How to Stay Sane During Massive Change

A collection of strategies for maintaining peace of mind and staying effective in the midst of world upheaval.

By Christopher Kent  (author of Staying Off the Wheel of Misfortune.)

When sweeping changes happen in the world around us — whether the changes are triggered by a pandemic, cultural upheaval or political craziness — our personal lives change as well. Suddenly the future seems uncertain; we don’t know what’s going to happen next, or what we’ll need to do to survive. Eventually, we start to lose things that were part of our lives before the sweeping changes, forcing us to deal with loss. All of these things can lead to stress, anxiety and resentment.

Today we’re all living through a period of intense change. Here are four specific problems you may encounter, and what you can do to keep these challenges from derailing your life.

1. You’re constantly stressed.

Stress can be exhausting, and it’s definitely not good for your health. When we’re stressed, our “flight or flight” response kicks in, flooding our body with hormones meant to give us excess energy to deal with an approaching threat (look — a hungry tiger is running towards us!) Those hormones are great if you’re running from a tiger, but if you’re constantly pumping them through your body, they’ll damage your cells and your health.

Here are seven strategies that can help to alleviate the constant stress you may be feeling (or at least minimize the cellular and mental damage).

If you’re overwhelmed with generalized, nonspecific anxiety, look for scary mental movies your mind is playing just outside of consciousness. As human beings with multi-talented brains, we can easily imagine a series of pleasant or unpleasant future events — what you might think of as “mental movies.” What many people don’t realize is that your mind routinely plays “mental movies” like that outside of your conscious awareness. Ironically, your mind has an emotional reaction to those mental movies, even though you’re not consciously “watching” them. If those movies playing in our heads — the ones we’re not consciously watching — have scary endings, the result is anxiety that isn’t tied to anything we’re consciously focusing on.

What can you do to stop an “unwatched” mental movie from triggering anxiety? Make that mental movie conscious. It’s not hard to do this once you understand what’s happening. Then, once you’ve made the movie conscious, think up a different, less-scary ending. After that, if your brain plays that movie outside of consciousness, it won’t evoke the anxiety response.

Do something physical. All those stress hormones are designed to give you extra energy so you can take action. So, put them to use; if they’re serving their intended purpose (physical action) they won’t wreak havoc on your cells. Not very many of us actually work out at the gym — especially during a pandemic — but anyone can take a walk, or do some chores that need to be done anyway, or just go up and down the stairs a few times. It will really help.

If events seem like the end of the world, revise your perspective. Actually, everything that’s happening right now was predicted — at least in general terms — by people who study cycles of change. Let me repeat that: The events unfolding around us right now were predicted by many people, as part of repeating cycles in history and in the economy.

What that means is that the events unfolding around us do not mark the end of the world. They mark moving from the end of one cultural and economic cycle into the beginning of the next. We’re sailing through stormy seas, but people have sailed through seas like this before. The trip always eventually leads into new, calm waters.

If the world situation is freaking you out, do two things:

First, remember that this is not the end of the world. Remembering this is very important, because in reality we don’t react to events that are happening to us or around us — we react to our perception of those events. If we think the sky is falling, we’re going to freak out. If we understand that we’re just in a chaotic period that eventually may lead to something better, we’ll stay calmer and make better decisions.

Second, focus on your immediate surroundings. When the world around us is in turmoil, trying to grasp the whole thing — or worse, feeling like we have to deal with the whole thing — is a recipe for anxiety and a nervous breakdown. On the other hand, our immediate situation, such as the room we’re sitting in, is usually not part of that crisis. Our immediate surroundings are calm. So, give yourself a break and change your focus to the here and now, in the present. Your mind and body need a break from stress to function effectively; changing your focus can give them that break.

