'I Can't Stop Worrying About The Entire World'

Forgive yourself. Get practical. Cultivate toughness.

At Close of Day (1941) by Maxfield Parrish

Dear Polly, 

I feel seized by anxiety. I have elderly parents and I'm terrified of something happening to them. My parents are strong. They are survivors. They survived a war, genocide, and came to America as refugees with nothing and built a life for us. But they're OLD. And on top of worrying about them getting the virus, I'm so scared of the people around them. Because people can be ugly and cruel and my parents are Cambodian but could possibly look Chinese (if you squint and know absolutely nothing about anything, probably) and have already faced some microaggressions in the past few weeks. I can't stop worrying, even though my family, therapist, and everyone else around me have told me that it'll be fine. But it doesn't feel fine!! At all!! 

On top of that, I can't stop worrying about the ENTIRE WORLD. I work in government, so every day for the past week has been filled with conversations about COVID-19, and I'm sure that contributes to my fears and anxieties. But I keep thinking and believing that we are all going to die and life is going to change as we know it and like, the world was already horrible. Before everything with COVID-19 blew up, I had to step away from the news because seeing people around the world starving and in pain, politicians being selfish, governments being cruel, the environment dying, and everything else made me unbearably sad. I feel like we failed everyone that needed our help. And now, COVID-19 is just making all of the disparities more apparent. I can't stop crying when I see photos of elderly people looking for toilet paper when the shelves are empty. And I feel so selfish for feeling overwhelmed because maybe I could be making a difference or helping but I can't because everything is Too Much Right Now. 

And on another, final, selfish note. I all of my teenage years (I'm 22) wanting to die. But now, for the first time I can remember, I actually want to live. Because life might suck a lot but also I've learned to find the beauty in the ordinary and I want to make a difference and live. AND WE ALL MIGHT DIE WHICH REALLY SUCKS. And it feels so selfish, but there's this part of me that's like, seriously, universe? Once I want to live, you decide that you're going to unleash this deadly virus. Cool cool cool. 

For the past few years, I've really struggled with how harsh the world can be. I cry thinking about my parents and all they've endured and how I can't fix it. I can't sleep worrying about my friends and hoping that they're happy. I can't focus after thinking about people that are struggling, that don't have enough money or food, that are struggling with physical or mental illness, that are living through hell. And I haven't gotten the chance to really work through it with my therapist and now I'm like, WILL I EVER GET TO BECAUSE WHAT IF WE ALL DIE. 

Anyway, would love your advice. How do we keep on going in these times? What if we're plunged into darkness? Do you think humanity will show its best side or its worst side? And if we survive, will the individualism of Americans show that maybe, just, maybe, we weren't worth saving after all?

Hopeless Yet Hopeful 

Dear Hopeless Yet Hopeful,

This is how we keep going: We figure out what we need to survive under these conditions, and we do those things. Everyone’s needs vary. Everyone must manage their own particular sensitivities and circumstances. This pandemic is going to stretch every last one of us to our limits, no matter who we are, where we are, what we do, how we live. We’re about two weeks into this precipitous plunge into darkness in the U.S. So we’ve had some time to recognize the enormous, unprecedented worldwide crisis we’re facing. Today is a very good day to stop and reflect on what you, personally, need to get through this, and how you can meet those needs moving forward. It’s also a good day to ask yourself what you have to offer others.

Based on your letter, I’m going to recommend that you set up an online appointment with your therapist to talk about how you’ve been feeling. I want to strongly encourage you to discuss anxiety medication with her. It’s true that a lot of people will die from COVID-19. “Many people will die” is the sound of reality sinking in. “WHAT IF WE ALL DIE” is the sound of an anxiety disorder flaring up. You say you’re “seized” by anxiety, you’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts in the past, and you can’t stop worrying about the entire world. You need to take your severely anxious state of mind seriously right now. Call your therapist and request an appointment.

