Anxiety. It’s more contagious than the coronavirus. Are you feeling it? I am.
I came up with a strategy to relieve it.
And it’s working.
Because anxiety, which I think of as prolonged, low-level fear, isn’t healthy for human beings like you and me.
There’s a sort of warp in our evolution as human beings.
Once upon a time, our autonomic nervous systems sent us into fight-or-flight mode when we perceived danger — often before our conscious minds were even aware of a predator. Because there’s part of our brain that’s always scanning for danger. It’s there to help us survive. It’s instinctive.
On perceiving a threat, our bodies would tense up. Our vision would narrow. Our hearts would pound. Our blood would flow to our limbs. We would fight or we would flee.
And when we weren’t in danger, we felt safe. We relaxed. Our hearts slowed down. Our breathing slowed. We could see widely again. Our blood flowed to our organs. We rejoined the tribe.
Our bodies then had the resources to recover, repair damage, restore our metabolisms to healing mode.
I don’t recall the source, but I read somewhere that the early members of our species spent about 4 hours a day hunting and gathering. The rest of the time, they were hanging out in groups or tribes, playing, talking, taming wolves, preparing food, making clothing, making weapons, watching the clouds and the stars, praying, doing rituals, bonding with their community on whom they all depended.
Yet their lifespans were shorter. Many more infants and children died than now. They faced floods and famines, as well as predators and warring tribes.
Their lives were filled with more uncertainties and threats to survival than ours.
I have a hunch that people who were that close to survival felt gratitude for each new day. Gratitude for having food and fire and a good hunt and each other. Gratitude for the times when they were safe, for peace.
Fast forward to today’s times. We’re not out in the sunshine all day, walking around and soaking up Vitamin D. We’re breathing conditioned air inside buildings, looking out windows. We work twice as many hours as our early ancestors. We have a money economy, modern medicine, cars, Social Security.
The threats to our survival are not hungry predators any more. (Well, except when they are angry or terrified or numb human predators, especially those with guns.)
Our nervous systems weren’t built for prolonged fear, a constant sense of not being at ease, anxiety. This leads to adrenal exhaustion, which saps our energy and is exhausting without any truly restorative rest.
Maybe what we teach ourselves now about managing our own anxiety will help our species as a whole evolve past fear-based reactivity and toward a caring kind of responsibility, for our own well-being and that of others.
What makes you feel anxious? The virus? The economy? The wildfires? The election? Conspiracy theories? Race-based violence? Armed white supremacists? Antifa? The news? Karens and Chads? Maskless people? People whose anxieties have gotten the better of them? People who don’t see we’re all part of one tribe, humanity? People so anxious they can’t listen or reason?
There’s a lot OUT THERE to feel anxious about. And anxiety means we experience it IN HERE.
Take a moment to check in. Where are you? What are your surroundings at this very moment?
Are you actually SAFE in this moment?
If you have the leisure to read this, I’m guessing you are.
How does being SAFE feel in your body?
Here’s what I notice in my body.
I feel my body weight sinking into the mattress. I feel my back and legs pressing the mattress, and the top part of my body feeling cooler air. Also, that one foot that’s outside the sheets feels cooler.
I notice my chest and abdomen rising and falling as I breathe.
I hear my fingers on the keyboard.
I see my hands, the iPad keyboard and screen, the pillow they are sitting on, the tangled sheets and foot beyond that.
I see windows on either side of me, a mirror and shelf across the room, and an open closet door, and my tea on the nightstand.
I hear cicadas droning, cardinals chirping, keyboard sounds, and distant traffic.
I feel safe.
The other night, I woke multiple times. My mind was thinking anxious thoughts. It was hard to get back to sleep.
Some nights are like that. Maybe it was the caffeinated tea I drank in the afternoon.
It’s not like I live in a bubble. I take precautions to prevent getting and spreading the virus. One of my family members had it — thankfully, it turned out to be a very mild case. I’m on social media. I check the news. I abhor the violence and hatred I learn about. I worry about the presidential campaign, the election, the aftermath, climate change, the possibility of a really bad economic crash.
These times are filled with uncertainty.
And a good night’s sleep means so very much in terms of having the ability to manage well.
So I tried something different. When an anxious thought arose, I said to myself, “This is just an anxious thought.”
I’d feel how it felt in my body. The tension, the unpleasantness.
Then I’d take a deep breath and let my THINKING mind take a little break by turning my attention to SENSING.
I’d feel my bodyweight pressing into the mattress and pillow. I’d feel the rhythm of breathing. I’d recognize that I was in my home, in my bed, and that there were no immanent threats to my safety. (Except those anxious thoughts.)
And I’d tell myself, “I AM SAFE.”
A few rounds of this every time an anxious thought arose, and I finally went back to sleep.
Since that experience, I’ve really been honing in on what it’s like to feel safe.
It feels good.
I am grateful.
(Apologies to David Whyte for a play on the title of his latest series, Half a Shade Braver.)