When uncertainty and anxiety come calling

People respond to negative stimuli in their own way. What does it take to ignore the negativity and find a workaround for the stress?

Charles Assisi

[Image by Lars_Nissen from Pixabay]

Soon after the lockdown was enforced, a practising psychologist told me he was bracing to counsel people impacted mentally by it. I filed that conversation away, thinking I’d write about it sometime, once corresponding data had emerged. What I hadn’t imagined was that 50-odd days into the lockdown, it would hit so close to home.

Last week, my wife, an otherwise unflappable woman, woke up in the middle of the night, sweating and in tears, trying to tell me she was choking and feeling very afraid. She wasn’t choking on anything. She was imagining it. All I could do was talk her into calming down. She eventually did, fell asleep and woke up looking rather sheepish.

The next day, we joked about the melodrama of the night that had passed us by. Until a few hours later, when the episode recurred.

This time around, no amount of talking would calm her down. I called the same psychologist friend, who got a psychiatrist on the line as well. The professionals heard her out and diagnosed an anxiety attack. They prescribed a drug to calm her and life at home returned to normal, if such a term can be used for life under lockdown.

When I asked them what may have triggered these episodes, they said preliminary evidence suggested it was her response to “too much negative stimuli around us”.

Almost immediately, I thought I could see what I suspect are anxiety attacks all around. A friend from school, well-loved for his sense of humour, has morphed into a person who converses only in cuss words. Another friend whom I turn to often for financial advice now mumbles philosophy that sounds philosophical only to him.

Are people responding to negative stimuli in their own ways? How long until I respond to these negative stimuli too? What may it take to ignore the negativity and find a workaround for the stress? Serendipity led me to look up Leo Babauta, a leadership coach and writer whose work I used to follow on zenhabits.net a long while ago.

Among his recent posts, I stumbled across a podcast of him discussing the fear people feel during a crisis. Fear, he said, is an emotion. But unlike our other emotions, most of which we acknowledge and deal with, we are not trained to acknowledge fear. So when it strikes, we either ignore it or pretend we don’t feel it.

In the current crisis, there is fear and uncertainty. All of us deal with uncertainty in different ways. People like me adopt a know-it-all approach. That is why, I guess, I find myself scouring for data. Existing data has failed me. I need new data to help me comprehend the world.

Babauta would say I am setting myself up for failure. Instead, he suggests, acknowledge the uncertainty, and the fear. Doing that is half the battle won.

The other half is acknowledging that when the history of uncertainty is studied, it emerges that we humans are primed to deal with it. Once we have identified a challenge, we step up, adapt, survive.

And in little ways, we’ve been doing it every day. Even as I write this, I don’t know what the next line may be; how it will read; whether it will need to be rewritten. It’s uncertain. But I write.

Assuming I write and complete this piece, there is no way I can be certain it will pass muster with my editors. Uncertain again. But I mail it in.

If this does pass muster, neither I nor my editors will know how many readers may take to it. Uncertain again. We deal with it all the time.

Of course, this sounds good in theory. But how is one to do it? How does one master the art of dealing with uncertainty?

The 20th-century Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa places things in perspective with a metaphor that takes a while to wrap one’s head around. “The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.” This explains why we feel as fearful as we do. “The good news is, there’s no ground.” It takes much equanimity to embrace good news of this kind.

(This article was first published in Hindustan Times.)

Still curious? Here’s a 7-day practical plan to cultivate resilience in a crisis.

About the author

Charles Assisi
Charles Assisi

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Charles Assisi is an award-winning journalist with two decades of experience to back him. He is co-founder and director at Founding Fuel, and co-author of the book The Aadhaar Effect. He is a columnist for Hindustan Times, one of India's most influential English newspaper. He is vocal in his views on journalism and what shape it ought to take in India. He speaks on the theme at various forums and is often invited by various organizations to teach their teams how to write.

In his last assignment, he wore two hats: That of Managing Editor at Forbes India and Editor at ForbesLife India. As part of the leadership team, his mandate was to create a distinctive business title in a market many thought was saturated. When Forbes India was finally launched after much brainstorming and thinking through, it broke through the ranks and got to be recognized as the most influential business magazine in the country. He did much the same thing with ForbesLife India where he broke from convention and launched the title to critical acclaim.

Before that, he was National Technology Editor and National Business Editor at the Times of India, during the great newspaper wars of 2005. He was part of the team that ensured Times of India maintained top dog status in Mumbai on the face of assaults by DNA and Hindustan Times.

His first big gig came in his late twenties when German media house Vogel Burda marked its India debut with CHIP a wildly popular technology magazine. He was appointed Editor and given a free run to create what he wanted. During this stint, he worked and interacted with all of Vogel Burda's various newsrooms across Europe and Asia.

Charles holds a Masters in Economics from Mumbai Universtity and an MBA in Finance. Along the way he earned the Madhu Valluri Award for Excellence in Journalism and the Polestar Award for Excellence in Business Journalism.

In his spare time, he reads voraciously across the board, but is biased towards psychology and the social sciences. He dabbles in various things that catch his fancy at various points. But as fancies go, many evaporate as often as they fall on him.