least 2020. And our poor brains and bodies have struggled to navigate it.
Your brain has one main job: keeping you alive. So, your brain is designed to seek out safety, human connection, and comfort…the elements that have helped our species survive so long. Access to all of these elements has been challenged and disrupted over these past 2 years… with no guarantee of reprieve.
The pandemic made us physically unsafe and unable to connect normally. Continually rising prices hobble our access to normal comforts and preferences. War and overall global tension escalate our fear and cut away at our primal need for a sense of security. Basically, we are being compressed from every direction and there’s no certainty of relief on the horizon.
How are we supposed to navigate so much fear and uncertainty? Well, we control the controllables. When things feel out of control and uncertain, we can double down on our attention to what we CAN control. We have 3 main places to look for control – our physical body, our mental attention, and our actions. Let’s look at some strategies.
1. Controlling your body - Attend to your basic needs
Try to eat more of the foods that help you feel most healthy or energetic and avoid the ones that create lethargy or guilt. Eating to soothe emotions is so, so normal. Food can indeed trigger the release of dopamine and soothe our distress.
Just try to note your cravings & patterns and nudge yourself towards overall health rather than momentary relief. Your brain uses more calories than the whole rest of your body, so fueling it with nutrients makes navigating difficult times easier to do. More info on some healthy foods your brain will appreciate.
Our bodies are designed to move and bodies do better with activity. Movement dispels those stress hormones that are flowing through all of us right now. If possible, aim for 20-30 minutes of movement daily and if you can combine it with fresh air and sunlight, even better.
With exercise, the brain actually produces extra neurons to help subdue intense emotions. The brain also becomes more open and flexible to new ways of processing after engaging in exercise, which increases our ability to solve problems.
It’s easy to lean more on sugary drinks or alcohol when stressed, because they do feel soothing. Notice your tendencies and make some effort to balance it with water or some hot tea (also soothing).
When stress & uncertainty is high, we ideally want to keep our physical self and immune system strong to counteract that extra drain on our system. Sugar and alcohol require extra effort to process through our bodies, which means there are fewer resources for other needs. And many of us tend to experience guilt and depressive emotions when we over-indulge, and that’s an extra load of emotions you can do without right now.
Aim for the amount of sleep that helps you feel rested (7–9 hours for most adults). Try to keep to a consistent sleep and wake schedule, especially if you are having difficulty sleeping. Our bodies respond positively to the predictability of a sleep routine.
Research tells us that inadequate sleep increases moodiness & emotional intensity and adversely impacts our cognitive functioning too. If you’re struggling with sleep, see more sleep tips on this post.
General physical care –
Most of us have consistent control over our basic self-care activities like showering, brushing teeth, choosing clean clothes, etc. Try to maintain or increase your physical maintenance as a place of power.
Putting care into our bodies can feel grounding because it sends a message to your brain & physical system that things are safe and okay. Attention to our body also serves as a reminder that we have agency over our physical state.
2. Controlling your attention – Be thoughtful about what you focus on.
Catch and shift unhelpful thoughts -
We have a lot of distorted thought patterns we fall into as humans, like "catastrophizing" and "crystal balling." Try to catch yourself when you are thinking in ways that are not based in absolute facts or certainty.
Yes, there is a war happening between Russia and Ukraine. No, there is not a guarantee of WWIII. Acknowledge that your thoughts and worries about the future are not based in factual certainty. The future is unknown, anything can change, and you can remind yourself of this. More info about managing thoughts.
Limit exposure to news -
You do have control over how you protect your psyche. Constant exposure to the breaking news will not help you get through times of uncertainty with less fear. Perhaps choose a few reliable sources of news, check them only a limited number of times per day, and focus your attention back on things that are not so anxiety-inducing.
Your brain is gong want to play with whatever material you expose it to, so take control of that and choose wisely. Also…consider avoiding news first thing in the morning or right before bed.
Monitor your time on social media -
Keep an eye on how your social media time impacts your emotional state. Try to identify the ideal amount of time to spend where you don’t feel left out or disconnected but also don’t feel increased emotions like fear, overwhelm, anger, or envy.
If you aren’t sure, start to observe what you feel during and after getting on your socials and whether that feels good you. Is it helping or hurting? Consider creating a time limit and walking away when it’s no longer in a helpful place for you.
Intentionally notice what is NOT awful -
Pay extra attention to things that are okay or stable in your situation or small things that are even positive and heartwarming. Try to observe people coming together and sacrificing, people helping, donating, and advocating. Humans on the whole are resilient and cooperative. Notice examples of this.
There are a lot of awful and scary things right now, but the picture is not 100% dreadful and it helps to zoom out to see the whole accurate view. Daily reflect on 3-5 things or people that you have and are grateful for (even if it’s basic like a safe place to sleep at night).
3. Controlling your actions – be intentional about how you spend your time.
Doing comforting things –
Focus on favorites - take a moment to think of your favorite restaurants, favorite music, favorite shows, etc. You can try to bring more of those into your routine as a way to give yourself moments of soothing to offset the fear that comes with uncertainty.
Predictability - Humans tend to crave consistency and predictability, so an activity like watching shows with a known outcome or punchline feels quite reassuring to us. When faced with unknowns, lean towards providing yourself with more knowns.
Nostalgia - Give special consideration to music your enjoyed during your teens and early 20s. Our brains make a lot of meaningful connections at that age, so music from that time period can be especially impactful for our emotions. Transporting yourself to a different (positive) time can offer a safe escape from now.
Increasing pleasure time –
Fun activities - if possible, put a little more time aside for engaging in hobbies and other pleasurable activities right now. This effort will increase your positive moments and simultaneously be a helpful distraction from the fear and uncertainty of now.
Get outside - For most humans, spending time outdoors or in nature can trigger an innate sense of calm for the body (exposure to sunshine increases your brain’s release of serotonin).
Projects & tasks - doing things that give you a sense of accomplishment or completion can boost a feeling of pleasure and control.
Laugh – laughter releases serotonin in the body, so you can choose to intentionally view/engage in things that elicit laughter (watch funny videos, listen to comedy, be with people who make you smile and laugh).
Memories - If you can’t add more pleasure in right now, you can focus intentionally on happy events and interactions you’ve had in the past (these thoughts will still trigger the feeling of happiness and soothing we are aiming for).
Connecting more –
Remember that one of our basic human drives is for connection, so if you purposefully give that to yourself, the brain takes a break from spending energy trying to get it for you.
Reach out to others more often than you typically do or write a sweet card/text/email/ media post to them.
Spend quality time (no devices) with someone you feel very connected to. When interacting, be sure to notice if it’s helpful to talk about your worries or more helpful to focus on instead on other topics.
If available, increase your time with physical connection - hugs, cuddling, playing with kids or pets.
If possible for you, volunteer or do something for others in a selfless way. This gets us out of our own heads while also fostering that feeling of connectedness.
If you can’t actually connect more, you can instead spend some intentional time thinking about others in a loving way. Recall positive memories or situations where you felt connected or appreciated or valued (this triggers the sense of belonging and safety).
Your main takeaways:
yes we are in an incredibly tough time of life and history right now.
our brains and bodies detest danger, disconnection, and discomfort
to get through it...we can intentionally focus on what we CAN control.
we have 3 main areas of control – our bodies, our attention, and our actions.
Where do you want to take some control? Be kind to yourself and thoughtful about how you get yourself through this time.
If you experience intense emotions and want to better understand yourself and learn new ways to manage anxiety & other emotions, check out my 8-week online course to see if it's a fit for your needs.