If you’re worried about a specific possible crisis, look for more information about it, and ways you can prepare for it. It’s very easy to just be anxious and overlook things you can do to ease your mind if you’re worried about a particular event that could happen. For example, if you think you might lose your job, there could be someone at your workplace who knows what’s happening and can put your mind at ease. Meanwhile, you can brush up your resume and create a battle plan so the possibility of losing your job will seem less threatening.

Take challenges on one at a time. Stress can result from the fear that we won’t be able to meet all of the challenges we’re facing. Usually, the reason we’re insecure about our ability to meet current or future challenges is that we’re looking at a huge pile of challenges (real ones in the present and/or imagined ones in the future).

In reality, life doesn’t ask us to solve all of our problems at once. It asks us to solve them one at a time. If you’ve made it this far in life, you’ve accomplished that feat many times. So, if you’re actually looking at a big pile of challenges right now, pick one thing and work on that. Don’t worry about climbing the mountain. Worry about taking one step forward. (And don’t be shy about asking for help from others, when appropriate.)

Have at least one project or pastime that’s completely under your control. During a recent interview with Stephen Colbert, actor John Lithgow was plugging his new book, which consists of wittypolitical commentary in poetry form, including original drawings. (It turns out he’s very good at both things!) When Colbert said he was impressed, Lithgow commented that he always advises actors like himself to maintain a hobby or project that’s totally under their control, such as writing poetry or drawing. He pointed out that actors are dependent on other people hiring them; if no one hires you, you don’t work. That can make you crazy, but having something in your life that truly is under your control can act as a safe harbor in the storm.

Right now, it’s not just actors who are in this situation, so it’s good advice for all of us. If major parts of your life are not under your control, make sure you have a part that really is under your control. That will go a long way toward keeping you sane in the midst of craziness.

Interrupt your stress periodically. One of the interesting things science has discovered in recent years is thatstress can be good for us — but only if it’s interspersed with rest. Growth results from stress followed by a recovery period. Exercise, for example, causes minor damage to your muscles; when you rest, your cells repair the damage and your muscles end up stronger. This is also why we sleep at night — to repair the stress damage we accumulate during the waking hours.

To put it another way, neither constant stress nor constant rest leads to growth. It’s only when stress and rest alternate that we thrive.

Right now, the problem for most of us is too much stress. The solution isn’t to eliminate stress; the solution is to do whatever you have to do to create periods of low or no stress to interrupt the ongoing pressure. You need to consciously go out of your way to make sure you have periodic stress-free (or at least low-stress) breaks.

Here are several strategies that can help create periods of low stress:

  1. Listen to music that takes you out of your situation and makes you relax.
  2. Watch funny movies, or read a funny book.
  3. Stay in touch with cheerful, supportive friends. Staying connect to people you care about is a huge stress-reducer.
  4. Learn to meditate.
  5. Restrict your news intake (and checking your email, texts, etc.) to specific times, and make a decision to turn your thoughts elsewhere at other times.
  6. Make a point of engaging in a pastime you enjoy.
  7. Find a way to experience nature at least once a day.
  8. Make a schedule and keep to it — but take the weekend (or a shorter period of time, such as late at night or early in the morning) off. Really take it off — meaning avoiding the things that stress you out. And remember that one of the things that makes day-to-day life stressful is having to be “on the clock,” so if you take a break, make it schedule-free. Set it up so that you won’t have to look at the clock while you’re on your break.

2. You can’t stop mourning something you’ve lost.

Clinging to the past is a normal response when facing an uncertain future, even if you’re just remembering “better times.” Gratitude is a very healthy thing to have in your life, but when we lose a situation or person we were grateful for, that gratitude can shift into fear, anger and depression. If you’ve lost something really important — a friend or family member, for example — turning your thoughts elsewhere may be very hard indeed.

Part of the reason it can be hard to stop thinking about what we’ve lost is that whatever good the future holds, we can’t see it yet. In most cases, the future will eventually lead us to new experiences that will make us just as happy as the ones we’ve lost, but those future experiences are outside of our perception, so we can’t use them to offset our sorrow in the present. On the other hand, the things we’ve lost are very real to us.

