Why is my mental health harder to manage during times of anxiety?
Our brains are organized by repeated patterns.
We learn, at a very early age, that the sun comes up in the morning, and at night, it is dark. Since this happens every single day, our brains catalog it as something we don’t have to wonder about or worry about or watch for. When things change, it is only natural that our brains go “wait a minute — this isn’t what I’m used to!” and anxiety, depression, and other mental challenges can be exacerbated. Structure reduces anxiety, so when there is less that we feel we can predict, anxiety (and all un-desirable mental reactions) are likely to flare up.
One way to help manage this is to give yourself certainty in uncertain times.
- We may not know when we can be with people again.
And, we can be certain that, when we pre-plan how our day will be structured, we know when we’ll wake up, what tasks we need to do right away to prepare for the day, and what activities are important to accomplish before lunchtime.
- We may not know whether a loved one’s health will improve.
And, we can be certain that every afternoon, we take 10 minutes to refocus and do some deep belly breathing.
- We may not know how we will manage money in the coming weeks.
And, we can be certain that every night before bed, we will say a prayer, think about what there is to be grateful for, or send positive wishes to everyone else who is struggling at this time.
It’s a natural human instinct to favor certainty and to experience stress in ambiguous situations. We like feeling in control and we crave predictability. Uncertainty often feels threatening because we do not have confidence in the outcome due to a lack of information or conflicting information. This is disconcerting.
It’s important to note that everyone reacts differently to situations. It’s normal to feel some anxiety and stress during a crisis. However, men who have a preexisting mental health issue are at greater risk during these times because they simply can’t tolerate any additional stress or uncertainty. Having frequent daily challenges or a big crisis tends to put them on overload. The result is a tendency toward excessive worrying, imagining undesirable outcomes, and feeling overwhelmed. This quickly deteriorates their mental health.
Ambiguous situations, although undesirable, are navigable. How we deal with ambiguity is largely based on our past experiences and our ability to trust. We can increase our tolerance for ambiguity by working with a trusted counselor so that when a crisis arrives, we have the tools in place to handle it effectively and with confidence.
Want more about managing uncertainty? Watch a recording of our Mind Matters at Home session titled We've Got This: How to Manage Uncertainty in Challenging Times.