I watched a lot of dystopian movies as a kid. I was always fascinated by how things could just seem to fall apart so easily, but bear a slight resemblance to the functioning societies that we live in. To me, these movies were almost the uncanny valley equivalent of our world. These places were similar enough to us that we could almost live in them, but obscure enough that they still would give us anxiety, that queasy feeling in our stomachs.
One of the most vivid memories I have of the last few years was the weekly drive home from work around Paris at 4 am on a Friday. Something felt eerie about driving next to the Louvre while looking out onto an empty plaza and seeing few signs of life. It felt out of place. I wasn’t scared, I wasn’t worried, but it wasn’t ordinary. I could never quite put my finger on why it felt like a dream world to me.
It was almost as if my reality was shifted. It was the uncanny valley of my own reality, and a pit grew in my stomach. That feeling in my stomach followed me back to my apartment and up the two flights of stairs. Usually, it took me a while to wind down and fall asleep. As soon as I woke up at noon, this feeling was gone, the world around me bright and sunny once again.
I hadn’t had this feeling in a while.
But right before bed last night, I came across a photo of one lonely person in a face mask walking across the square in front of the Opera Garnier. The feeling suddenly came rushing back into my stomach. It filled every inch of my body with something that wasn’t fear, or dread, or anxiety, but just genuine confusion.
Maybe this is why we like dystopian movies so much. They give us something to think about, something to process and shake us up from the monotony of routine. They make us stop and think about what we would do in a situation where kids are sent off to war, or the sky is a bubble. Most of us don’t need our survival instincts on a daily basis. Dystopias are make-believe, a way for us to imagine ourselves in uncanny societies not too different from our own.
I couldn’t fall asleep after that feeling washed over me.
I just stared at the photo for far too long. The initial feeling of confusion turned into anxiety, starting the spiral of what-ifs and why-nots, each possibility more anxiety-producing than the first.
In the last year, I’ve had an immense amount of personal growth, but also dealt with significant loss, fear, and trauma. I do not believe these things to be unrelated. I have, however, begun to ask myself about when it is okay to embrace the negative emotions, and when I need to find the silver lining.
Ideally, I acknowledge and name my negative emotions while still maintaining a positive mindset, but if I feel like I’m in a dystopian dream world, it’s difficult to identify and appropriately deal with them. And until I saw that picture, I realized that this “dream-like” state is how I have felt for a couple of days. The picture was the just catalyst to shift that state into one of anxiety and fear.
On Saturday, I was walking down the street and remarked to my partner that it felt like we were on a Disney set of a city. Things were too clean, too quiet, the sun felt bright but it wasn’t emitting any heat. People clad in green glitter shouted from rooftops, but it almost felt like it was being played on a stereo. It was a new version of my uncanny valley, one in which the world was slowing down just enough for us to realize what was coming. It felt like a dystopian movie, albeit maybe one that veered more towards a comedy. (Ryan Reynolds, if you’re reading this, I have the perfect role for you).
Tonight, upon realizing that this pit in my stomach has been there for at least a few days, I took some concrete steps to action to feel a little less dread and anxiety about the current state of affairs.
I present to you- my unofficial guide to Anxiety and Unease Management for Stressy People.
Some of this is just me parroting what my therapists have told me over the years. Some of it is due to personal exploration and research from people who are more qualified than I am to talk about this.
This is a fairly comprehensive list of what I’m doing to manage my dread, but if you have concerns about long-term health consequences or have thoughts of harming yourself, please call 1-800-662-HELP and seek professional help.
Make a schedule
If you suffer from anxiety, you may either fall into the category of planning everything out each second or completely abandoning everything to sit around and dwell on your thoughts. Sometimes you swing between the two extremes, going from a Google Calendar extraordinaire to a beer-loving college freshman who just realized classes aren’t mandatory. I do this anytime things get stressy, and unsurprisingly, it makes me feel worse.
I’ll write a full article about this, but what I consider “scheduling” in uncertain times can be as simple as setting an alarm and having a . bedtime. This means definitely NOT staying up until 2 am reading about statistical methods in epidemiology, because I definitely did not do that last night… ~progress not perfection~
Learn to accept uncertainty
Much easier said than done, but it takes practice. This is a weird time, and there are admittedly a LOT of uncertain things occurring. I really enjoy this activity to ground yourself and recognize which tasks are causing anxiety, which ones you can control, and which ones are uncertain. This article gives a fairly comprehensive guide to improving your tolerance for uncertainty.
