The Covid-19 pandemic and the resulting stress and anxiety in our everyday lives have thrown the world into chaos and made the near future increasingly uncertain for many people. How can we live in an uncertain world without slipping into anxiety, panic, and worry?
Human beings really like certainty. We generally prefer our lives to be fairly ordered and the last several thousand years have been largely spent developing complex systems to insulate ourselves from the chaos of the natural world.
At some point in our neurological evolution, we developed the concept of the future, something very few of our fellow animals appears to have. With this came the idea that we could sacrifice a little bit of our time, energy, or food in the present to bring our future selves a little more certainty and a smoother ride.
As the structure and systems we employed to do this became more and more complex we succeeded in pushing that future further and further away. Many of us, at least in the privileged culture of the west, have probably gotten so out of touch with that future uncertainty that we have forgotten it is there at all.
Some of the events that have transpired in 2020 have brought that uncertain future much closer. The fundamentally unchanging, stable, structured present was a much larger place a year ago. Stress and anxiety, along with panic disorders are very much on the rise and even the most mentally stable of us can’t help but worry about what the future will bring.
So how can we project ourselves into an imagined future when so much of what we knew to be true a year ago is no longer so?
The rules have changed on our path forward
Many of us have experienced this problem in the past when one of our relationships ended whether by break up or bereavement. It changes not just our present day-to-day but also the meaning we give to our past. Things that happened and were remembered in a certain, very specific way suddenly take on a new meaning.
It is as if the story of our lives is changed permanently, which throws a veil of uncertainty over our imagined future. The way we see our future selves can be thrown into chaos as we struggle to construct a new narrative. So wow do we deal with all of this stress and anxiety around us?
One way of looking at all of this is that the rules of the game have changed. Whether we like it or not, things that we once took for granted are now in flux.
Although we appear to be nearing a threshold of the current viral threat it is hard to imagine that we will return to the same world that we left earlier this year.
It is much more likely that we will be entering a period of adjustment. A liminal space between worlds. To some degree we have been there for a while, it is unlikely that this ends as we negate the threat to the life of the virus.
We will be discovering the consequences of this period for some time and as we learn how to live with those consequences the world is in flux and uncertainty rules.
The wolf is at the door
I am reminded at this time of the ancient Russian story of Prince Ivan and the Grey Wolf. There is a point in this story when Prince Ivan reaches a junction where he has to make a choice. On his quest he reaches a junction of three roads with a pillar inscribed with the following:
Hungry and cold shall that man be
Who rides in pride straight up to me;
To ride from the left means death and sorrow,
Though his horse shall live for many a morrow.
He who rides from the right shall have good things all
But ere three days pass his horse shall fall.
Ivan decides to take the road in the right and after three days travel a giant grey wolf appears and before Ivan can do anything, the wolf eats his beautiful horse to the hoof in one big bite and runs off. Ivan is inconsolable at this loss and weeps bitter tears for days. During this time the wolf comes back and instead of attacking young Ivan he speaks to him by name:
“Prince Ivan. I feel sorry for you. I did not mean you any harm but I am a wolf and I am following nature’s rules. Climb onto my back and I, The Great Grey Wolf will carry you on your journey”
Ivan does not hesitate and climbs onto the back of the grey wolf who helps him greatly in the next stage of his adventure.
In the story, Ivan’s horse could be read as representing the culture he has been a part of until now. The predictable, tame, perhaps even domesticated support that carried him on his journey so far. There is also a status element represented by the horse, he is a prince after all, but perhaps that is a conversation for another day. He takes a path that saves human life but is the death of his culture and support as he knows it.
What does culture have to do with stress and anxiety?
We could view culture as a set of common stories. And perhaps a set of rules. People like us do things like this. A culture can be a thing that you are a part of and you can also be outside of it. In ancient times if you broke the rules of the culture you might be cast out or banished. Now we tend to imprison people or lock them up in hospitals or banish them through economic or professional sanctions, block them, don’t answer their calls, deplatform them…
For Ivan, the old rules end the day his horse dies and it’s time to ride the wolf now.
Of course, the change from horse to wolf is something that probably takes some adjusting to. I’ve never tried to ride a wolf in real life but I imagine that it has its own tricks and techniques and is not something to be taken lightly.
In our current situation, there will be many people who are happy to ride the wolf. To ride the wave of uncertainty rippling across our culture and discover the rules along the way. For some people, this will even be a thrilling experience and perhaps presents an opportunity. There will of course be many others who are unable, or unwilling, or lack the resources to make this leap into the unknown as fast as Ivan.
For many people the experience of uncertainty “there are no rules/I don’t know what the rules are” will cause feelings of stress and anxiety, panic, and/or worry. For these people riding the Great Grey Wolf may not be an option yet. They may be better off finding some structure and support in their immediate vicinity. Something to help ground them. When we face an increasingly uncertain future it can help to bring our focus in and put our energies into things within our immediate grasp.
Often when people find themselves troubled by stress and anxiety, start to panic and worry it is the “unknowness” (this should be a real word) of their future that is the issue. By the time they seek help they have usually tried several methods of exerting control. In other words, imposing rules on their environment, the people around them, and themselves in an often frustrating and futile process.
How to cope with stress and anxiety in uncertain times by focusing on what you can influence
Stephen Covey, in his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ developed a model he called the circle of concern/circle of influence. Whilst this book may not necessarily be the kind of book that you want to be seen reading on the train it does contain some excellent ideas (that’s what kindles are for).
So how do we relieve stress and anxiety present both internally and externally? The basic idea is that there are many things in our circle of concern (in 2020 probably a few more than usual). Out of all of these concerns, there are some that we have no control over and others that we can actually do something about.
We could put the latter in a smaller circle that he calls our circle of influence.
He says that the more energy that people direct to things that are in their circle of concern but outside of their circle of influence; the more they will focus on the weaknesses of others, spend time blaming things outside of their control for their problems and feel like victims.
If you’re not comfortable riding a wolf then let go of what you can’t control
It’s important to note here that the inner circle is labeled the circle of influence and not the circle of control. It’s common for people who are feeling anxious or panicked “there are no rules/I don’t know what the rules are” to attempt to exert control over their environment by imposing rules on the things or people around them (also on themselves). This attempt often leads to anger and its cousins (temper, frustration, etc).
The truth is that we are in control of a lot less than we would like to believe. Something that 2020 has taught us over and over again.
When people channel their energy towards things within their circle influence and focus on things they can make a difference with they feel more grounded, more effective, and more in control of the direction their life is going.
Different people will have the same things in different circles. I can be concerned about vaccine technology, the global economy, and unemployment rates but those things are outside of my circle of influence (aside from election time perhaps). If I were to work in the pharmaceutical industry, government, or World Bank then some of those things may very well be within my influence.
As I have no influence over these broader concerns I will probably feel better putting my efforts into things closer to home. Boosting my immune system where I can, budgeting and planning for an uncertain financial future for example.
The more uncertainty I experience in my environment the smaller my circle of influence may become. There are times when it helps to focus on the immediate and graspable.
One of the things that history has demonstrated time and again is that order will emerge from chaos. It may take some time but the new rules will become clearer. Until then we have a choice; ride the wolf or let go of what we can’t control and focus on the things we can influence.
Ben Willens is a therapist working with clients at HQ therapy rooms and online. He integrates metaphor, storytelling, and use of linguistics into work that utilises the clients’ imagination in a powerful way.
To discuss any of the issues here or explore working with Ben you can book a free of charge consultation HERE.
You can contact him by email: [email protected]
Or through his website www.benwillens.com