“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!

Habits of the Heart (Today’s Daily Presence)

Today’s Daily Presence card focuses on the circulatory system. In bringing mindful awareness to this part of my body, I chose to review habits in which I engage that can affect the health of one’s cardiovascular health. My goal in doing so is to examine more fully the context in which my system is operating and to consider where my energy will best be spent in promoting heart health. Habits are only one piece of the puzzle in regards to how well our circulatory systems function. Perfect habits do not guarantee perfect functioning, but I want to do what I can to mitigate other risk factors.

Exercise

I exercise several days a week by combining strength training, cardio and stretching. I feel that I’ve gotten quite a bit slower/less intense in my workouts in the last year or two, in part due to a shoulder injury and in part due to changing my medications so that my heart races more when I am working out vigorously. Once I get to about 130-140 bpm, I feel that I am not getting enough oxygen and have a hard time maintaining my pace.

Prior to the workout videos I’ve been using for years, I never been able to maintain any set exercise schedule, so I am hesitant to try to make alterations to what I’m doing for fear I will end up not working out at all. I have fallen into the practice of working out right after I eat lunch and then writing my blog post. I wonder if writing before working out would give me more time to digest and would therefor lead me to be able to push myself farther.

Diet

I have an addiction to junk food (I mean addiction here just as seriously as someone might reference an addiction to an illegal substance) and lose control over my eating as soon as I have anything deep-fried or sugary. I have to abstain totally and eat only home-cooked foods to stay on track. I’ve failed at this for several months and have gained 10 lbs, so I am now at least 20 lbs overweight. I feel that this is affecting my ability to exercise. I get my bloodwork checked each summer, so I have some time to hopefully get things on track again. My glucose does not run too high, but my triglycerides and cholesterol are a little over the recommended maximum, which can definitely affect my cardiovascular health.

A particular aspect of my diet I’ve become more aware of in recent years related to my circulatory system is the ratio of water to salt that I’m ingesting. I have orthostatic hypotension when I get dehydrated, which means my pulse rates shoots up from the 50’s to the 120’s when I get out of bed in the morning and I sometimes pass out if I stand up too quickly. I’ve found that I have to constantly drink water as well as have a little salt if I had any IBS flares, as I get imbalanced more easily than I thought I would. I also have to be careful not to overdo it on salty foods as I find my blood pressure rising when I do so.

Stress management

My favorite story (regardless of whether it is true) about Type A people is that heart doctors first investigated the connection between heart health and personality after noticing all the seats in their clinic had the edges worn off because patients were so impatient to get to their appointments. I am extremely Type A by nature and it takes deliberate, conscious effort to override the seat-wearing setting at which my body naturally runs.

All the work I’ve done on my blog the last few months is a testament to my attempts at managing my stress. Simply spending time writing posts like today’s slow me down and allow me to think, feel or behave in ways that reduce my anxiety and reframe my experiences. I still react with intense emotions to stressors, but thoughts such as “this is only one part of my life” or “I will handle this and it will end” are more likely to pass through my mind than ever before.

I will say that I was surprised to learn that everyday stress does not have the same direct link to heart health as the rest of the habits I’ve listed on this post. This makes me feel so much better because I’ve always interpreted my problems with emotion regulation to be horrific for my physical health, but conceptualizing reducing them as helpful but not life-or-death (in this regard) makes me feel calmer.

substance use

I am proudest of myself in this arena as I have not drank any alcohol for over a year. I never had a full-blown alcohol addiction, but I’ve had times in my life when I got drunk every weekend. I gained a lot of weight when this went on and became pre-diabetic, which motivated me to make a change. I am alright at watching my caffeine levels; I definitely have pulse rate issues if I over-indulge.

Conclusion

In sum, my diet stands out as the place where I have the most room for improvement. I at least eat a varied diet, some vegetables and fewer carbs overall than I have in the past, but I am consuming significantly more calories than my body needs and am, at times, eating food that is lacking in nutritional value. For me personally, my weight tracks very closely with my bloodwork and my overall health, so I would like to lose some weight and improve my physical stamina for exercise. I have gained and lost more than an entire person’s body weight at this point in my life, so perhaps I need to look at it as entering a period of healthier behaviors rather than conquering my issues once and for all. What habits do you consider crucial to your heart health? How do you make sense of your behaviors in light of their effect on your cardiovascular health? What changes, if any, would you most like to make?

Clearing Sky (In the Cards)

Today’s In an Open Hand card draw focuses on releasing in order to make space for self-growth and development. Sometimes, letting go requires physically discarding, donating or re-purposing items. At other times, expectations, assumptions and regrets may benefit from being mentally discharged. For today, I decided to focus on my thoughts rather than my clutter.

If I could experience my life differently, one of the main changes I would make would be in my perspective-taking. The sky of my mind zooms in to a tiny storm-cloud, ignoring the beautiful vista the rest of the view provides. When I face a stressor, I have tremendous difficulty in maintaining a stance of gratitude and acceptance. I want the threatening weather gone now, and I cannot rest until I do everything within my power to make it so. I often have the thought “what would happen if I just did nothing,” but, even for the two-raindrop clouds, I burst out the umbrella and flip the fan switch in an attempt to blow it away.

My excessive reaction is caused not because I think I’ll drown in the minuscule amount of rain, but rather because I have an incredibly hard time feeling safe and secure if there are any clouds, no matter how insignificant. The next time something bothers me, I am going to attempt to see if I can visualize it in my sky metaphor, and if perhaps that image will help me to adjust my response. What would you like to release today? How much mental energy do you waste chasing storm clouds?