Your therapist might have to refer you to a psychiatrist, or ask you to call your primary care physician about prescribing medication. Make sure to follow up on anything that your therapist recommends. If your therapist doesn’t seem to take your state of mind all that seriously, reflect on whether or not that makes sense to you. Talk to your friends about it. Consider reaching out to another therapist. Talk to your physician directly. We find ourselves in extreme circumstances that will require us to reflect very thoughtfully on the conditions we personally require not just to muddle through another day under trying conditions, but to face a few months of the same conditions while the world appears to crumble around us.

I know that will sound frightening to you, in your current anxious state. If you don’t want to hear anything else about how big this event is and how dramatic its effect on all of our lives will be, you might consider logging off right now and making those phone calls to your therapist and your doctor. The bottom line is that from this point forward, you need to take your needs extremely seriously. We all do.

The first rule of getting through this incredibly difficult time is this: Give this moment the weight it deserves. The second rule is: Give your personal needs the weight they deserve. For many of us, that will require tuning in to ourselves in ways we haven’t managed before, reflecting on what we see, and forgiving ourselves for having specific traits that make this time difficult in very particular ways.

You will need things to get through this crisis that other people don’t need. Accept that right now. Figure out what you need. Give yourself what you need. If you can’t get exactly what you need, find a substitute. Keep looking. Don’t give up. Be a problem solver. Design your own goddamn oxygen mask, then put it on.

Is the oxygen flowing? Okay. Now you can breathe. Now you can consider the bigger picture.

Now I’m going to do something I basically never do in this column: I’m going to talk about cultivating toughness. I don’t talk about this directly because most of the problems I address here tend to translate “toughness” into other, more specific terms. Kicking a shitty boyfriend to the curb is a way of being tough about what you will and won’t accept from men you’re dating. Refusing to visit in-laws who are actively trying to poison you is a way of being tough about your own physical well-being. Asking a close friend for exactly what you need from them is a way of getting tough about not diminishing yourself for the sake of other people.

Right now, we’re living through the most dramatic worldwide crisis of our lifetimes. I have a friend who’s 94 years old and she says this crisis feels bigger than any war she’s lived through (keep in mind she’s been alive since 1925). If we’re going to get through this event and not torture ourselves with how hideously awful and terrifying it is every single day until we’re all tangled heaps of nerves decomposing on the floors of our apartments, we’re going to need to get tough.

What the fuck can it possibly mean to “get tough” when you’re suffering from anxiety? Am I echoing your parents or your friends who told you to stop whining and get your shit together back when you didn’t want to keep living another day? No. I want you to understand that the toughness I’m talking about is not about ignoring your feelings. It’s the opposite of that. I want you to cultivate a resilient, flexible, forgiving form of toughness that takes ALL of your feelings and your particular reality into account, and works with these things. That’s pragmatism. I want you to become a problem-solver inside the realm of the extremely forgivable and concrete circumstances that you’re facing. I want you to look closely at your very specific challenges — for example, you can’t read the news for more than 5 minutes without getting a headache, you’ve been waking up with racing thoughts in your head, you can’t get motivated to clean your kitchen and it’s starting to bring you down, you can’t sleep at night and you feel sick all day. I want you to write down 3-5 ways of handling or at least just acknowledging and making some room for each of your very specific challenges. And then, I want you to experiment with these solutions and approaches, and write down what’s helping and what isn’t. I want you to become a scientist of your own problems and struggles and needs: Make a hypothesis, gather data, draw conclusions about what’s working and what’s not. Take copious notes.

That process alone will help you, trust me. Even if you’re discouraged and sad the whole time you’re processing this stuff and writing it down and trying things out, it’s going to help you to witness yourself working hard to solve your own problems. Solving your own problems will make you feel tougher. You’ll notice how much you’re capable of. You’ll notice how calm you get when you’re doing something that’s actually working for you. You’ll observe yourself working hard and succeeding at something that has felt impossible in the past. And you’ll learn from the times when you struggle or fail to do what you tried to do. Struggle tells you something isn’t working.

