“Don’t Worry, Everything Will Be Okay”: An Insidious Form of Denial

I wrote yesterday about feeling that my energy was misdirected by trying to warn people who are complacent about the coming (or already arrived, depending where you live) pandemic. It got me thinking more broadly of how people respond to my fears and ways that I have come to discern between people who listen deeply and honestly and those who deflect. I’ve described both stances below (there are of course way-stops between these approaches and times we might use one or the other depending on our energy level) as well as ideas for self-care if you are an anxious person.

“It’ll be fine”

I have a standard retort for people who tell me my worries are unfounded: how do you know? Unless they are a trained expert in the area, at which time I will defer to their judgment, someone telling me I’m “worrying about nothing” gives me far more insight into the nature of their character than it does into the rationality of my anxiety. I definitely believe that some people operate from a default of denial–nothing is real unless it is affecting them personally. They obfuscate and deflect legitimate concerns because these anxieties hint at the fact that the world can be an unjust, unfair and brutal place. If it isn’t happening to them, it can’t be happening.

Yes, those of us with heightened anxiety can easily overestimate the potential likelihood of a danger occurring, but we can also spot trouble before it arrives. I contingency-plan with the best of them and, because of my efforts, I steer clear of certain issues into which others move without pausing. Holding back “I told you so” strains my throat when I notice my unheeded warnings coming true again and again. Attempting to protect one’s self by denying reality has as many consequences, if not more, than wasted worry.

“I have my doubts, but we’ll face it together”

Responding to someone who lapses into extreme anxiety does not mean engaging in panic yourself or denying your read on the situation. Rather, it is perfectly fine to share fact-based evidence that might help to mitigate some of their concerns, especially if you ask permission first. This is where I have would-be comforters lapped; I can quickly absorb a tremendous amount of factual information, so I am ready to go with the latest scientific statistics and projections while they share three-week old data they heard on a podcast. On the other end of the spectrum, anxieties that have little basis in reality might be easier to counter with science, but the people who struggle with them might also be less receptive to scientific reasoning.

To me, the best way to support someone who you might view as “fear-mongering” or overly worried is to establish what your objective take on the situation is, and to then focus most of your energy on the trust you have in both the other person as well as in your relationship. When I share my pandemic prep with people IRL, I wish at least one person would say something along the lines of “well, I know who to ask if I decide to prepare a list of items.” The most I’ve gotten so far was someone declaring they would come to my place if the shit hit the fan, which only angered me at their callousness. If you can connect to the person and let them know that you appreciate their forward-thinking nature, even if you believe it to be too trigger-happy, as well as let them know you will be there to help them cope if or when the situation fully develops, it may help them come down from flight or fight into a more productive, problem-solving state. Scared people make rash decisions; prep for an event such as a pandemic requires a rational response, not a panic-stricken hoarding of toilet paper.

Mental Self-Care for the anxious

If you are reading this as a highly anxious person yourself, here are some practical steps you can take if you are facing a situation that seems to concern only you and in response to which you are being told you are over-reacting.

1. If possible, consult the experts. Nothing is worse in my mind in regards to anxiety than getting riled up by people who have an agenda to push or those who base their ideas on fantasy. Find the scientifically-accurate experts who do not stand to benefit in a substantial way from peoples’ responses, and listen to them. In regards to the pandemic specifically, this is the person to whom I’m listening (as well as reading research as it is published).

2. Share your concerns judiciously. Even if your anxieties are pushing at you, decide whether the person to whom you want to speak is likely, based on past experiences, to listen carefully or to simply dismiss you. If someone acts as though you are completely irrational, consider whether there might be other people in your life that would be more open to hearing what you have to say.

3. Before taking any practical steps, if possible, make a list of items you might acquire or plans you might enact, and then wait at least 24 hours (or a good night of sleep minimum) before you follow through on what you are considering. I have worked myself up in recent days into wanting to buy an oxygen concentrator and a large solar power station. Because I slowed myself down, I realized the oxygen concentrator’s cons outweighed its possible benefits, and that I would face serious security issues with a solar setup as it would have to be placed in front of my house and would therefore be highly tempting for someone to steal if we actually end up in a situation where it would need to be deployed. By slowing myself down, I resisted panic-buying and have been able to better use my resources.

4. At the end of the day, remember that we all die, some of us in unexpected ways. I keep this truth in my mind not to feel depressed but to boost my feelings of acceptance of my life situation. When we run out of practice steps in handling a crisis, coming to terms with the reality of it can, at least for me, open internal space for contemplation and grace, rather than a raging “there has to be a way” as the elements consume.

5. Remember you are likely not as alone as you might feel you are. There is a limit of rational action that I can take at this point, and, as terrifying as it is to me, I find myself coming to a growing knowledge that I might have to *shudder* cooperate with my neighbors if things go really side-ways. In modern Western societies like the one I inhabit, there is a particular sense of individualism where people may literally never speak with or help out their next-door neighbors, not because they hate each other but because they are able to sort their lives in a way that does not necessitate such interactions. I am not so naive to think that my federal government will do anything useful, but I have a bit of trust in my local officials to try to mitigate disaster and in myself to work with others as needed. Scarcity can promote selfishness but it can also promote sharing; I hope that the latter is what rises to the surface in the areas where people are struggling right now.

In conclusion, a person’s level of anxiety is not the best marker of their capacity for acting in a rational way. People can under-react just as much as they over-react and can respond too slowly to a crisis as well as too early or without justification. If you are highly anxious as I am, my advice is to reserve your time and energy for acting with as much objective reason as you can, with the support of people who know what they are talking about because of their education and experience, as well as those in your life who offer a caring, gentle presence when your anxiety gets the best of you. Please share how you care for yourself as an anxious person!