Give yourself “worry time”
Worry time is one of the hardest tasks I’ve ever been given in therapy. I found myself thinking, “Well duh, if I could just turn off my worries, I would!” After trying multiple unsuccessful methods for weeks, I found that the best way for me to have “worry time” was to write down my worry along with the first solution that popped into my head at the time, then come back at the end of the day for 15 minutes to assess it all.
I’m guilty of it as much as the next person. Even though I’ve curated my Instagram and Twitter feeds to reflect my interests, rather than give me unrealistic expectations of what my life could look like, it’s hard to feel super positive about things when 90% of my follows are public health professionals. And overuse of social media can actually be dangerous. In adolescents, suicidal ideation/major depression is 34% higher in those who use their devices 3+ hours a day compared with those who use them only 2 hours or less.
As someone whose prefrontal cortex (~feeling 22~) isn’t fully developed, I would imagine that the results among those in their early twenties aren’t THAT disparate given that the latest brain regions to develop are frequently implicated in depression and anxiety. Setting reminders on apps or within your phone can be a great way to manage this. Additionally, I’ve been a fan of writing down every time I feel like pulling out my phone to scroll. Being conscious of why we use our phones helps us analyze why we feel we need them.
Utilize resources to devote time to “therapeutic” tasks
I am a huge advocate of therapy, but I also realize that in addition to the current constraints put on in-person therapy, therapy is not accessible to a large number of people, and finding a therapist that understands you, your identities, and background can be a challenge. I am not sponsored to link to any of these things, they’re just things I legitimately enjoy.
How to be Happy (Or at Least Less Sad), Lee Crutchley
This book makes coaching yourself our of a slump kind of…fun? It’s filled with plenty of spaces to doodle and brainstorm, and asks the tough questions that sometimes we are too afraid to face. It isn’t something that you’ll get through in a day, and I would advise spending a short chunk of time on it a day rather than powering through.
Rewire, Richard O’Connor, PhD
This book is admittedly more clinical, so I would recommend it for those who feel the need to understand the underlying mechanisms causing their anxiety and how to overcome them.
Meditation with Headspace/Calm/Insight Timer
Headspace and Calm are both $12.99 a month for guided meditations and “sleepcasts”. I have used both and like them, but I don’t use them enough to justify paying for them, and I don’t personally find that there is a significant benefit over free apps.
Insight Timer is a free option, with many guided meditations. Some are admittedly a little weird, but after finding a few good ones, I have kept those on rotation and play those. One of the benefits of using the same meditation frequently is that I almost memorize it, and can pull up the “script” in my head whenever I am feeling anxious or overwhelmed.
I tend to be the type of person who processes my emotions best when I am writing in a journal, but my journaling is highly inconsistent and sometimes I don’t really follow up with my general patterns in mood or what is impacting them. Daylio does a quick check-in each day with some auto-generated options about your day. It’s simplistic but useful to see how your mood changes over time.
UpLift is another app I like that has a similar “check-in” mode, but it pairs these check ins with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) tools. There are a plethora of journaling apps out there, so I recommend checking out some of the journaling apps out there and seeing what works well for you.
Yoga (online!) with Adriene
I have never been a huge fan of going to yoga class. When I am stressed out, the last thing I want to do is be around a bunch of women in cute matching sets who seem to not sweat in a 100-degree room. Although I have fairly high self-esteem, I do still have limits. This is probably old news to anyone who is actually into yoga, but Yoga with Adriene is the BEST YouTube channel I have found for this. I get the mental benefits as well as the physical benefits that yoga aficionados tend to rave about. (Without having to leave my room or put on pants). Her voice is 10/10 calming and her dog is adorable.
I’m actively trying to break up that pit in my stomach and snap myself out of it. It’s a little hard to do when this is a tense time, even for the least anxious among us. Trying to be intentional with my time and my emotions is my goal for this challenging period, but I’m also not going to beat myself up for binging Season 3 of Elite in a day.
Be gentle with yourselves, and let me know what your best methods are for managing your mental health when sh*t hits the fan.