How to Keep It Together When Your World Is Falling Apart

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Every era has its stressors. But our times can feel especially tumultuous. A 2017 American Psychological Association (APA) poll found that nearly two-thirds of Americans find that the future of the nation is a significant source of stress. And, according to a March 2018 national survey by the APA, more Americans feel anxious than they did in 2017. The nation’s anxiety score has increased five points since 2017. People worry about safety, health, paying bills, and politics. Depression scores are up, as well, according to the 2017 Gallup-Sharecare Wellbeing Index.

Some days, waking up can feel like a game of Jenga — when you pull out the wooden blocks from your tower one by one, waiting for it to crash into a messy pile. The trick is navigating and tolerating the uncertainties — whether they be international calamities or a personal crisis — and strengthening your base so that when people, places, and things steal pieces from your tower, your balance remains intact. Here are a few ways to do that.

Invest in what’s static

Most things in life are variable — international relations, Kardashians gossip, the word Starbucks attaches to a large coffee. But all of us also have a few (somewhat) reliable things that provide our foundation: a sister, husband, or mother who loves us unconditionally, coffee with friends, the way we feel when we give back, maybe our faith. When my Jenga tower starts to wobble, it usually means I need to put a few more blocks in the bottom and turn my attention to things that I know I can wake up to tomorrow. I need to laugh more with friends, go for a hike, read an inspiring book, call my sister, and help someone in need.

Read the news strategically

If you’re the type of person who can scan news headlines with no adverse effects, you are in the minority. According to the same 2017 APA survey cited above, 56 percent of Americans said that following the news regularly gives them stress. I am among them. Therefore, I approach the news with a strategy similar to the one I use to feed the ducks in Annapolis, Maryland, where I live — exercising careful timing. If you arrive with bread when the pigeons are hungry, you could find yourself pecked to death or covered with white stains. Before I open my news feeds, I make sure I’m calm enough that reading something upsetting won’t throw me down the rabbit hole of obsessions and paranoia. I also know my triggers and avoid sensitive stories, like stories about suicides, when I’m especially vulnerable.

Hang with the right crowd

Whether you like it or not, research says we become like those we hang around. For example, weight loss efforts are contagious. Your drinking patterns are affected by social acquaintances. Some researchers even indicate that depression and “cognitive styles” (Eeyore versus Tigger) are also affected by people around you. That said, if you’re hanging with folks who are constantly fretting about the chance of a nuclear war, you may also start to panic and build a shelter. If, however, you surround yourself with Buddha-types who manage to live in the moment and are optimistic about the future, you will probably not waste your time on buying enough milk powder to last 10 years.

Get a reality check

A friend of mine spent the last two years in her job convinced she was on the verge of getting fired, that her co-workers found her incompetent — until she gave her notice, that is. Senior executives raved about the quality of her work and told her she was invaluable. Some of our fears and assessments are valid. Many aren’t. We all need people in our lives that can tease apart truth from fiction, or recognize kernels of truth in what is mostly a lie. I have a few trusted folks I can count on to give me an objective perspective. Most of the time, they tell me to “reel it in” because I have crafted a fascinating novel in my head.

Put on some blinders (and do the thing in front of you)

We are not unlike horses, with eyes on the sides of our heads. Our peripheral vision — however useful it is at times — can have us running off course, drifting down dangerous cliffs to what we see is greener, longer grass. One legend says that blinders were created when a preacher bet his friend that his horse would walk up the stairs, which he did. However, getting back down was the problem. Only by covering up the horse’s head and inhibiting the animal’s vision could the horse focus enough to do something that obviously scared him.

Like horses, we get too distracted and stimulated by everything happening in our world. Putting on some blinders — like taking a break from the media, establishing better boundaries with toxic people, or being more selfish with our time — can empower us to take the risk we wouldn’t take if we could see everything. By blocking out the inessentials and closing ourselves off into our own small world, we, ironically, become able to do the thing in front of us.

And we can make our tower stronger.

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