How to Beat Anxiety in Times of Uncertainty

We are living in a time of unprecedented economic volatility. This graph shows that the turn of the new millennium brought with it a drastic spike of instability that has, without a doubt, impacted the finances of big businesses and common citizens alike.

Now, check out these figures on suicide rates during this time frame; you’ll likely spot a rather worrisome pattern. As one increases, so does the other.

Of course, correlation doesn’t always equal causation, so this could just be a coincidence. But many studies — including these in the U.S., EU, and Japan — have confirmed this to be the case.

Given the fact that stock market fluctuations are the highest they’ve ever been — and plenty of other things in the world seem to be just as volatile — we should probably be taking action to identify and prevent the thoughts that trigger suicidal behavior during uncertain times.

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The Five Phases of Panic

The threat of uncertainty has been proven to cause brain processes to go awry and lead to extreme anxiety. Interestingly, the cause of this doesn’t stem from our immediate overreaction to the bad news. Rather, the bad news sets off alarm bells about what’s to come.

I call this “future freakout” — and once we fall into this mindset, it can be awfully difficult to climb out of it.

There are five key ingredients that join forces to overload our brains and create this state of panic. If we can recognize that they’re building up inside us, some simple mental shifts can reset our minds and prevent our anxiety from erupting into full-fledged, life-threatening mental crises:

1. “OMG!” moment

The first distortion that occurs when we receive bad news is that we overinflate the impact it will have on our future. I call this the “OMG” mindset — and the best way to overcome it is by giving yourself a good, firm reality check.

Reappraise the situation, and engage in a little positive self-talk. If you’re worried about the economy, ask yourself how much money you actually need to live an enjoyable life, and identify a realistic best outcome if you happen to go bankrupt. Tell your brain that life will go on; that even in the worst-case scenario, it won’t be so bad.

Perhaps even consider laughing at your brain’s reaction. Turn that catastrophic “OMG” into a realistic “LOL.”

2. Hypersensitivity

Feeling consumed by catastrophe will put your brain into hyper-vigilance mode. In this mental state, every little thing has the potential to set you off. How on earth can you be expected to make a sound decision when even the smallest speed bump looks like Mount Everest?

Research shows hyper-vigilance may be caused by avoiding the actual threat. So, instead of ignoring or misrepresenting your volatile situation, you may simply need to face your fears and not allow them to become overinflated. Think of it like watching a horror movie: While you may feel startled by what happens on screen, you continually remind yourself that you aren’t actually facing an immediate threat.

Really, what’s the worst that could happen to you in this situation, and how have other people thrived when faced with similar scenarios? Even if you lose everything, you still have a master builder inside you that can reassemble your life.

3. Safety blindness

At this point, you just can’t relax. Even places and scenarios you know are safe become danger zones — similar to how that horror movie makes us look under our beds before we go to sleep.

I call this “safety blindness,” and to overcome it, you have to take off the dark mental glasses that are preventing you from identifying your safe havens. In other words, you need to re-shift your brain’s activity toward thoughts of safety, and you need to relocate your happy places.

Simply do something you enjoy. Take a walk in nature, play piano, cook a delicious meal — these are all great ways to remind you that there are always safe places to go and safe activities to engage in. Also, be sure to make a clear distinction in your brain between danger and drama. When you feel the anxiety begin to boil, ask yourself if you’re actually being faced with a threat, or if it’s just your safety blindness causing unnecessary drama.

4. Worrywart

If you’re hung up on all of the terrible things that (you think) are going to happen, your brain will fail to acknowledge any positive developments that tell you the coast is clear.

Worrywarts are strangely comforted by their anxiety, and this mindset uses up a lot of the brain’s resources, can be very emotionally draining, and leads folks to isolate themselves from society. Hiding away from the things you’re scared of only adds to the self-fulfilling prophecy that you’re alone and nothing good is happening.

Becoming a worrywart is akin to clinging onto a fastened seatbelt: It’s not helpful at all. Break this pattern by openly talking about your fears — something that has been proven to stop the horrifying buildup of worry. Look at the risks you face realistically, and continue reminding yourself that you will survive and thrive.

5. Intolerance

The final phase is complete and absolute intolerance toward anything that is uncertain. Activities that were once simple — such as choosing a parking space, deciding what to have for dinner, and trying on clothes — now suddenly feel like bomb-diffusing exercises. You simply cannot live like this.

People who take things in stride cope better with stress, but it’s awfully difficult to just let things slide when you’re faced with 100 uncertainties every single day. The key to doing so begins with reframing your negativity into feelings of opportunity and possibility.

Pick one uncertainty that’s been nagging you, and look at it from this perspective. What can you control? What can you learn from it? What positive outcomes can occur? Training yourself to examine all of your life’s uncertainties in this fashion will help your brain stop seeing every rope as a snake, and start viewing uncertainty as a blank slate of possibilities.

The Takeaway

There will always be uncertainty in times of volatility — and the economy has been a consistent source of this for nearly two decades. We can’t control the stock market, but we can control how our brains react to it. If we identify the roots of our anxiety and calm ourselves with realistic words of assurance, we can prevent future freak-out, full-blown intolerance, and the accompanying suicidal thoughts.

These strategic mental exercises can get your brain rewired in volatile times and prevent your life from becoming a never-ending horror movie from which you cannot escape.

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srini-velvet-jacket-headshotDr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in the brain-based personal development arena and is dedicated helping people unleash their full potential. He is also a master executive coach and serves as an assistantpProfessor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.

Featured photo by Jim Pennucci



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