Working Through Our
We don’t know what things will look like this year or the year after, or if the normal we’ll eventually return to will feel anything like normal did before. That’s scary, but it doesn’t have to be a source of dread or fear or loss of purpose.
Keith Kurlander and Will Van Derveer are the founders of the Integrative Psychiatry Institute, which trains mental health professionals to treat the root causes of mental illness. They find that we can manage our anxiety about the future if we find the silver linings in the challenging circumstances ahead. And while those silver linings may be elusive—nobody said this was going to be easy—Kurlander and Van Derveer believe this practice of reframing our future worries may help us not only survive the next few years but also create the kind of future we look forward to.
How to Overcome Existential Anxiety during Uncertain Times
We are all feeling a lot of immediate stress right now; we are in the middle of a pandemic. It feels as if life has changed forever, and for understandable reason: Our stressors aren’t going away anytime soon. The pandemic will likely impact our social habits for years before we can return to a prepandemic way of life, which means our current stressors are only half of the story.
When we are stressed and worrying about things that haven’t happened yet but might happen, that’s anxiety. What’s important to recognize is that we can influence these events only to a certain degree. We have to find balance in how much focus we give them: Focusing too much on stressful external events can lead to feelings of angst, agitation, and fear, while not paying enough attention enough can breed apathy, disconnection, and despair.
Anxiety, more often than not, is driven by the meaning we attribute to the events around us.
Balancing the Story
Viktor Frankl, a physician who survived the Nazi concentration camps and later wrote the classic book Man’s Search for Meaning, said “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” In other words, the way we make meaning of events and circumstances is a key factor in determining our stress and mental well-being.
Too often, the human mind automatically generates a negative story of what is happening and what’s to come. For example, the pandemic is triggering a lot of anxiety for a lot of people. Sometimes that anxiety is appropriate: It can help us plan ahead and keep ourselves safe. But some of that anxiety is not useful, and it can damage our mental health.
Here’s an example of a negative story about the pandemic: A lot of people are thinking, The next two or three years are going to suck. My kids are going to be schooled from home, I’m not going to get to hang out with my friends, and the economy is going to crash.
These predictions about the future assume we’ll experience more drawbacks than benefits. Whenever we take this perspective, we naturally feel anxious because we are predicting that the challenges ahead will only hurt us.
Here’s a more balanced perspective, which frames the challenges of the pandemic within the opportunities that might come out of it. We might think something like, I will have more time to be with my family because I’m not going to be with my friends as often. Or: Maybe not seeing my friends for a while will result in my not taking them as much for granted. Or: I’m saving a lot of time by not having to commute to work anymore, so I can cook good food at home and save a lot of money by not eating out as much.
We can commit to balancing our perspective by looking for the upsides of these challenges, which will in turn reduce our anxiety and open our mind to future possibilities that may benefit us.
Mindfulness Exercise: List the Opportunities
A simple exercise that anyone can do is to make a list of the upsides of external stressors. Ask yourself the question, “What opportunities does this challenge present for me?”
Generate answers until you feel as if there are an equal number of upsides and downsides.
Initially, it may seem paradoxical that there are upsides to big challenges. The above exercise may be challenging itself: It can be counterintuitive to consider that there are opportunities inside events we would prefer were not happening at all. Balancing the story is not about avoiding the pain of what we are dealing with or not taking action. It’s about adopting a mindset in which your story, mind, and emotions are a strong foundation for staying focused, strategic, and effective in navigating tough circumstances.
You might even find that this balanced outlook is contagious. Together, we can create a better future—and appreciate the path along the way.
Keith Kurlander, MA, LPC, is a cofounder of the Integrative Psychiatry Institute and Integrative Psychiatry Centers as well as a cohost of The Higher Practice Podcast. He earned his master’s degree in transpersonal counseling psychology from Naropa University, and he has practiced integrative psychotherapy and coaching with individuals, couples, and groups for over fifteen years.
Will Van Derveer, MD, is a cofounder of the Integrative Psychiatry Institute, which teaches doctors how to recognize and resolve the root causes of mental illness. His clinic in Boulder, Colorado, provides integrative psychiatry and ketamine-assisted psychotherapy for treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. In addition to his psychiatry practice and teaching, he has been involved with several studies sponsored by MAPS investigating MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for chronic treatment-resistant PTSD. He is trained in somatic experiencing, EMDR, internal family systems, and other psychotherapy techniques. Van Derveer earned his BA from the University of Pennsylvania and his MD from Vanderbilt University, and he is a diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine.