How is one to cope with the fear and uncertainty of a national media saturated with negative and frightening images of one tragedy after another? There is no need to identify specific incidents; it would be difficult to miss any of them. What I am hearing from people—whether living with a disability or not—is that they are afraid.
I was reminded this week in discussions with a couple of people who have disabilities that we often make bad things worse by how we think about them—or the stories we tell ourselves about things. Here are some ideas to better understand and manage these uncomfortable feelings:
- Remember that your feelings/emotions follow your thoughts. When you have feelings that are uncomfortable and/or you begin to feel overwhelmed, check your thoughts. The self-talk we use can either escalate or deescalate our emotional state.
Stop the chatter in your head and write down the exact words you are saying to yourself. This can be done in a minute or so. Often, you will find that you are projecting fear into the future about things that have not happened, or focusing on the past about things that cannot be changed.
- Challenge the thoughts you are telling yourself; figure out if they are true. In many cases we are trying to fill in the blanks to make sense of something we are unsure about. Unfortunately, that can create fear and anxiety about things that are often not even true.
Ask the following questions to defuse the energy: Are these thoughts/stories true? How do I know they are true? What is the evidence to prove that they are true? Are they true all the time? Are there ever exceptions?
- Let go of the stories/thoughts that are not true and replace them with facts. As you find exceptions to the stories/thoughts, your feelings should become more manageable—if you are willing to let go of the story.
Often we are very tied to our stories. Letting go of those that are not true is a choice. Stories from the past can keep you stuck in old habits, fears, and relationships. Worrying about things that have not happened may keep you paralyzed by fear of the future. It is just a story, and does not have to be your identity unless you refuse to let it go. Replace the story/thoughts with the facts.
- Focus only on the present—specifically, things you can control. If you are wondering how to let go of old stories or future worries, the solution is simple but not easy. By focusing on the present, we let go of the past and future. That sounds too simple for such an overwhelming problem, I realize.
Keep your mind and body together and focus on what you are doing, seeing, hearing, touching, or smelling. By doing this for one or two minutes, you bring your mind back to the room, calm your anxiety, and relinquish the fear.
How It Works in Real Life
Scenario: You are taking a test for school and begin to see people leaving the room as they complete their tests. Your mind starts saying things such as, “You are not going to finish the test … you are going to fail … then you will lose your financial aid … and you won’t be able to pay your rent … you are going to be homeless …”
Is this helping you finish your test or hindering your progress?
Questions: Ask yourself the questions for each of these negative thoughts and arrive at reasoned answers: “Everyone is finishing the test … I am not going to finish … I am going to fail!” Is this true? I don’t know. How do I know it is true? I don’t. “I am going to lose my financial aid and can’t pay the rent … I’ll be homeless!” Is this true? Have you lost your aid? No. Can you pay the rent now? Yes.
Better thought/story: “I still have time to finish the test. I have other grades for this class, so regardless of my test score, I may pass and things will be fine. Right now, I need to focus on and finish the test.”
Reunite your mind and body: “I am sitting in class now … I still have time to finish the test. There are other people here; the instructor is still here. I am wearing a yellow shirt. My foot is on the seat in front of me. I hear the fan blowing overhead. Someone is coughing in the back. The clock on the wall is ticking. I have an itch on my right knee. I smell oranges. I see my pen moving across the paper. I feel a breeze.”
Welcome back to reality; this is how to manage your anxiety and fear. It gets easier with practice. Don’t let the “buts” pull you back in. If you slip, focus on the present again to get back.
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