How Planning for Tomorrow Can Ease Uncertainty Today
1. Make a plan
About a decade ago, psychologist Robert Epstein conducted a study of 3,000 people in the United States and 29 other countries to better understand happiness. He made two surprising discoveries. First, about 25 percent of our happiness depends on how well we manage stress; second, the best way to manage stress is through planning.
“It’s extremely helpful,” says Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavior Research and Technology. “And the reason is simple: People who plan tend to avoid stress before it even occurs. You probably know someone who plans every detail of a trip. Well, that reduces uncertainty when traveling. They know day after day where their meals are coming from, where they are sleeping. They are reducing the likelihood of encountering stressors.”
- Create daily and weekly goals you can track and achieve, like exercising for a certain amount of time or touching base with particular loved ones.
- Continue to work toward long-term goals by taking whatever small steps are achievable now.
- Talk through possible contingencies with family, friends, co-workers, and legal and financial advisors—and then make plans to handle them.
2. Limit your news intake
When markets plunged during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Kyle Schiffler, a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNERtm professional with Equitable Advisors, received panicked calls and emails from clients who wanted to cash out or buy gold. “I could tell they were having a fight-or-flight reaction,” he says. “It’s like seeing a bear in the woods—except COVID-19 was like a huge grizzly bear standing three feet in front of you.”
Since then, however, Schiffler has noticed something: “My clients who disconnected from news or social media completely—or just tried to limit their time on both—have been the most calm,” he says. That isn’t a coincidence. Research on previous community crises such as school shootings and the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic suggests that repeated media exposure to those events can lead to increased anxiety and heightened stress responses, and a recent study of 6,500 people found that COVID-19 news produced a similar effect.
“Hours of repeated exposure to bad news is not psychologically beneficial,” says Roxane Cohen Silver, one of the authors of the study on COVID-19 media exposure and a professor of psychological science, medicine, and public health at the University of California, Irvine. “So check the news a few times a day. But don’t keep the Johns Hopkins [University COVID-19] map open on your monitor all day long.”
- Turn off push notifications for breaking news and market fluctuations.
- Read a book that isn’t about current events.
- Cut back on 24/7 cable news.
3. Find your flow
Earlier this year, a team of researchers who studied more than 5,000 people in Wuhan and other Chinese cities affected by COVID-19 found that entering “flow states”—that is, becoming so absorbed in an enjoyable activity that you become unconcerned about yourself, your environment, or the passage of time—helped people alleviate stress, particularly during quarantine.
How do you achieve flow? University of California, Riverside, psychology professor Kate Sweeny suggests video games, admitting that she’s currently “hooked” on a popular Japanese title that involves living in a virtual village populated by humanlike animals. “The kinds of activities that tend to get you there are enjoyable, but that by itself is not enough,” Sweeny says. “There needs to be a challenge that pushes your skills, but not too much. And you need to track your progress somehow. Video games are great for this because they are designed to get harder as players get better.”
- Practice or play a solo or socially distanced sport.
- Take time for hobbies that require skill-building and have achievable goals.
- Game on!
Equitable is the brand name of the retirement and protection subsidiaries of Equitable Holdings, Inc. Equitable Advisors is the brand name of Equitable Advisors, LLC (member FINRA, SIPC) (Equitable Financial Advisors in MI and TN), a broker-dealer, and Equitable Advisors, LLC, an SEC-registered investment advisor.