A Crisis Averted (Today’s Moment of Gratitude)

My dog is much less anxious than I am, and his willingness to barge into situations head-on can get him into trouble. This past week was no exception as he managed to eat a few foreign objects and I was highly concerned he was going to have an intestinal blockage. Today, I got the best Valentine’s present ever when he passed the item about which I was most concerned through. I never expected to celebrate poop, but here we are!

The relief I felt as a potentially life-threatening situation coupled with thousands of dollars in costs faded from view was overwhelming bliss. It got me thinking, though, about how my mind works. I was left wondering whether part of the reason I am extremely anxious and frequently feel like I’m on the edge of disaster is because, when the storm clouds clear and the sun comes out, the physical response I feel negatively reinforces me to respond to the next threat in an equally overwhelmed manner.

I am much more punishment-averse than I am reinforcement-seeking, and this experience has given me possible insight into my internal experiences that might be maintaining that discrepancy. I’m curious what it would be like, the next time I am catastrophizing, to ask myself “how good will it feel when this situation is resolved and I don’t have to worry anymore?” I have no idea what I will actually be like when my own mortality comes to call, but I think it strikes me as the resolution of everything and I anticipate relief rather than anxiety might overtake me.

Perhaps my gratitude isn’t all feelings of joy because something good has occurred, but also the feeling of my body stepping out of fight and flight into a more peaceful state. I am so, so appreciative that my weekend might not be spent in the fullness of anxiety I had anticipated it being. What’s something you’ve felt relieved about lately? What is the balance for you of seeking rewards and trying to avert danger?

Potential for Thriving (In the Cards)

Today’s card centers on naming inner passions and contemplating how to ignite them into flames of creative power. In giving voice to my desires, what rises up is a wish for living a life that is founded on the possible rather than the absent. What I mean by this that I want to welcome into my life love, beauty and sacred connection, not simply to banish hatred, distrust and suffering.

If I’m honest with myself, most days I wake up thinking “when will the shit I have to deal with today be over?” It is as if the innocent, caring and hopeful parts of me stay in slumber until any potentially threatening situations have ended. I can go weeks or even months without feeling like the red alarm blaring danger stops trilling.

I am thrown totally off-kilter by events like the one I had today, where I woke up in joy, believing that I had nothing stressful with which I was going to have to deal (an extremely rare occasion), and could therefore touch with my fingertips the edges of the positive and the happy. I soon discovered my dog was having an allergic reaction to the heartworm preventative injection he got yesterday, and had to rush him, covered in hives and itching, to the vet. My day now feels like it is lying in ruins, my mind reiterating “threat is likely over…threat is likely over” in an attempt to coax from hiding the scared parts of self I possess.

I so desperately desire a life in which I can stay connected to all the parts of myself, including the upbeat and positive ones, even in the face of hardship and difficulty. I have occasionally spent time notating the events of each day for which I am grateful, but this has often turned into “at least this horrible thing that happened wasn’t even more horrible.” I wonder what a question like “what magic will the world hold for me today?” would do to my psyche if it was the first and truest note playing in my mind as I awoke.

The image I see in my mind to represent my dilemma is that of a person wearing every conceivable bad-weather gear every day, with little regard for the forecast. I am like someone who is convinced that a storm could be lurking or ice could be built up at any spot on their travels. Sure, this person has everything needed the moment bad weather strikes, but they also lug around heavy, hot and uncomfortable material through every other situation. What I also know to be true is that umbrellas and raincoats aren’t the only ways to stay dry; I could and do improvise if something unexpected happened.

In this analogy, I only glance at the rainbow or the blue sky or feel the gentle breeze for a second, and then detach from my joy as I remind myself of all the times I thought it was going to be a nice day and it wasn’t. One raindrop spoils the whole picnic. And, yet, there is beauty to be found even in a ruined outing.

I am not sure how to walk with confidence knowing that, although there will be mud puddles into which I could step, fixing my eyes primarily onto the colors and shapes in the vast sky above grants me a much fuller, more healing and more marvelous view than staring at my shoes will ever provide. What is the first question on your mind most mornings? How does asking it shape the rest of your day? Where do you cast your gaze (or other senses), and how much magic does it allow you to see and experience?

A Middle-Age Mindset (Today’s Daily Remembrance)

Today’s Daily Remembrance card inquired as to a positive effect growing older has had on me. I find it difficult to accept the challenges with which my life has presented me, but I hold the process of aging itself as an opportunity alongside its inherent stressors. What I enjoy most about it is the expansion of my perspective that it offers.

I find the shift in my viewpoint as I’ve entered middle-age to be akin to watching an animated film as an adult and realizing how much sarcasm and debauchery went over my head when I was younger. Certain topics recycle themselves through my timeline, and I come to them anew as a different version of myself each time. In particular, I think I get better at empathy, holding multiple perspectives and the societal contextualization of experience when I’m allowed another encounter.

What I would like to be able to offer to myself as I continue to age is a freedom from the mentality that I can somehow transcend my flaws and mistakes. I get stuck in a cycle of believing that, if I could only control my inner experience fully, I would never feel any negative emotions and would therefore always act from a place of inner wisdom. I want to move from “I am an unkind person” to “I did something unkind,” replacing my desire to categorize myself with a more hopeful belief that, with careful attention and a slowing of action, I can make choices that are reflective of the core of who I am. What nuances has aging brought to your perspective on life? What positive influences has it had on you thus far?