Any time you struggle, forgive yourself for that. Ask yourself what narrative set in around that struggle. Did you start to tell yourself that there’s something deeply wrong and bad and weak about the fact that YOU struggle with THIS ONE THING? Banish all shameful narratives about why you suck. Do that alone, relentlessly, and I guarantee you that you’ll feel tougher immediately. We’re all different. We all have our shit. Make some room for your shit, period. That’s what people do during a crisis: They accept that they are not perfect heroic warriors and they work with WHO THEY ACTUALLY ARE instead.

Nothing has changed my life more than making some room for who I am and refusing to tell shitty stories about what’s wrong with me. Contrary to our culture’s merciless and deeply stupid ideas about what it means to cultivate compassion for yourself and take care of yourself, these things have made me tougher, more principled, more responsible, and more compassionate toward others.

Paradoxical though it may sound, you cultivate toughness by being extremely kind and forgiving to yourself. Most people who love the word “tough” skip this part, and then, a few weeks down the line, they fall apart. But people who have to be tough for their jobs or their kids or their sick relatives know very well that toughness relies on staying very connected to your own needs. Giving to yourself, even when you feel okay, is going to play a big role in helping you to get through the next few months.

So once you’ve done one thing that’s very difficult (for you that might mean calling your therapist, if you’ve been avoiding it, or calling your parents in spite of the anxiety that kicks up), try to spend a few hours doing something that usually calms you down. Read, watch a movie, exercise, paint, call your friends, stretch, meditate, make a fucked up TikTok, play some video games, take a nap. Get creative. Try new things. Indulge yourself.

Toughness requires staying in touch with your body. If you’re in pain, your thoughts are racing, you can’t concentrate, you’re starting to shut down? You have to notice these things and also notice the warning signs that set in BEFORE things get really bad. When things start to fray, you stop what you’re doing, shift gears, and try something else. When you start to think, “Thanks a lot for fucking me in unique ways at the exact wrong time, universe!” imagine 5 people who are getting much, much, much more fucked than you are by these circumstances.

Toughness means entering a state of extreme pragmatism. Personally, my days are constructed from a series of concrete tasks designed to keep myself and my family together. Sweeping questions and unknowns are only explored in my writing, or examined when I’m feeling optimistic. When dread sets in, I reframe it or back up or find a distraction to calm me down. I pay very close attention to the times when I slip into circular or very dark thoughts. When I land there, I ask myself what I need: Rest? Food? A break? An escape? This sometimes includes saying no to someone in my family, or leaving a crowded room, or blowing something off, or telling a boss or editor what I can and can’t do. What might look like selfishness to you at a different time could be part of your survival right now.

Sometimes you have to ignore the entire world and think small. Define the scope of what you’re responsible for right now, and craft your days around those responsibilities. One of the big burdens of the way we live now is the recurring sensation that every last one of us needs to find some way to solve the world’s problems. You cannot solve the world’s problems by yourself. You can do your best to focus on one or two areas where you have something to offer: time and energy, or expertise and money, curiosity and a platform. When you don’t have any of these things, when you feel depleted and afraid, you take care of yourself instead. You cultivate toughness by figuring out concrete ways you might help others. No one gets tough by taking on everything under the sun or feeling guilty about not doing things they have no affinity for.

Finally, you ask in your letter, “What if we’re plunged into darkness?” Listen. This IS darkness. It’s getting darker by the minute. Trust me, you’re already grappling with how bad things are, whether you know it consciously or not. It will get worse.

It’s time to adjust to the severity of what we’re facing. I want you to take the knowledge that millions of people will have it much worse than you do, and I want you to use that not to increase your anxiety, but to shift yourself into emergency mode. Emergency mode is not “What will happen next?” Emergency mode is “This is happening right now.” A very difficult reality has taken hold of our lives. Reality is scary at the moment. Nothing is going to change that. This is the terrain on which we need to survive.

Anxiety is baked into this landscape. Go ahead and notice that and acknowledge it and try to accept the fact that we are all going to feel anxious at times, within reason. Now that you’ve been plunged into darkness and you’re anxious and you’re ACTIVELY ADDRESSING YOUR ANXIETY with your therapist and doctor — what next? You have to figure out how to survive.

