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Dealing with Emotion in Uncertain Times

Dr. Mark E. Young, PhD Professor Emeritus

Fear is a natural response to the unknown, yet have you ever noticed that in uncertain situations your mind tends to amplify your fear by imagining the worst-case scenario rather than the most likely?

Try this experiment: Think for a moment about something that worries you. Draw a line between the two most extreme outcomes. For example, if I am worried about being laid off from my job at one end of the continuum, I write “I do not get laid off” and at the other end, “I am laid off for a long time.” Consider which of the two poles is the most likely—or is the most probable consequence somewhere in the middle? The mind seizes upon the worst outcome as a way of preparing us for danger, even though there are many ways things can work out. Preparing and thinking works in situations where we have control, but, in situations where we don’t, worrying doesn’t help us deal with tomorrow’s problem: It takes away today’s peace.

What is the answer to the mind’s tendency to engage in unproductive worry?  I have two suggestions, and both have to do with taming the out-of-control mind:

  • The first is to stop the mind in its tracks as soon as we begin to ruminate.

Like a snowball rolling downhill, it gets larger the longer we let it go. It is these thoughts that create fear more than the situation itself.  We can stop the mind by pausing, perhaps saying a mental, “Stop!”  With the racing thoughts disrupted, we have a rational conversation with ourselves, disputing the catastrophic conclusions that our mind creates, and urging our mind to consider the most likely—not the direst—consequences.

  • The second solution is to quiet the mind through meditation.

Meditation is a process where we shift our focus away from our thoughts by repeating a mental mantra, name of God, or calming word like “serenity” or “love.” To practice meditation, sit very still with eyes closed and stare into the middle of the darkness in front of you, paying no attention to breathing or the body below. Try to look gently as if you were watching a television screen. Don’t put pressure on your eyes or forehead. When you become distracted by thoughts, simply return your gaze to the center and continue repeating your chosen mantra.  If you sit quietly for just ten minutes, you will begin to experience positive emotions, and this effect increases the more you practice.

The positive emotions counteract negative feelings like anxiety. Moreover, as our thoughts diminish, we are not adding fuel to the fire of our fears. According to research, when we are at peace, we are more likely to think of constructive solutions to our problems, whereas fear tends to shrink our creativity and create tunnel vision.

We have tended to rely on acting and thinking to solve life’s problems, but when we have little control, perhaps the best advice is, “Don’t just do something; sit still!”

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