We turn to therapists to help us navigate life and the difficult situations that come up. And although they may seem to be experts on how to work through feelings of anxiety, worry and fear, it doesn’t mean that they don’t encounter their own struggles as well.
The state of the world ― between the coronavirus pandemic, police brutality and racism, record unemployment and more ― is deeply affecting people, including mental health professionals. It makes many of us fear for what the immediate and distant futures could look like.
So what are some ways therapists deal? We asked them.
Take a break
Angelle E. Richardson, assistant professor at the community and trauma counseling program at Thomas Jefferson University, said there’s nothing wrong with needing to take a step back if you’re feeling too overwhelmed.
Turn off the news and log off of social media for an hour or two so you can spend some time reading or doing another self-care activity. Nothing can change long-term if you don’t take care of yourself and give your mind space.
“If we stop, pause and step away from what we’re doing or worrying about, it gives us time to think and reflect, which may put things in perspective,” Richardson said.
Focus on what you can control
“It sounds simple, but I make a list of the things I can control and let go of the rest,” said Sean Davis, a marriage and family therapist and psychology professor at Alliant International University.
Identify what those control measures are for you, then take action. For example, you can wear a face mask outside; you can donate to organizations; you can have meaningful conversations with family and friends; you can apply for jobs as they become available; you can maintain a healthy routine that benefits your mental health. This will help ground you when your anxiety skyrockets.
Apply the AWARE technique
Zlatin Ivanov, a psychiatrist in New York City, uses the “AWARE” system to work through an anxious cycle:
Accept that you are feeling anxious and directly identify it as what you’re feeling. Watch the anxiety and grade it on a scale. Act normal as much as you possibly can through talking and your breath. Repeat the previous three steps if necessary. Expect the best. You are taking control of the fear instinct and taming and training it.
Try a grounding exercise
Erika Updegrove, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City, said she engages in a grounding exercise when she feels anxious: “I put my feet firmly on the floor and I imagine that my feet are much like the roots of a tree. I envision that my ‘roots’ go way down below the street level and I am anchored into place, immovable.”
You can also focus on other tangible things around you. For example, prompt your mind to notice five things you can see, four things you can touch, three things you can hear, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.
Sit in your anxiety for a while
It sounds counterintuitive and uncomfortable, but the point is to normalize the feeling. Because anxiety is natural.
“I will tell myself to ‘sit’ with the anxiety and that it is OK that it is there,” said Jeffrey Kassinove, co-founder of Therapy West in New York City. “When you are afraid, it means there are too many unknowns for us to make a prediction. So, I sit tight and let time fill in those unknowns as the future becomes the present day.”
Instead of defaulting on the worst scenario, intentionally visualize the best
Jaime Bronstein, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in San Diego, California, recognizes her negative thoughts — then urges herself to think about positive ones.
“Instead of imagining something terrible happening, I create the most positive scenario I can think of,” she explained.
Seek lessons from ways you’ve dealt with uncertainty in the past
“I remind myself how I have coped with difficult transitions, or things that were out of my control in the past,” said Jennifer Chaiken, a licensed marriage and family therapist in at The West Chester Therapy Group in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
She added that we tend to forget how resilient we are and how much we have gotten through. Remind yourself of your strength, think back on how you have managed issues before and then consider how those methods could help you again.
Try to concentrate on the present moment
“Even if I have to remind myself each hour, I remind myself to stay present,” said Eliza Kingsford, a licensed psychotherapist and behavior change specialist in Boulder, Colorado.
When she feels inclined to worry, Kingsford said she works to consciously bring herself back to the present moment and asks herself questions like: “What is true right now?” “What do I know right now?” “What can I control right now?” “Am I OK right now?” “Are there decisions that need to be made right now?”
This, she said, helps to keep her “present focused” and work only with information that she has, not information that she is anticipating.
Act on your anxiety by moving your body
“When I feel the urge to roll over rather than face the day, I use a technique called opposite action,” said Heather Collins, a licensed clinical social worker in Berkeley, California. “So, rather than succumbing to that feeling of paralysis, I shift gears and psych myself up to get active.”
Moving your body in a way that feels good will help alleviate some of the physical effects of anxiety. “I know that once I get moving, some of those sinking feelings will begin to lift,” Collins said.
Spend some time acknowledging what you have right now
Kathryn Grace Zambetti, a psychotherapist and executive coach at Grace Consulting, said gratitude for what you have right now allows the brain to release thoughts tied to the future. It’s important to do this regularly, even when you aren’t in a time of crisis.
Reflect on three or four things you’re grateful for — the more specific, the better. You can acknowledge them quietly to yourself, she said, but advised that “a daily gratitude practice is also much more effective when it is said out loud or written down on paper.”
Create and stick to a schedule
Jerry Lynn Petty Jr., a licensed professional counselor in Denton, Texas, has found that consistency is key when everything in the word feels uncertain. And a great way to do this is to stick to a routine. Even if it’s a super basic one.
“I go to sleep at approximately the same time, wake up the same time, eat at the same times,” he said. “Keeping routines instills a sense of normalcy during very abnormal times.”
Remember a time when the outcome was positive
Kim Grevler, a licensed clinical social worker and founder of the mental health awareness brand selfishladies, thinks about all the times that she was worried about the future and the outcome turned out better than she had imagined.
“This busts the myths and assumption that are inherent in our minds when we worry about the future, which implies that there is something to be afraid of,” she explained. “By remembering a time when the outcome was better than what you anticipated, you are retraining the brain to worry less about the lack of control and have more confidence in the possibility of a positive outcome.”
Use a mantra
Having a phrase to come back to whenever things get stressful has been extremely helpful to Christi Solomon Zerega, founder of Aware Counseling in Charleston, South Carolina.
“When I am struggling, my mantra is ‘I am capable. I am competent. I am confident. I can handle anything that comes my way,’” she said. These empowering statements pull her back to what is within her control and help keep her in the present moment.
Turn to a support system
“If my level of worry feels overwhelming, I will vent to a friend,” said Pamela J. Garber, a therapist in New York. “If no one is available, I will vent out loud about it, but give myself a 30-minute time limit.”
During this time of venting, Gerber said she will work to find a new way of looking at the situation, a technique she calls basic cognitive reframing. She tries to find a silver lining, identify a benefit for herself or others that can come from the situation, or work on developing her tolerance for uncertainty.
If her worry continues to escalate, she will text the people in her friend network and continue reaching out for support.
Go to therapy
“Yes, it’s true! Therapists have their own therapist ― or they should ― because we also need a place to feel validated when we worry about the future, and we need a therapist to challenge us when our anxiety has gotten out of control,” explained Audrey Grunst, founder of Simply Bee Counseling.
She said the practice of talking to someone also helps therapists learn what it’s like to be on the other side of the chair and grow empathy for their clients, in addition to healing their own wounds.
“This type of work can protect us from anxiety about the future because we are not just giving advice every day, but we are also accepting someone else’s help. And that can go a long way in terms of coping with an uncertain future,” she said.
There’s nothing wrong with seeking professional advice if your anxiety becomes too difficult to manage. (Try one of these affordable mental health resources.) Your anxiety doesn’t have to control you, even when everything else feels so uncertain.
This story is part of HuffPost Life’s series on coping with uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic. Check out our other stories below.
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