Survival depends on hard work, every single day, guided by an extremely pragmatic approach to living in reality. Some conscious embrace of fantasy might be necessary here. Flights of fancy may be required. Reaching out to other people who are enduring the same dark reality will be crucial. But most of all — and this will be a sea change for many people — you have to turn your back on your panicky thoughts and sweeping questions instead of indulging them. You cannot afford to dive straight into the darkness of your interior self at this moment in history. You have to live in each moment and be practical.

Because even under extreme duress, there is NOTHING WORSE THAN PANIC. The darkest reality of all — war, sickness, death — is always, always better than the pure torture of anticipating and imagining that reality. Panic is the worst case scenario. Panic is agonizing and exhausting. And it sounds like you’ve been panicking for at least a week now. So back up and get concrete: Call your therapist and your doctor. Go from there.

Cultivating toughness means putting your challenges into perspective, and also preparing to survive the unknowns ahead. At the start of World War II, many young people must’ve been panicking. Some of them got on planes and landed on the beaches of Normandy. Some of them got on planes and the planes fell apart in mid-air. Read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. Read The Thin Red Line by James Jones. The world was plunged into darkness for years. People adjusted. They let go of the big picture and focused on reality. And when the history books recorded what happened during those dark years, they didn’t tell many interesting stories about the people who spent several hours a day panicking about the fact that WE ALL MIGHT DIE.

Please hear the forgiveness in my words when I tell you that. I am right there with you. We aren’t weak people, we’re sensitive people. That’s why we have to get serious about who we are and make careful choices. We don’t have to be strong enough to bravely storm the beaches at Normandy. No one is strong enough for that. No one who landed at Normandy felt brave. What I’m saying is that if you give in to this darkness, you’ll be more unhappy for longer than anyone on that beach, and you’ll emerge from this shit storm with nothing to show for it.

I want you to feel good and tough and heroic instead, okay? It’s time to start planning how you’re going to get through this. It’s time to start asking what you have to offer this world. You might decide that you’re going to sew surgical masks. You might decide that you’re going to inform your friends about social distancing. You might decide that your primary job is to make sure your parents stay at home and stay safe from racist strangers. You might decide to do two or three of those things and also exercise every single day in order to calm your panicky mind. Or, you could simply decide that, along with doing your job, you’re going to grow some flowers, learn to make homemade bread, and read 10 books over the course of the next month.

You can do anything you want, really. The one thing I don’t want you to do is think the same circular thoughts for hours at a time while doing nothing at all. The one thing I want you to avoid – this is your #1 job, okay? – is thinking about how WE ALL MIGHT DIE.

Do I understand how you feel? Do I empathize? Do I care? Of course I do. I feel this darkness down to my fucking bones. I know you’re very young and that makes it more difficult. You don’t have a lot of experience making your way in the world and overcoming shitty states of mind. But here you are. You’re alive. And as long as that’s true, you have to do your best. Honor the gravity of this moment. When you go through something this big, it changes your whole life. How this changes you depends on how carefully and thoughtfully you adjust to your challenges and make a plan that will help you to feel useful, and capable, and tough.

Humanity will show its best side and its worst side. Accept that now. Attune yourself to every silver lining. Read Viktor Frankl. This is how you survive: You work very hard each day, you forcibly wrestle your brain into a hopeful state as much as you humanly can, and you resist the urge to give in to despair.

You’re stronger than you think. Have faith in that fact. We will get through this. Open your eyes and take in what’s here, then get practical and stay practical. It’s going to be really hard. Keep trying your best to accept that. This is about survival. It’s simple. You breathe, and you keep going.

Polly


Heather Havrilesky is the author of Disaster Preparedness, How To Be A Person in the World, and What If This Were Enough?. The Cut’s Ask Polly column publishes every other Wednesday, and the new, free Ask Polly newsletter runs on the Wednesdays new columns don’t appear on The Cut. Write to Polly: askpolly@protonmail.com.