How to Shift Anxiety to Opportunity in the Unknown

How to Shift Anxiety to Opportunity in the Unknown

The uncertainty swirls around me and churns inside me. And with each turn, my anxiety builds.

I’m on the admin team at a small K-8 school in Boulder, Colorado, and as I write this, we are still wondering what back-to-school is going to look like a week from now. Will we really be able to use outdoor classrooms to create socially distanced learning? If so, how long will it be until a COVID-19 case forces us to move everything online? How will our students and my own kids cope with online instruction? When I step back, these uncertainties seem small compared to the bigger questions: Will our society and our culture ever recover? How will the pandemic affect our economy and our elections? Most importantly, is my family safe, and even if we are safe this time, could COVID-19 be only the first of many pandemics we face? As I ask these questions, the air is thick with wildfire smoke, with nothing but 95-degrees days in the foreseeable forecast.

Looking out into this sea of uncertainty, it seems impossible to make plans, like I’m trying to get from point A to point B, but the roads are constantly shifting like boiled spaghetti, and even the location of point B keeps changing. The uncertainty keeps me off balance. It swirls around me and churns inside me. And with each turn, my anxiety builds.

In March, April and even May, the solution seemed obvious: We would make lemonade from the lemons of the pandemic by using the time to reset our baseline — refinishing our deck, starting our garden, taking up socially distanced biking, and doing all the other stereotypical COVID-19 activities like baking sourdough and playing instruments. All of this was a way to push pause while the pandemic passed. But it didn’t pass. The pandemic is still here and the holding pattern of household activities is no longer powerful enough to keep anxiety at bay.

As a psychologist, it often takes me longer to recognize and deal with my own challenges than it does for me to identify and address my patients’ issues, and maybe that’s why it took me so long to realize an important truth: In this sea of uncertainty, we now have the opportunity to chart our own paths. In other words, instead of waiting for the world to sort itself out so that I can see my direction forward, now more than ever, I have the opportunity to proactively shape the future I want.

My kids would say this is like building Lego without instructions. The world is a pile of loose bricks. Before the pandemic, we could follow instructions to make a castle, a spaceship or a car. Now there are no instructions. And we can either sit here staring at the pile of loose bricks on the floor, or we can dive into that pile to create whatever we want. Maybe a giant robot butterfly! Or a fairy house! Or a dreamscape!

One thing I am constructing is a learning pod in which my kids and a small handful of others have a space for supervised online learning, close enough to walk to the rock climbing gym where they have practiced for years, where they will meet with their coach between online classes. It’s not easy: In exchange for handling all the logistics of this learning pod, we are asking other families to pay the costs to rent the space, hire a tutor, and pay coaches. Believe me, it’s no small undertaking! But it feels SO GOOD to be creating the future I want instead of wondering how my kids will spend their days and how my husband and I will have time to do our jobs.

For me, the solution to floating in the anxious sea of uncertainty is to strike out with purpose toward my vision. I hope you will join me on this journey!