uncertainty: the unwelcome houseguest

I recently read an article in the Atlantic by Eric Weiner, called “Preparing Your Mind for Uncertain Times.” He mentions how in one experimental study, the subjects experienced even more stress when there was a 50% chance of receiving an electric shock than when there was a 100% chance of being shocked.

If you know me well, you know I hate uncertainty. I would much prefer to be in the group getting the shock 100% of the time. After all, the electric shock itself is momentary, but the constant “not-knowing” produces an anxiety that lasts much longer than that single moment.

Since we can’t travel or venture out much, my world feels very small. Do you feel the same? Especially with the wildfire smoke, I don’t even go out into my yard much. I exist in small, tiny spaces filled with big anxieties scattered about. “Will the vaccine work? Who will win the election? Will we have to evacuate? Will we have to emigrate?” and so on. Some days are better than others, but it is increasingly more difficult to ignore the scenarios of worst, even more worst, and the worst of worsts.

Many years ago, I had an “a-ha” moment when I understood that I had been wasting hours upon hours rummaging through endless what-ifs. Precious time lost that could have been spent with my family or in pursuit of life goals, because of these endless cycles of worry. It was a devastating realization, not only due to the guilt that accompanied – since you know, guilt always accompanies – but also because I could not fathom how to be any different. Being anxious felt like an unconscious act, like blinking or my heart beating.

I have worked hard over the last decade to manage my anxiety, and the work has felt especially intense this summer. My goal is to remain “consciously anxious.” (My phrase, not Gwyneth’s). If I am aware of the anxiety when it is happening, then I can systematically address it like eczema or asthma or any other chronic health issue. For instance, when I feel a bit of panic rising, I stop and ask myself these questions:

  • What is triggering my anxiety in this moment?
  • Is my worry commensurate to the actual thing that is happening right now?
  • Is the worry I am experiencing now an automatic response from how I have worried in the past?
  • To what extent can I control any part of the situation that is causing me to worry?

I don’t always have all the answers to these questions. But the act of interrogating and playing bad-cop to my anxiety allows me to (1) interrupt the worry, and (2) implement some self-care tactics like journaling, exercising, or talking with friends, etc. And most importantly, it allows me to unfreeze and keep moving through life. Or least, go wash the dishes.

Last month I reached out to my good friend, Dr. Linda Kim, an experienced psychiatrist who has launched a female-focused mental health & wellness company, for advice on new ways to continue reducing my anxiety.

She clued me in on something called the vagus nerve. She explained that it’s a major nerve traversing nearly the entire length of the body, from the brainstem down to the reproductive and urinary systems. She went on to tell me how I can actually “hack” into this nerve, to counteract stressful events or triggers that I might experience.

We’ve all heard about the “fight or flight” response, and how it automatically kicks into gear when we face stressful situations. The heart races, palms sweat, and your breath becomes shallow as stress hormones flood the body’s system. Conversely, after the event has passed, your heart rate drops, muscles relax, and your body returns to a resting state. This transition is called the “rest and digest” response. I had never heard of “Rest and Digest,” but immediately I wished I had more of that in my life. (Less time in the gladiator pit, more time lounging by the pool.)

In times of stress, I go from one “fight or flight” state to another, and I’m sure my body struggles to adequately recover and calm down. Because the vagus nerve actually passes through the diaphragm, Linda emphasized proper abdominal breathing as a shortcut to the “rest and digest” state. I had always known that deep breathing was a good wellness practice, but understanding how this works anatomically (she literally drew me a picture!), makes me more resolved to work on my breathing practice regularly.

If you are interested in learning more about Linda’s approach to mental health for women, check out her company’s website, as well as one of her podcasts.

These days I think the more resources we can find, the better.

Anxiety isn’t undone, ever. It’s like being permanently tethered to a familiar yet unlikable shadow of yourself. Whether it’s long or short, that shadow is rooted firmly. But with the help of therapists, good friends, and deep breaths I manage to find an optimistic moment or two in the midst of these very uncertain times. I hope you can too. 🖤

main photo credit: Kelly Kennedy, @earlllgrey

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