7 Anxiety Lessons I Learned from Living Through 2020
For so many people worldwide, 2020 has been a year marked by anxiety. Some people found their existing anxiety skyrocket while others experienced it significantly for the first time. External stressors have been extreme this year as we’ve collectively wrestled with fears and worries about our health, the health of loved ones, safety, economic security, access to things and services we need, political and social uncertainties, and more. While this year definitely involved struggle, it also brought opportunities to build strength and growth. Here, I share with you 7 anxiety lessons I learned from 2020.
The First 6 Lessons Anxiety Lessons I Learned from Living Through 2020
Believe it or not, I don’t hate 2020. I don’t see it as disgusting garbage I can’t wait to incinerate on New Year’s Eve. To be sure, it had many anxiety-provoking events. Several of my family members experienced COVID-19, and I probably had it, too, because I lived in the same home as one of those family members (I had no symptoms, so I’m not sure). Because of some autoimmune conditions, I might be at risk for complications, so COVID exposure wasn’t ideal. My daughter and her fiance had to postpone their wedding, my son’s senior year of high school and first months of college were disrupted, and our family holiday was held via Zoom. Yet I know that I’m one of the lucky ones who has not been devastated by events this year, and for that I am grateful. Yes, 2020 has been anxiety-provoking, but it has also brought us tremendous life lessons if we’re willing to openly receive them. Here’s what I’m taking away from this year of my life experience.
- Acceptance–There’s an entire therapeutic approach that involves acceptance. Known as acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), it helps people break free from problems by accepting what is (there is much more to ACT than this single component, of course). This does not mean that we roll over or give in to unhealthy situations. We don’t just accept abuse, for example. Instead, acceptance involves acknowledging what is happening but refraining from concentrating on it or struggling against it. What we focus on is what grows, so in accepting a situation, we give ourselves permission to let go of the fight against it. No one in my family loved the fact that we couldn’t be together for our traditional holiday festivities. When we accepted that fact, though, we freed ourselves to plan and enjoy a different way to be together and celebrate. Acceptance gives us more control over our own lives.
- Control–We feel so much anxiety and anguish when we struggle against things that are outside of our control, such as a frightening virus and other people’s reactions to it. We can’t control many external events. We can’t control the existence of things like viruses, nor can we directly control what people in authority do or do not do. We can’t control what schools are going to do or what people wear or do not wear over their face when they step outside. We can, however, control our own response and what we choose to do each day. We have a great deal of control over our attitude and actions moment by moment, day by day. When I let go of what I can’t control, I give myself freedom and power to choose what I can and will do.
- Adapt–Anxiety is rigid. It doesn’t bend. It tries to impose extreme rules on how we or our lives « should » be, and it involves strict automatic negative thoughts (ANTs). When we expand our thinking (it starts with acceptance and increasing control by taking charge of what we can, we position ourselves to adapt. When we can make adjustments to our expectations and actions, we can keep going despite feeling anxious. School, for example, is very different for kids and families. By letting go of expectations and adapting to the current school environment, kids and adults alike can learn new ways of doing and being and thrive in spite of worries.
- Allow–Allowing is a component of acceptance that is powerful enough to stand on its own. Acceptance involves external events and our thoughts about them. Allowing goes a little deeper and involves our emotions. To accept something doesn’t mean you have to like it, and it’s okay to allow yourself not to like it. This year has been intense with a lot of challenges, and it’s okay to feel worried, afraid, upset, disappointed, sad, and anything else that you feel. Feelings come and go, and they don’t define us. Allowing yourself to feel anxious or anything else helps you accept what can’t be changed. It also helps us nurture ourselves and others.
- Nurture–Nurturing involves compassion for yourself and others. When you nurture yourself with self-care, you tend to your body and decrease the body’s stress response. This helps you feel less anxious despite anxiety-provoking situations. Nurturing others helps them deal with anxiety and helps us all through increased compassion and connection. My daughter and future son-in-law were incredibly disappointed that their wedding had to be postponed. So were the whole family and sets of friends. Allowing our feelings helped us understand, support, and nurture each other, which in turn allowed everyone to look forward and plan for the same wedding at a different date. Nurturing led to positive thoughts and actions and decreased disappointment and anxiety.
- Mindfulness–The year 2020 has been rife with uncertainty. We have no idea what will happen next or when this will end. This inability to predict, to know, is incredibly anxiety-provoking. The only thing that is certain is *this* moment. We live moment by moment, and when we live mindfully, concentrating on what our life is right now, we can let go of the discomfort with uncertainty. The previous five lessons can be lived naturally when we are living fully in the present moment no matter what that moment brings.
The Ultimate Lesson About Anxiety and Life That 2020 Has Taught
This past year has been anxiety-provoking and full of struggle and loss. It has also taught us valuable lessons about who we are and what is important to us. It has helped us grow in often surprising ways, and it has been full of deep meaning. It’s okay to acknowledge and allow all of the difficulties while also embracing the positive moments and our development.
One of my favorite sayings and life concepts comes from Buddhism: « No mud, no lotus. » This is similar to one of my favorite spiritual songs, « Without clouds. » Without clouds, the rain can’t nourish the land. Without rain, the flowers’ bloom won’t grow. Without clouds and rain, we can’t appreciate the sun. A lotus flower can only grow through the cold, gooey, murky mud at the bottom of a pond. Without challenges and anxiety, we can’t grow and flourish. May this year’s clouds and mud have nourished you to thrive despite problems and anxiety.
Author: Tanya J. Peterson, MS, NCC
Tanya J. Peterson delivers online and in-person mental health education for students in elementary and middle school. She is the author of numerous anxiety self-help books, including The Morning Magic 5-Minute Journal, The Mindful Path Through Anxiety, 101 Ways to Help Stop Anxiety, The 5-Minute Anxiety Relief Journal, The Mindfulness Journal for Anxiety, The Mindfulness Workbook for Anxiety, Break Free: Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in 3 steps, and five critically-acclaimed, award-winning novels about mental health challenges. She also speaks nationally about mental health. Find her on her website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.