If the 20th century is known as the Age of Anxiety, the current era may become known as the Age of Depression (with a generous side portion of anxiety). What else would historians call our society’s preoccupation with what is wrong in the world? Focusing primarily on supposed flaws is a sure-fire way to diminish self-esteem in individuals. And it works the same for a country.
July 20 was the anniversary of the most awe-inspiring event in our lifetime and among the most historically significant events of all time. When images of conflict, chaos, and coronavirus dominated the news, the world should have celebrated a heroic human accomplishment that unites people of all races, religions, and countries—literally everyone on Earth. Yet the event passed with little mention in the media and no fanfare.
It is a measure of our preoccupation with what is wrong in society that some readers may now be scratching their heads trying to recall what happened on July 20. Hint: it was the day human beings first set foot on another world. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. The Moon landing. July 20, 1969.
Just for a moment, on that one day, we should have shifted our minds from turmoil to tranquility, to Tranquility Base, which retains the footsteps of men with extraordinary courage who rose above the temporary concerns of the human race to remind us all of what the human mind can accomplish.
Back to the reality portrayed on nightly news broadcasts and newspaper headlines. While the pandemic dominates the media, we go about our daily lives with heightened anxiety and severe restrictions on normal sources of pleasure. A rational approach to this state of affairs must balance the conscious awareness of the state of the world with the need to function effectively on a daily basis and to continue the pursuit of important goals and values.
Here are ten tips for accomplishing this balance.
1. Recognize the signs of depression and anxiety. A hopeless outlook, disrupted sleep, a loss of interest in usual pastimes, significant weight change, fatigue, irritability, and diminished concentration are some symptoms of depression. Headaches, stomachaches, sleeplessness, rapid heartbeat are a few of the more common signs of anxiety.
2. Accept your fears. Often, people deny that they are afraid. That makes them less able to conquer their fears. We cannot master a fear by pretending it is not there. Only when we acknowledge our fears can we begin to take charge of them. By acknowledging fear, we bring it within our control rather than letting the fear control us.
3. Learn relaxation techniques. Certain behaviors help to clear the mind of worries. Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, massage, and exercise can all help to reduce anxiety and induce relaxation.
4. Talk, talk, talk. Talk about your thoughts and feelings and encourage your children to do the same. Anxiety does the most damage when we ignore it or try to bottle it up. Talking about distress helps to relieve it.
5. Agree to disagree. Differences in political positions and in how best to cope with the pandemic threaten to rupture long-standing relationships. Conflicting opinions may taint what are otherwise benevolent relationships. To protect against this, recognize that people who agree on fundamental principles of conduct and political goals can disagree on how to implement such principles.
One should never allow a disagreement about a particular policy, even one with effects as grave and far-reaching as coping with a virus, to overshadow the entire history and basis for a close personal relationship. To do so is to drop the context of the relationship. Rejecting someone on the basis of one stance on policy requires us to shrink our awareness of all the experiences and shared values that form the bedrock of the relationship. This is reminiscent of the vindictive parents I write about in Divorce Poison who encourage their children to reject the other parent on the basis of one alleged misdeed or grievance, as though an emotionally-based response to one aspect of reality should stand in for a balanced consideration of all relevant facts.
Strong relationships can usually tolerate a good deal of conflict and disagreement. But when heated political discussions threaten to overwhelm the basic love and respect between relatives and friends, the most reasonable approach is "agree to disagree." Such a policy reflects an awareness of the importance and value of maintaining the good will of those who love us and are loved by us.
6. Respect individual needs. Many conflicts in marriages occur because spouses do not recognize and respect each other's different needs. For example, some people cope best with anxiety by seeking lots of information; other people find that distractions from anxiety-provoking world events help them maintain a reasonable level of comfort. So, if your spouse is tired of hearing about the coronavirus, respect this. Do not confuse it with evasion of reality—it can be a reasonable tactic for coping with anxieties that are stimulated by the risk of events over which we have no direct control.
7. Take positive action. Action helps to offset a sense of helplessness. Initiate video calls. Tackle projects at home and for work that yield a relatively immediate sense of accomplishment. Reach out (virtually) to neighbors who are anxious and alone. Donate to a food bank. Being engaged in benevolent and constructive pursuits reminds us and our children that there is far more to value than to fear in the world.
8. Laugh. I recall that in the days immediately following 9/11, late-night comedy talk shows stayed off the air. When they returned, the hosts avoided their usual comedy format out of respect for the grief-stricken state of the nation. This was understandable, appropriate, and healing. When the humor re-emerged, though, it was more than welcome.
Humor is one of our most potent weapons against stress and depression. It rapidly diffuses anxiety and provides a socially acceptable outlet for hostility. It is also a great outlet for the additional hostility we feel in response to the sometimes maddening drivel we see and read in the news. So try to balance watching the news with your favorite sitcom.
9. Recognize your limitations. If depression and anxiety are dominating your life, and you are unable to shake either, accept the reality that you need some assistance and get it. Don't sacrifice your well-being and that of those around you on the altar of a misguided notion of individuality and independence. Even Howard Roark sought help from Henry Cameron.
10. Take things in stride. Get in the habit of seeing unpleasant, even frightening, current events in full context. Catastrophes are departures from the norm. Hold on to a benevolent sense of life by reminding yourself that today’s events are temporary, and that you can rise to the challenge. We have been to the moon in the past. And we will return in the future.
Next week, Dr. Warshak provides ten tips to help children cope during difficult times.
Richard A. Warshak, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Dallas, former Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and author of Divorce Poison: How to Protect Your Family from Bad-mouthing and Brainwashing (HarperCollins, 2010). For additional tips, visit: www.warshak.com.
Portions of this article were adapted and updated from an article originally published in the June 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.