In the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and the worldwide demonstrations against racism, many of us have begun to feel a soul-crushing sense of heightened anxiety and emotional exhaustion. The world is changing, has changed, and will continue to change despite our longing to regain a sense of normalcy. How can we stop coping and start living again? Three little words with a huge impact: Stop, Look, Listen.

Although worry and anxiety are natural emotions and part of our psychological immune system, current challenges have super-sized them. Many of us are feeling constantly unsettled, overstressed, and in constant fear.

The problem is that our psychological immune system has been thrown out of balance. A healthy functioning system has three main duties: 1) to alert to danger, 2) to become vigilant of possible scenarios, and 3) to help create proactive solutions. Unfortunately, many of us get stuck in those first two functions. This ensuing mind-chatter loop harms, rather than helps, by ramping up fear. It also leads to the release of adrenaline and cortisol that can also dampen our biological immune system.

The solution is to integrate and coordinate all three aspects of our psychological immune system. When we become stuck in “terribilizing,” it’s time to simply engage another process called “possibilizing,” i.e., finding positive, proactive possibilities. This third facet empowers, not weakens.

If you find yourself tumbling into the OVERS and UNDERS (such as over-worry, over-stressing, under-sleeping, under-enjoying, etc.), choose instead to consciously and purposely rebalance with the STOP-LOOK-LISTEN technique.

Here’s how it works:

STOP: To put the brakes on negative runaway thoughts, first, tune into and “hear” the negative chatter. Now, internally and firmly state, STOP! See a red octagonal stop sign in your mind’s eye. Break the landslide of negativity. You may have just awakened and remembered yesterday’s disturbing news, your sagging finances, or anticipate another trying day. Pay attention to such thoughts, but only to observe and then to STOP that raging train by simple awareness.

LOOK: Come back to the present moment by looking around at your surroundings. Notice what you see, seek those details that you may not have paid attention to before. Look for things you like, images that give you a good feeling. Dropping an anchor into the present moment can pull you back from what many fear, a potentially scary future. Focusing on the here and now, while deeply breathing and finding something that brings joy breaks the pattern of doom and gloom, energizes your coping mechanisms, and balances your fight or flight system. Breathe into the present moment.

LISTEN: Your two most powerful allies in life are Awareness and Choice. By first becoming aware of how your mind can steer you in the wrong direction, you can then choose to sail a different course. “Listen” allows that quiet inner voice to support, empower, and create dialogs filled with positive possibilities. If you don’t already have a mental toolbox of helpful dialogs, create it now. Here are some examples of how to possibilize:

  • I am grateful for help and guidance from the highest sources.
  • I am strong and powerful.
  • I’ll handle it, always have, always will.
  • I accept what I cannot change.
  • I am calm, confident, and connected to spirit.
  • This, too, shall pass!

We cannot control what happens in life: pandemics happen…racism happens. But, our reactions, views, and actions we subsequently take are strictly up to us. What can you do to create a better world, a better you? Be open and focus on the feeling you’d like to create. Nature will help you fill in the specifics.

These challenging times also afford opportunities to improve our lives and how we interact with the world. We can embrace a greater compassion for ourselves, others, and Mother Earth. We can create new opportunities for health. We can take actions to solve racial inequities and other problems. By focusing on what we can do, rather than what we can’t, we create a soul-enhancing sense of heightened kindness and emotional well-being. Where there is peace, there is no room for fear.

About the author(s)

Kathryn Tristan is a Research Scientist and Assistant Professor of Medicine on the faculty of Washington University School of Medicine. She is a prolific writer with more than 300 articles in leading scientific or lay publications and has written two self-help books. The most recent is, Why Worry? Stop Coping and Start Living. Her passion is speaking and writing about how to focus our minds to overcome worry and anxiety using simple and easy tools of the mind, body and spirit.