We are living in a world of uncertainty. Little feels definite. The routines of our early 2020 lives are mostly gone. Regaining or reformulating our routines, although so important, can be an exhausting and daunting task. Even weekly grocery store visits take high levels of management. The planning and organization of school days involves an unprecedented level of parental involvement. What I hear about most from my clients, students, and friends is anticipatory anxiety brought about the feeling of “not-knowing” in a world saturated with unknowns.
What is ahead is so unclear that planning or preparing for it seems complicated at best. Anticipatory anxiety is worry about what is coming and a fear of the unknown. When it escalates, it interferes with our ability to plan adequately and react appropriately. Often the version we imagine of the anticipated experience is worse than its reality. The anticipation can lead to sleeplessness, unusual or excessive alcohol use, and sometimes even physical symptoms. Anxiety of this kind disrupts our executive functions. There is a literal blockage of blood flow to the part of our brain that controls the way we prioritize and organize just when it is more critical than ever that this part functions optimally. This dampening of our ability to navigate our lives and manage this anxiety creates deficits in decision making and goal-directed behavior and slows processing speed. We see the manifestation of these challenges in children who struggle to sleep, melt down around transitions, fear going outside, or become pickier eaters.
I swear by a family calendar as a crucial tool and dedicate time to working on it each week. Even though time management and organization are what I do professionally, there are plenty of weeks when I sit down with my five colored pens (one for each category) and I inevitably begin to lose my color key. I look down and realize that pink has switched from the family color to my work events. My co-parent fights against the system and there have been days when the calendar is what sets off a tantrum from an outraged six-year-old because soccer was not what he wanted when it was on the schedule. And yet, I stand by it. There are just as many weeks when it feels like this calendar is the glue that is holding it all together. My advice: Use tools like shared calendars to anchor your family’s days and help diminish anticipatory anxiety. Aim for structured days with a consistent beginning, middle and end, and established routines (especially sleep plans), balanced by events you enjoy to encourage and reward your efforts. For adults, this approach enhances a sense of order that combats the chaos of the uncertainty. For kids, it conveys that grown-ups know what is happening and can take care of them.
Calendars, routines, and timers are tools that apply essential executive functioning skills like planning, prioritizing, managing time, and self-regulating and can help mitigate anticipatory anxiety. The more we make certain in this uncertain time, the safer our children feel and the more they can focus on their jobs as students and learners. Include them in the process. Let them color code, choose among three bedtimes, and tell you what they are looking forward to doing. Commit it to paper and then hang it up for all to see.
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“The human brain is an ‘anticipation machine’, and ‘making future’ is the most important thing it does” (D. Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness (London: Vintage Books, 2007); citing D. Dennett, Kinds of Minds (New York: Basic Books, 1996).