Let’s face it, there’s much dysfunctional behavior going on these days and anxiety is at one of the highest levels I’ve seen. Walking on the beach, I smile and say a warm good morning from 10 feet away to a fellow stroller. The COVID zombie look takes over his face as he stares straight ahead and doesn’t say a word. Like I wasn’t there. Rude maybe, but worse than that, sad. Our protective masks have been just one part of hiding us from each other.

There’s much fear, misapprehension and anxiety about basic interactions with other humans. We’re at risk of losing some of our essential humanity and social skills because of the worries that someone, anyone could be a vector of contagion. I get that, yet is this the way we want to be living?

Given the state of society right now, is there a way we can come back to the joy and grace of living in the moment, experiencing life in all its blooming glory, experience each other in socially polite and friendly ways?

I don’t claim to have the universal answer here. From the perspective of healing, a key principle is generally to start with ourselves. I cannot fix that distracted walker. Who knows what troubles were on his mind?

What I can do is to address negative and unproductive thoughts in my own mind. One proven technique for this is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or CBT. The essence of this approach is to identify challenging or troubling behavioral patterns along with their inaccurate and repetitive thinking patterns, then develop enhanced methods of solving them.

It boils down to changing unhelpful patterns of thought that are perpetuating rather than resolving our anxiety or other problems. Like water running along the same track, our thoughts tend to be engrained and thus repeated. The fact is, if a line of thinking isn’t helping us live fully and joyfully, we can change it. If we continue to have fearful, anxiety-prone thoughts that aren’t reality based or that may even be drawing the situation we fear to us, it’s time to alter our thought process.

This can best be done with a skilled CBT therapist, though there are online tools, books like “CBT for Dummies,” and other self-help techniques that can help those with milder distress.

The Mayo Clinic website lists these steps in CBT:

• Identify troubling situations or conditions in your life

• Become aware of your thoughts, emotions and beliefs about these problems

• Identify negative or inaccurate thinking

• Reshape negative or inaccurate thinking

The reshaping part is the key to successful change. It may require creating exposure to situations you fear, crafting new words or patterns of response, alternative inner scripts, using affirmations, prayers or imagery that take the place of negative, inaccurate and catastrophizing thoughts.

If your anxiety is overwhelming you, reach out for help and do something different. Now is the only moment we have. Live it.

Dr. Victor S. Sierpina is the WD and Laura Nell Nicholson Family Professor of Integrative Medicine and Professor of Family Medicine at UTMB.

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