Illustration of person walking on a tightrope above a fire pit
Illustration by Hunter French
Health

During Bad Times, 'Don't Look Down' Is the Advice I Turn To Most

When you feel like you're about to fall into a pit of unknown horrors, keep steady—and think smaller.
April 10, 2020, 11:00am
howtostayin
How to Stay In is a series about redefining "normal" life in order to take care of ourselves and one another during the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most useful reminders in my Bad Times toolbox is the phrase "Don't look down"—meaning, briefly, stay focused on the task at hand instead of all the creative ways I could crash and burn. It was something I repeated to myself a lot during my divorce in 2017, and after being laid off in 2019. “Don’t look down” has been on my mind a lot in the past month, as the novel coronavirus has spread across the United States.

People—myself included!—are, quite reasonably, incredibly worried about the future right now. This is, to be clear, fine and correct. It’s incredibly important to hold the long-term in your mind during a crisis. We should all address immediate survival tasks as best we can and then go through the “How bad might this get?” mental exercise to establish, while it’s still possible, a plan to avoid or cope with any really bad future outcomes. There’s nothing wrong with that—in fact, please do that before it’s too late.

But once you’ve, say, set up a group text with your neighbors or filed for unemployment or talked to your parents about what you’ll do if both of them get sick, you might find your mind wandering to the sort of hypothetical situations that make your blood pressure spike and your stomach drop. What if my company decides to re-open in a month and I have to tell my boss I’m afraid to go back in? What if I get seriously sick and can’t get a ventilator? What if my partner and I both get sick? What if something happens to my loved one and I can’t go to their funeral?

Some questions have unknowable answers. If you let yourself think too hard about imaginary “somedays” that may or may not ever come to pass, or try to game out every possible outcome, you might quickly find yourself overwhelmed and frozen, unable to do anything, including the basic tasks that are going to allow you to stay in this for the long haul.

Four years ago, my now–ex-husband suddenly ran off. Virtually overnight, I found myself crushed by a kind of uncertainty and grief that I hadn’t really known was possible. In the days and weeks that followed, I tried to plan for the future… and very quickly spiraled about the worst-case scenarios flooding my mind as I sat alone in my apartment.

I wasn’t strictly focusing on important logistical realities, like what to do when my lease ended in three months. (Though I was doing that very necessary step, too.) I was also spending time and energy on sprawling What if? scenarios—the kind with answers that were simply impossible to know or to prepare for at that stage. (“What if my couch won’t fit through the front door of my [entirely made-up!!!] new apartment?”)

Most days, I felt like I was walking a tightrope stretched across a river of alligators, a big fiery pit, and God knows what other horrors. The other side—a normal life, where I felt something other than absolutely crushed—felt so far away, I sort of didn’t believe it existed. I had no idea how I’d get there, or how I’d deal with the awful new challenges I kept imagining might pop up to make my life harder along the way. That didn’t stop me from ruminating on them.

But after several stomach-churning nights spent on different Reddit forums (and the anxiety spirals and emotional hangovers that followed), I began to understand that if I let my mind wander to the darkest possibilities, I’d never get out of bed, let alone get any work done (which I very much needed to do to remain employed).

This happened around the same time as a series of instances in which I spent a lot of time and energy working up a plan… only to have my ex immediately light said plan on fire in ways I had not anticipated. Slowly, it began to dawn on me that making plans no longer made sense, and it would be OK—preferred, even!—to stop trying. Instead of thinking in months or even weeks, I needed to be thinking in days and hours.

So whenever my thoughts started to wander to the quivering tightrope under my feet and the terrifying plunge that awaited me if I made a single wrong decision, I’d reply to myself with a firm, Don’t look down, and get back to whatever task needed my immediate attention.

I knew something inside me had shifted when a friend asked me in mid-November what my plans were for Thanksgiving, and I just stared at her, flabbergasted. Thanksgiving is two weeks away, I thought. How could I possibly know what I’ll be doing in two weeks? This was, of course, a ridiculous reaction to a completely reasonable question; I just… couldn’t fathom it. In that moment, I realized I’d finally become fluent in this new way of thinking.

This moment was bittersweet. Sure, figuring out a new coping mechanism qualifies as an accomplishment, but it’s not like this is the kind of goal people feel excited about achieving. It’s also not an ideal way of living, particularly when it’s thrust upon you. Watching the future you envisioned for yourself vanish into thin air—along with the ability to map out something else to replace it—is deeply shocking and incredibly sad. And having to eventually figure out how to stop thinking that way (which I had to deal with later) is yet another burden you didn’t sign up for. None of this feels good, but, then, these are not good times. The most we can realistically aim for right now is simply feeling less bad.

So, should you find yourself lost in dark and unproductive thoughts about the future in the coming weeks and months, try to remember: Don’t look down. Instead, take one step. When it’s time, take another. Don’t imagine in vivid detail exactly how bad it would feel to fall into the shark pit or the quicksand or whatever bad thing you’re convinced is waiting for you in the final stretch. Don’t think about how many steps we still have to go. Focus on this step—and know that “just keep yourself alive while you stay at home” might be all you can do at present.

Not thinking about the future after my ex left was hard, but it actually wasn’t as difficult as I expected—and so much of that was because I realized I had no choice. The alternative—feeling like my heart was going to beat through my chest every day because I was so stressed about what might happen in six months—wasn’t practical.

Changing my thinking was also a huge relief. It’s not like worrying about all these potentially terrible outcomes ever really felt good, or effectively prepared me for what might come next. (Catastrophic thinking rarely does.) Focusing on the present moment gave me the brain space I needed to tackle the tasks, big and small, that were necessary to move forward. Once I quit looking down every 10 seconds and stopped thinking about the other side so much, I was able to get across some of the toughest stretches.

I had always thought of the phrase “one day at a time” as a fairly empty cliché, but during the darkest period of my life, something just clicked: Oh, I have to take this one day at a time. There is no other option. It became one of the best survival mechanisms that I had.

If you’re currently feeling overwhelmed by all of the possible worst-case pandemic scenarios, try thinking smaller. Take a tiny next step—even if that step is simply “sit at home and wait.” When the time comes, take another step. Don’t look down—look around, and at the present.

Excerpted from The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People by Rachel Wilkerson Miller. Available May 12, 2020.