Four lessons from your anxious brain

(Illustration: NYTimes)
Feeling unsettled? Anxious? Overwhelmed? Welcome to the summer of 2021.

I asked thousands of New York Times readers of all ages to share how they’re feeling right now. The most common answers revealed the mixed feelings of the past 14 months: unsettled, anxious, overwhelmed, frazzled, tired, hopeful, optimistic, stressful, exhausted, excited.اضافة اعلان

Some readers said that one word was not enough to describe their feelings.

“Bored, anxious, hopeful — all at once. Is there a word for that?” one reader said.

Ours was not a scientific survey; the respondents all had signed up for the 10-day Fresh Start Challenge, which delivered daily texts with tips for healthy living. But the answers are consistent with national survey data that shows many people are still struggling with the emotional toll of pandemic life. The Household Pulse Survey, from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shows as of mid-May that 30.7 percent of Americans were experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. While that number was down from a peak of about 42 percent in November, it’s still alarmingly high. In 2019, about 11 percent of adults in the United States had similar symptoms, according to a comparable survey from the National Center for Health Statistics.

Judson Brewer, director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center and an associate professor of psychiatry at the medical school, said many of his patients were describing themselves as feeling overwhelmed and frazzled. The emotions are likely to stem from the general uncertainty created by pandemic life.

“Information is food for our brain,” said Brewer, author of “Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.” “But when there is continuous uncertainty that we can’t resolve, that leaves people feeling anxious. They can feel overwhelmed because there’s not a resolution; the brain is not able to solve the problem. That leaves them feeling frazzled, tired and exhausted.”

The good news is that times of uncertainty are also opportunities for personal growth and building resilience. Studies show that periods of disruption can also be opportunities for breaking bad habits and starting healthy ones. Here are some strategies to help you cope this summer.

Build your ‘distress tolerance’

Worrying about what you don’t know will just make anxiety and stress worse. But accepting that some answers aren’t available right now can help you build an emotional muscle called “distress tolerance.” People with low distress tolerance often turn to unhealthy ways of coping.

Telling yourself that you accept the current state of uncertainty can help, Brewer said. Try telling yourself, “I’ll change the things I can and accept the things I can’t.” Identifying and naming your feelings can calm the part of your brain that is feeling stressed. A multisensory exercise such as five-finger breathing, in which you trace the outline of your hand with a finger while focusing on your breathing, can help stop negative thoughts from taking over.

Identify your best pandemic habits

A common source of anxiety these days is that the slower pace of pandemic life will soon be replaced by our previous, more stressful routines. “I would like to savor the slower pace,” one reader said. “I’m afraid we’ll go back to before-times levels of overscheduling.”

Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be,” advises people to look back on the past 14 months and identify the changes you want to keep.

“One of the things I find really interesting about the pandemic is that it forced us to experiment in ways that we wouldn’t usually,” she said. “We were all forced to try Zoom or try different kinds of workouts. One important thing is to be conscious of what experiments were good. What did you discover that you want to keep doing?”

To stop yourself from sliding back into old behaviors, Brewer said, ask yourself these questions: “What am I getting out of this? Is there a new way of doing this?” He said the pandemic restrictions taught him to rethink his busy travel schedule. Before the pandemic, he was traveling around the country to conferences, but he learned he could be just as effective giving talks via Zoom.

“If we see an old behavior we might be slipping back into, it’s a matter of paying attention and being aware,” Brewer said.

Strengthen your connections

Numerous studies show that stronger social connections help us cope with anxiety and build resilience. A number of readers during the Fresh Start Challenge said they were anxious about returning to old social routines.

“What is normal now?” one reader texted. “Looking forward to being with people again, but feel like I’ve lost my ability for casual conversations.”

During the Fresh Start Challenge, we gave readers 36 questions to help them get social conversations started. The questions, designed to help people reveal more about themselves, come from a study called “The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness,” led by Arthur Aron, a scientist at Stony Brook University.

Although the questions in Aron’s study became known as the 36 questions that lead to love, he points out that the goal of the questions is not to spur romance. Most of the time, the questions will help strangers to become friends, friends to become closer and romantic partners to feel more connected.

Ask ‘what do I need right now?’

Lately, I’ve heard from a lot of readers who are berating themselves for gaining weight or exercising less during the pandemic lockdowns. “I feel out of control and self-indulgent, particularly with regards to eating and drinking,” a reader said. “The increased weight makes moving uncomfortable and lowers my opinion of myself.”

It’s important to remember that almost everyone struggled with balancing the restrictions of pandemic life. Shaming yourself is counterproductive. A large body of research shows that when we give ourselves a break and accept our imperfections — a concept called self-compassion — we’re more likely to take care of ourselves and live healthier lives.

“One of the major things self-compassion gives you is the ability to not be so overwhelmed by the difficult emotions you’re experiencing,” said Kristin Neff, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin who has pioneered much of the research on self-compassion. “Give yourself a little kindness.”

Neff offers guided meditations and exercises to learn self-compassion on her website, One of the simplest ways to start practicing self-compassion is to ask yourself one question: “What do I need right now?”

“If you’re judging yourself, you’re harming yourself,” said Neff, whose new book is “Fierce Self-Compassion: How Women Can Harness Kindness to Speak Up, Claim Their Power and Thrive.” “What do you need to be well? Maybe what you need is not to lose 5 pounds. Maybe you need more self-acceptance. The more you are able to accept yourself, the more you’re able to make those positive healthy changes in your life.”

Read more lifestyle