Negative emotions such as feeling anxiety and worry are inseparable from daily life. No matter how wise a person may be, there is no way of knowing what may come in the future. Everybody has some level of anxiety towards the uncertainty of their future. This may manifest as a fear of failure, or fear that disaster may strike at any moment. Especially when faced with an unprecedented situation, such as a major disaster or an epidemic of an infectious disease – including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic – pervasive anxiety feeling throughout society can plunge the world into further turmoil and panic. What can we do to prevent our minds from becoming consumed and controlled by anxiety? The first step is understanding what “anxiety” really is, where it comes from, and how to deal with it appropriately.
Do You Have a Constant Feeling of Anxiety?
When we are feeling anxious or worried about something, it tends to consume our thoughts, making us feel uncomfortable. As a result, we become easily irritated, have trouble sleeping, and feel various kinds of stress. The field of psychology defines “worry” in the following way:
A chain of thoughts and images, negatively affect-laden and relatively uncontrollable. The worry process represents an attempt to engage in mental problem-solving on an issue whose outcome is uncertain but contains the possibility of one or more negative outcomes.Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983).
The field of psychology considers “worry” as a way of coping with stress in itself. If anxiety is understood as a natural protective reaction, it would be more of a friend, not an enemy.
What Happens When We’re Feeling Anxiety?
Even though feeling anxiety and worry are ways of coping with stress, the fact remains that they are accompanied by negative emotions. And negative emotions can sometimes drive us to act in ways that are detrimental to ourselves and others, and society. What do we do when anxiety takes over our minds? Knowing exactly how to respond is the key to avoiding unwanted reactions and remaining calm when anxiety strikes.
1. Collecting and Sharing Too Much Information
Anxiety is an emotion that arises in response to a problem that may have an undesired outcome. To relieve the feeling of anxiety, we need to counteract the uncertainty of the outcome. As a result, anxious people try to gather a lot of information and share it with others. Especially in times of disaster, when the whole society is facing a great sense of anxiety, the internet becomes overrun with information much more than usual. False information is sometimes spread in the form of rumors and false accusations, causing people to fall into further confusion. This has been observed throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic as well.
It may be fresh in your mind that during the initial spread of the coronavirus pandemic, many people bought up and hoarded toilet paper. This was because of a rumor that there would be a shortage of toilet paper. In times of emergency, many people tend to collect and spread information excessively as a result of their constant anxiety feeling. This increases the need for higher “information literacy” (the ability to collect, organize, and disseminate necessary information).
2. Transferring Your Anxiety Into Aggression
When people have a strong anxiety feeling, they may try to resolve it by translating it into aggression toward others. In these situations, as the person becomes overwhelmed with an anxiety feeling, they lose their mental capacity to stay calm. As a result, they can potentially become easily irritated or even aggressive over trivial matters. In addition, when they are attempting to take action to relieve their anxiety, and they perceive other people or things as interference, they seem to fall into the psychological trap of wanting to attack and eliminate them. Many infected people and healthcare workers experienced discrimination and slander during the initial spread of the coronavirus pandemic. This may have been the result of many people’s attempts to relieve their pervasive anxiety feeling by transferring it into aggression.
3. Inspiring Support and Solidarity
When a major disruption occurs in a society, overcritical and aggressive feelings increase among people. On the other hand, calls for support and unity increase as well. Participating in support activities such as volunteering is a direct effort to solve whatever problem may be at hand. It is also an action that reduces the “uncertainty of the event” that causes anxiety feelings.
Support typically comes from good intentions to help those in need. It is, however, also a self-help action to alleviate one’s own sense of anxiety through helping others. In times of social turmoil, there are also people who inspire unity in order to dispel anxiety. According to a survey conducted across Japan after the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011, researchers found the following results.
Over half of the respondents called for the necessity of “unity” and “support” from the country’s leaders, through survey responses such as “I believe that politicians who cannot unite in this national crisis are a problem” (54.3%) and “The government should do more to support the disaster-stricken areas” (46.5%). In addition, “Japan should be united” (38.7%) and “I am proud of the Japanese people” (25.8%) were two examples of the heightened awareness for the need of “unity” and “support,” likened to the heightened sense of nationalism associated with mid- and post-war Japan.Sekiya, N. (2012).
It is important to note, however, that while many people use the word “unity” in a positive sense, calling for unity out of a sense of insecurity can lead to peer pressure. This can, in turn, lead to the exclusion of those who do not share the same values.
How to Dispell Your Anxiety
When we experience heightened anxiety in our daily lives, it is important to deal with it appropriately. Following this, we must first determine if the problem is one that can be managed through individual actions alone. For example, you may have a personal financial situation or health problem that you can solve or improve through your own actions. In this case, you can ease your anxiety feeling by taking coping actions focused on solving the problem. This includes actions such as saving money or going to the hospital for a checkup.
On the other hand, in the midst of social turmoil and economic uncertainty caused by natural disasters, including the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it is difficult to deal with the problem through actions on an individual level. In such cases, instead of focusing on the problem, one may be able to reduce anxiety by focusing on one’s own physical and mental state. For example, keeping a regular routine and finding appropriate ways to change one’s mood when necessary. In summary, the keys to effectively alleviating or reducing your anxiety are as follows:
- If you can solve the source of anxiety through your own actions, you should focus on solving this problem.
- If the problem is beyond your control, focus on your own physical and mental state.
In order to properly deal with a pervasive anxiety feeling, it is important to first determine the nature of the root cause.
Living Alongside a Pervasive “Anxiety Feeling”
Anxiety is an emotion that arises from the uncertainty of the future. However, since no one can predict the future, it may be impossible for us to completely eliminate anxiety in our lives. To avoid a pervasive anxiety feeling that hurts ourselves and others, we need to face our own actions more calmly and carefully than when society is in turmoil, especially now that we are in the coronavirus pandemic. However, it can be said that it is precisely because of our anxious nature as humans that we prepare and make efforts towards a brighter future. If this results in a happier future, then perhaps anxiety is a driving force for us to lead better lives.
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Borkovec, T. D., Robinson, E., Pruzinsky, T., & DePree, J. A. (1983). Preliminary Exploration of Worry: Some Characteristics and Processes. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 21(1), 9–16. doi: 10.1016/0005-7967(83)90121-3
Sekiya, N. (2012). Anxiety and Information Behavior After the Great East Japan Earthquake. The Journal of Information Science and Technology Association 62(9), 372-377. doi: 10.18919/jkg.62.9_372
Sugiura, Y. (2001). Coping Strategies Related to the Uncontrollability of Thoughts: Information Avoidance, Information Seeking, Solution Generation, and Worry. The Japanese Journal of Educational Psychology, 49(2), 186-197. doi: 10.5926/jjep1953.49.2_186