It is really hard not to feel a sense of doom and gloom during these times. As the holidays approach, I have had countless conversations about the stress of what lies ahead. It is not unusual to be talking to clients about how to manage the holidays – the family gatherings, the pressure, and of course, the feelings of grief and sadness that come for so many. For those who are grieving, the holidays are an extremely painful time. Add a pandemic, civil unrest, constant negativity delivered by the media plus all the everyday stressors and people are completely tapped out! Tanks are empty. I think the best word to describe the vibe is dread. If you have been more anxious and fortune telling that everything will be terrible, you are not alone.
I work with people who experience a lot of ‘anticipatory anxiety’ which is essentially worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet. When we have had bad experiences in the past, we start to anticipate that bad things will happen again. I know the word ‘lockdown’ is triggering for people because the beginning of the pandemic was emotionally and mentally difficult. I know the word ‘holiday’ is also triggering because folks remember terrible experiences or feel intense grief and sadness because of losses. This year, it looks like we may be combining a lockdown and the holidays; it is no wonder there is a lot of anticipatory anxiety out there.
What can we do when our minds start expecting the worse? When our bodies anticipate the stress, sadness and fear that may or may not come. To be honest, with the current circumstances, there is some evidence to suggest that it will be difficult. I am just not convinced that anticipating the worst is going to help our mental health. Pretending that we have a crystal ball and that we can predict based on previous bad experiences does not seem helpful but I do understand why it happens. What I have personally experienced is that when I start anticipating that something is going to be really bad, it never is. It never is exactly as it was before.
One of the mindfulness practices that I do on a regular basis to deal with anticipatory anxiety is to focus my thoughts as close to the present moment as possible. I do a visualization when I am really caught up in predicting the future. I bring to mind my monthly calendar, I visualize it like it appears on my phone. If it is Wednesday November 25th and I start thinking about December 24th which is very far from the present moment, I steer my thoughts back to today. Or at the very least, to the week I am in. In so many ways, it is a mental game. It can be challenging to outsmart our internal negativity bias. I become my own coach with self-talk like “you don’t know what can happen between now and then” (I credit my mother for this excellent piece of advice) or “don’t get ahead of yourself, you don’t have a crystal ball”. When we have anticipatory anxiety or catastrophic thinking, it won’t go away by itself. We have to outsmart our own thinking!
As we inch toward December 1st, check in and see if there is any anticipatory anxiety about the holidays, the pandemic, the future of the world or anything else. If you are far away from today, visualize your calendar and bring your mind back. Stay as close to this moment as you can and doubt your abilities as a fortune teller. Nothing is ever exactly the same, even if you have proof that bad things happen. Sending you all virtual support during these difficult times.