Managing our worries in worrying times

Neill Boddington, an OU mental health advisor, has some tips for managing our worries and helping you to be more resilient.

What does the planes inflight safety briefing tell us about wellbeing?

I want you to think about your last trip on a plane (sorry if I’ve reminded you of a cancelled holiday!) As the plane moves off and you have the safety briefing… I want you to consider the part where they explain what to do if there is a decline in cabin pressure… “Masks will drop from the ceiling, put yours on before helping others.”

Why are we instructed to put ours on first? Well, because of the importance of making sure you look after yourself. These unprecedented times we’re all living through now can be worrying and bring about feelings of anxiety and stress. News stories telling us of changes we must make about how we live our life or (let’s be honest) gossip and speculation, can also unsettle us. Then there are also children to entertain, work deadlines to meet, and not forgetting studying to fit in. Is it any wonder that we might find ourselves feeling stressed and anxious? So at times, we need to find ways to put ourselves first to help manage these feelings. 

Unfortunately, when we get stressed our brain can work against us. Thoughts and feelings are not always rational as we apply emotive reasoning created out of the ‘fight or flight’ response rather than logical thinking. We become ‘hijacked’ in our thoughts and irrational thinking patterns can take over. We’ve all done this. Just think about when you have reflected on a situation and said to yourself, “Why did I do that?”.


Different types of worries

Worry-based irrational thinking can cause us to catastrophise our thoughts and jump to the worst-case scenario, or irrationally scan for threats. Sticking with the plane example, this might be constantly watching the cabin crew to see if they look scared about a noise you just heard. We may also start to allow our emotions to create a false sense of reality. Again, sticking with the plane example, because you’re scared on the plane there must be a reason, and the reason must be there’s something wrong with the plane.

Knowledge of these thinking patterns can help us to recognise when our brains are being hijacked and can serve as a cue for us to act. Once we understand a bit more about what our brains are doing, we can start to place our worries into one of two categories; hypothetical or practical worries.

A hypothetical worry tends to be about the future and what might happen. Hypothetical worries tend to be about things we have no control over and are often ‘what if?’ in nature. For example, “What if the plane crashes?”. There is often little to no evidence that it will happen, and the worry is often born out of irrational thinking. That’s not to say these worries are not real. They can be very real causing a lot of stress and anxiety. Practical worries are more defined, specific and realistic. They tend to focus on a current situation and we often have more control over these types of worries. For example, “My TMA is due soon and I’m worried if I have enough time to complete it”. (If this is the situation, then this page will help with what you can control within this worry.)

A coping toolbox

To help manage our worries and stresses, we need what I like to call a ‘coping toolbox’. This toolbox is filled with various tools. The more tools we have, the more options we have available to deal with different situations.

These tools can be practical things that help us to remove or reduce the stressor. Sticking with the plane example, this could be taking shorter flights rather than long haul or booking onto a course to help you manage your fears around flying, hopefully teaching you that every ping and bang you hear is not a sign that the plane is about to crash.

Then we need some tools to cope with our emotions to keep us calm and relaxed. On the plane this could be things such as keeping yourself distracted with music or using some mindful breathing techniques. In everyday life this could be as simple as going for a walk, taking a bath, or spending some time with your grandchildren or friends.

The more tools we have, the more resilient we become, and the more resilient we are, the more likely we are to use our tools. In many cases, we already have the coping toolbox we need to be more resilient, we just don’t always open it. A good way to start putting together your toolbox is to think about self-care activities that make you feel happy and relaxed that can be done in five minutes, one hour or one day. For example, a five-minute activity could be making a cuppa and sitting in the garden. An hour’s activity could be calling your friend to catch up and a daylong activity could be a trip to the seaside.

To help you figure out the right tool to use, it’s useful to start planning ahead for different situations and what tools might help in that situation. For example, saying to yourself: “When______ happens (either how you’re thinking or feeling or what’s going on), I will cope with this by______.” You now have a plan if you feel worried or stressed.

Further support and ideas

You can discover more about your levels of resilience with the free Roberston Cooper iResilience report or find other ideas for your wellbeing with NHS Every mind matters. Take inspiration from the Action for Happiness calendars or listen to this short clip from the BBC’s All in the Mind.

(I’m so sorry if you have a flight booked soon, but it’s a good example to use as most people can relate to it! You’re totally going to be fine on your next holiday!)

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Neill Boddington
Neill is an Open University mental health advisor.


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