By David H. Rosmarin, PhD, ABPP
Almost overnight, America’s anxiety level has gone through the roof. As media feeds overwhelm us with information that we repeatedly and compulsively check into the late hours of the night. Supermarkets are inundated with customers and requests for online delivery. And the stock markets have been hit with a decline the likes of which has not occurred in over three decades.
As a nation, Americans were anxious before COVID-19. Now, our levels of anxiety are literally toxic.
What is the root of our fear? Psychological science has revealed that “intolerance of uncertainty” involving the inability to handle uncertain or uncontrollable situations, is a key factor. In short: Americans love to predict and control the future. And so, we are suffering intolerably since COVID-19 is so unpredictable and uncontrollable.
When one stops to think about it though, we were never really in control or certain about anything even prior to COVID-19. SARS and MERS are just two examples of viral outbreaks that could have had even worse effects on our planet than the current crisis. Beyond disease though, we have been at significant risk for terrorism – whether conventional, chemical, or even nuclear – for the past several decades. Weather patterns have also altered our lives in dramatic ways – have we forgotten about Hurricane Katrina, or the Tsunami of 2004? When we step back from the current crisis and appreciate the greater context, we can feel grateful that such events don’t occur more frequently.
While the above may be fearful to think about, we are ironically more likely to feel calm once we accept the reality that our sense of certainty and control are nothing but an illusion. Accepting our inherent lack of control can help us to find the inner strength to face crises.
That is perhaps the greatest struggle that COVID-19 presents, but it’s also perhaps the greatest opportunity. For individuals who are already comfortable being out of control (and yes, such people do exist!) the current crisis is a reasonable emotional workout to fully embrace and accept our humble position in the world. And for individuals who are not yet comfortable– those who are suffering with high levels of anxiety – COVID-19 is an opportunity to breathe deeply and accept that nothing was ever certain or clear, and nothing ever will be. Once we accept that fact, we can face the current challenge and all of life with less anxiety.