Last week, we discussed anticipatory grief in response to COVID-19, a terminal medical diagnosis, or having a family member involved in substance use.
It is grieving for what is not yet lost, a kind of rehearsal or progressive letting go in preparation for an unknown future.
How do we cope with, or prepare for a future that is constantly shifting and changing?
One of the ways people cope with anticipatory grief is to become hypervigilant, having a heightened sense of alertness, constantly looking for potential threats. We may find ourselves anticipating the worst when someone coughs or sneezes in a public place or a loved one is running late.
Others describe it as an impending sense of doom, dwelling on the worst possible outcome. Staying in this mindset, quickly overwhelms and paralyzes into inaction and despair.
We may find ourselves numb and avoiding interactions with others, distancing ourselves from the situation and others. Responding to simple questions like “How are you?” may leave us overwhelmed.
We may feel shame or embarrassment that we are not handling the situation as we think we should. This conspiracy of silence keeps us isolated and alone, often perpetuating the hopelessness and uncertainty.
Others may find that self-medicating with food, sleep, substances or activities provides a distraction from the situation.
None of these strategies are helpful in the long term. What are some healthier ways to deal with the uncertainty?
A good first step may be accepting the fact that we are not in control of the situation. Often we have very little control of our circumstances or other people. But there is one thing we can control: our thinking and attitude.
A wise friend once told me, “You can’t control the thoughts that pop into your head, but you don’t have to invite them to sit down and have a cup of coffee.”
This sounds so simple, but is extremely difficult to do. We must first notice or identify our negative thoughts, really listening to the self-talk that is going on inside our heads. Phrases like “they always” or “she never” can be key words to listen for.
Assuming we know someone else’s thoughts or motivations or making sweeping overgeneralizations are also red flags. Once we notice these thoughts, we need to challenge then with examples that prove them not true.
For example, “Jane never helps me,” can be countered with, “Last week, Jane offered to go to the grocery for me, and I told her no. I wonder if she would be willing to pick up a gallon of milk for me when she is at the store?”; or, “No one cares if I live or die,” might be challenged with, “I haven’t heard from anyone today, but Sam called me yesterday. Frank sent me several texts on Monday. My neighbor left some garden produce on my porch. People do care about me.”
Getting outside can be extremely helpful. Going for a brief walk or sitting in the sun can be powerful in helping reset our attitudes and thinking.
Connecting with others through phone calls or even texts can help, if face-to-face visits are not possible. Surrounding ourselves with people who are happy and positive definitely impacts our mood.
Being patient and kind to ourselves and those around us: this is uncharted territory for all of us and we all cope in different ways.
Noting the triggers that cause anxiety or fear: if consuming too much media increases stress or anxiety, try limiting exposure. Make it a goal to be aware, but not consumed by the constant barrage of news and social media.
Helping someone else is a sure way to improve our outlook. We will make their and our day better.
Take care of basic needs such as healthy nutrition, and adequate sleep and hydration. Engage in activities that bring joy and peace. Breathe.
If we find ourselves continually struggling with the uncertainty, checking in with our health care provider may provide necessary guidance and support.
We can only control what we can control, and finding that distinction is key.