What can you do to minimize the suffering this is causing you?

First, acknowledge and express your gratitude for what you had, but make a decision that you’ll limit the amount of time you devote to thinking about what you’ve lost. Set a time limit for how long you’ll devote to this each day. After you’ve spent that amount of time thinking about what you’ve lost, set those thoughts aside and think about other things. Don’t repress your feelings, or feel guilty because you’re not thinking about it. You can return to thinking about it later. Your feelings are real and understandable, but don’t let them become the only thing you think about.

As folksinger Tom Paxton has said, “It’s OK to look back, as long as you don’t stare.”

Second, don’t dwell on the idea that you’ll never be able to recreate what you had. You’re not supposed to recreate it. You’re supposed to take what the future brings you and create something new. No, it won’t be the same. It will be new and different. But it can end up being wonderful in its own right. So, appreciate what you had, but remember that your job will be to create something different, but equally wonderful. (Or even better.)

3. You resent your current situation. 

If you’re upset and angry about what’s happening to you (as opposed to being worried about the world around you), these steps will help:

Think carefully: Is your situation really as inescapable as it seems? Feeling that we’re trapped in a situation is a conclusion we’ve drawn based on assumptions we’ve made and accepted. Sometimes, those assumptions are based on certainty, not reality. So stop and think carefully. Are you REALLY trapped in your current situation? Or have your assumptions blinded you to options that might change things for the better?

If you really are stuck, don’t waste your time being angry about it. Instead, focus on getting through it. You don’t have to squash your feelings; just set them aside. Whether you’re mad at a person or at the universe, your anger will eat away at you, not the person or the universe. So, set your anger aside and focus on getting through the situation.

Being angry about your situation and blaming someone for it is easy to justify, and people do it out of habit. Our culture encourages people to do it when events seem unjust. Plus, it has some short-term benefits: You get to avoid all responsibility for your situation; you get to be righteously angry; and you may get sympathy and/or pity from others.

However, seeing yourself as a victim is a bad idea because it backfires bigtime. When you take on the role of victim, you change your beliefs about yourself and you change your behavior. Seeing yourself as a victim alters your focus and your emotions; it undermines your physical health; it undermines your personal power and credibility; it invites abuse from others who will also start to see you as a victim; it pushes away potential friends and associates; and it provides the justification for you to make very destructive choices. Even if you really have been victimized, seeing yourself as a victim will not help you. It will do the opposite.

If you’ve already taken on the role of victim and you want to change that, it’s simply a matter of changing your perspective. (As mentioned earlier, we don’t react to what’s happening around us; we react to our perceptionof it.) Yes, if you don’t see yourself as a victim, you have to give up feeling sorry for yourself. But you’ll be rewarded by a newfound sense of control over your life, energy you didn’t know you had, and the ability to see your way to a positive future.

Choose your focus consciously. At least once a day, take time to focus on the things in your situation that make you happy. Take time for gratitude. It’s not just an airy-fairy New Age idea; the reality is that our focus creates our experience. That’s why two people in the exact same situation can have completely experiences. So, don’t let your experience be nothing but darkness and negativity. Make sure your focus on the good things at least part of the time.

4. There are things you really need and you don’t have any easy way to get them. 

If you need something, find a way to give that thing to someone else. This is one of those cosmic tidbits that’s counterintuitive, but actually works. Doing what you can to get that thing for someone else will stop you from feeling sorry for yourself; help you understand how to fix your problem; and when you do help someone else get what you need, it’s likely to result in others wanting to help you get it as well. If you need a friend, be a friend to someone else. If you need food, help someone else get food. If you need relief from the stress, help someone else get stress relief. If you need a job, help someone else get a job. What goes around comes around. Plus, it’s long been known that doing something good for someone else has a healing effect on you. So go for it!