Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA. 7.31.20
As we watch events unfold, the questions seem to outnumber the answers every day. Between the pandemic which seems to be a moving target, the ongoing protests, (and in some areas, violence and destruction), the partisan divide in our country, and the upcoming election, we as Americans are faced with daily news streams that bring little optimism. With this over-arching cloud, it can be difficult to focus on here and now in our own lives. In my recent post, Stress Management 101, I went through some ideas to help cope with stress. Today, let’s continue with some ideas about how events can shape our stress, and what we can do about it.
Being outside more during the warm weather months, we can all use this time to reflect on nature. In nature, there are certain patterns that we, and all living things on earth, come to expect. Seasons, weather, life cycles. When everything is going according to plan, and things remain predictable, nature just keeps moving. The birds keep flying in flocks and the fish swimming in schools. Plants grow. People go on about their routines in relative peace. But when you throw stress and unpredictability into the mix, behaviors and outcomes change. An early freeze is bad for our food supply – the fruit that was ready to pick and eat yesterday is now a frozen mess on the trees.. A oceanic predator breaks up a school of fish, causing them to frantically break formation and swim in all different directions. A bird flying to look for food may be met by a drone, causing the bird to change course and reconsider where to find food. And for people, when unpredictable stress is thrown into the mix, it can create challenges in how we cope and how we behave. Of course, in human behavior the stresses and the responses are much more complex.
On a daily basis we all have ups and downs and things that are not as predictable. Running out of your child’s favorite cereal can lead to a rough start to the day, but usually there are enough other consistent and predictable events throughout the day to balance things out. Right now, the cloud of stress from national and world events really presents us with this ever-simmering sense of unpredictability. So, even if your daily routines have settled in now with the COVID-19 restrictions, you still can’t really look down the road and imagine what things might be like this fall, or in the winter. When can you take your next trip? When can you go out without a mask? What is going to happen with schools and colleges? What is going to happen to the economy? What about living in areas where there are upticks in violence – when will you feel safe again? And the election coming up? I don’t know anyone on either side of the political aisle who is not stressed about this election. There is little long-term predicability in the big picture right now.
So, now what?
Predictability and consistency are nice things because they give us a sense of control. It is a comfort to know what’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen. Even thrill-seekers who love to jump out of airplanes or free-climb probably get some comfort from knowing what to expect each day. So the question to ask ourselves right now is what tools do we have to get that sense of predictability and control under the current circumstances?
First of all, really examine what you actually can control. I have talked about this in earlier posts – we can really stress ourselves out over things we can’t control in any way. I like to describe it as having two types of worry: Functional and Dysfunctional. With functional worry, we can use this to change something. For example, a functional worry might be something like driving in a heavy rainstorm. You can use that worry to slow down, to stay further away from the car in front of you, or to pull over until the rain lightens up. You can actually do something about it. If you did not have that worry, you would be putting yourself in danger. So functional worry is actually a good thing. On the other side, dysfunctional worry, you worry about things completely out of your control. For example, if you are worried that you won’t get the job you just interviewed for, this is now out of your control and the worry becomes dysfunctional.
Put this idea into the perspective of today’s stresses. What can you do about the things that are less predictable now? Are there positive actions you can take to make changes that will improve your outcomes? Are there some circumstances right now that are beyond your scope of control? If you can take positive action, go ahead and do so. If circumstances are beyond your control, work on letting your worry go by distracting yourself with more uplifting or productive ideas, activities, and interactions.
One big stress that a lot of families are facing right now is whether to send kids back to school. In most areas of the country, there seems to be a general trend towards remote schooling, a hybrid model, or giving families a choice to let their kids attend school or do remote schooling. So for families, this is an area where you do have a good deal of control. It s stressful to make the choice for some people, but if you look at all the facts you can make a good and informed decision. If you live in an area with low numbers of COVID-19 cases, it might be easier to decide to send your kids to school. If you or someone in your household is at higher risk for complications, you may make the decision to let your child work from home. For many families, keeping kids home is not a good option and in these cases taking all the possible precautions, (wearing masks to school, encouraging social distancing and sending your kids to school with hand sanitizer every day), will be the best way for you to assume some control over the situation. Above all, think things through, talk to people you trust, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. We will get through this.