A lone rose bursts through a tangle of weeds at Friendly Ridge Road and Sunset Drive on Ocracoke. Photo: C. Leinbach

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Ask a mental health professional No. 9

By Earle Irwin

Question: The world does not seem like a safe place right now. People can be so hateful to one another. Social media and the news are full of people saying mean things about each other. I have such anxiety about it all. And I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this way. Is it possible to function in this world without feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and fear?

Response: The short answer—yes. It is possible, yet achieving that state of mind is no simple task. Quelling one’s own anxiety is a multi-step process. Some of the steps have been discussed here in prior columns.

Let’s focus on the anxiety that seems to be hanging over all of our heads—the anxiety of living in an uncertain world. Much of the overriding anxiety you mention likely has to do with fear of the unknown. Each of us is functioning in a pandemic-stricken world, a crisis that none of us previously has had to cope with.

We are all out of our comfort zones. When faced with a crisis, some of us rise to the occasion, while some of us are so incapacitated by fear that we act ineffectively or behave badly. Unfortunately, the fear and anxiety can be contagious.

When the world around us feels out of control, we can find moments of calm by asserting control over our own lives.

We can focus on the smallest aspects of our lives and the choices we are capable of making: When will I get out of bed this morning? What breaks (from news, social media, over-stimulation) will I give myself today? How will I choose to spend my time? What can I do to take care of myself (examples: eat sensibly, get enough rest, go for walk)?

We cannot control or change other peoples’ behaviors. What we can change are our own behaviors and our own reactions to others. We want others to demonstrate personal responsibility for their actions and to stop acting in offensive or divisive ways, yet, in reality, we can make those choices only for our individual self.

The good news is that to choose personal responsibility is empowering. When we take responsibility for our own choices, we do not have as much anxiety about others’ choices.

As we each prove to ourselves that we do have some control of our lives, then we are ready for the next step, to challenge ourselves this day to be the best person that we can be: To go through our day without adding to the strife in the world around us. To be kind.

Kindness may sound like an over-simplification, yet it is essential. How can I be kind today? Instead of absorbing the fear and anxiety that seems to hang in the atmosphere, we can focus on transmitting kindness.

When confronted by others’ bad behaviors, we remember that likely they too are operating from fear. That does not mean we have to condone bad behavior, but if we understand the underlying emotion as similar to our experience and avoid taking it personally, we will be better able to honor our own inner calm. We will not feel as personally threatened.

If these recommendations are sounding too outlandish—that the remedies for overwhelming anxiety and fear are personal responsibility, kindness and striving to be one’s best—then I offer this experiment: Try it.

The next time you are aware of your own anxiety, pause and ask yourself any of the questions above. Once a day minimum. Re-evaluate your anxiety level at the end of week.  Let me know what happens.

If you are an island resident dealing with any level of anxiety, I can help you develop your own personal plan for lowering that anxiety. Please call, text or email me at 252-385-2172 or eirwin@oirrt.org.

Earle Irwin, a retired clinical nurse specialist, is on Ocracoke through March to help islanders cope with Dorian aftermath and any other issues they may be dealing with. The Ocracoke Interfaith Relief & Recovery Team received funding from the Outer Banks Community Foundation for Earle’s return.

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