Keeping the dread at bay when living through an age of anxiety

Being alert to real dangers is wise. But that doesn’t mean catastrophic thinking

“Anticipatory vigilance” is a phrase used to describe the experience of suffering from heightened, everyday anxiety in which we get into the habit of waiting for something to go wrong. It’s a painful experience emotionally, bad for one’s quality of life.

There’s more of it about now after nearly two years of the cycle of Covid. Not only have we been waiting for things to go wrong, but so far, unfortunately, that is exactly what things have been doing.

Having too much time to think anxious thoughts – a gift of the pandemic – doesn’t help at all.

Some people can take all this in their stride, though. In others, the anxiety is stronger to the point of needing help for it.


Anxiety is worsened if a person is easily frightened by such symptoms as a raised heartbeat or a tightening of the stomach. These happen in the normal course of a day anyway, but in very anxious people the changes can easily arouse their fears.

All these experiences can be made more unpleasant by exaggerated negative thinking, often called catastrophising.

My grandfather at Halloween used to take his children down to the cellars of the decaying mansion in which they lived and, using a projector called a magic lantern, cast images of ghosts, monsters and ghouls on to the wall.

The children were suitably terrified and remembered it all with pleasure for the rest of their lives.

That’s what we do with catastrophising also, but there’s no pleasure in it. We get locked into pessimistic rumination and go round and round in circles.

I’m not suggesting here that we don’t need to take Covid seriously. We certainly do, but on a personal level we also need to avoid forming a habit of anxiety that sticks with us when this is long over.

Potential dangers

It can be harder to get out of an anxious or depressed mood when we have to keep our distance from people whose closeness might otherwise “take us out of ourselves”, as they say. Masks, vaccinations, social distancing all make it clear to us that we are living in an altered world. Meeting with other people for a stress-free, carefree conversation has to be assessed for its potential dangers.

But we need to be able to find a way to live in this altered world without suffering escalating anxiety that is bad for our health, not to mention our sense of wellbeing.

To me, a key step that’s worth taking as an individual is to call a halt to that catastrophic thinking I’ve mentioned earlier. You could call it dramatised thinking also: the unpleasant becomes the unacceptable, the slightly painful becomes a disaster and a feeling of hurt surprise becomes devastation. You might say that these are only thoughts, but thoughts are physical – when you think of something scary, for instance, your heart beats faster and your stomach tightens up almost instantaneously.

We also might need to relearn the art of physical relaxation without having to be medicated by alcohol or otherwise (alcohol is better as fun than as medicine). The connection between mind and body means that physical relaxation can help to relax the emotions. We often think of using our thoughts to relax the physical body, but sometimes, when our thoughts are all over the place, the opposite route can work as well.

Close-up conversations at the table or on the street have long helped to break a feeling of gloom or anxiety. That’s not as easy or carefree a thing to do now but it’s still worth making the effort to talk on the phone or by chat or video. It’s a great deal better than mulling over dramatic and unpleasant possibilities.

Learning to deal better with anxiety at this time as we go through our rather long-drawn-out challenges will stand to us in times to come. Anxiety is the constant companion of human beings but the better we deal with it, especially by dropping catastrophising, the more we can keep it in its place.

– Padraig O'Morain (Instagram, Twitter: @padraigomorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His books include Kindfulness – a guide to self compassion. His daily mindfulness reminder is available free by email (