I’m generally a pretty anxious person. I like to think it’s because I’m a genius (self-diagnosed). I have the delightful ability to look at any situation and automatically see the worst possible outcome. Once, when I was in high school, I had a total meltdown (is it significant that “meltdown” is only one letter off from “MelTown?” Probably.) because I didn’t bring home a piece of paper that I needed to study. I panicked because I knew if I didn’t do well on the upcoming test I would fail the class, not get into college, never be able to find a job, and be homeless. I’m serious. That was my actual train of thought. I got an A in the class, because I got A’s in most of my classes (ugh, chemistry), but I never believed that I would succeed.
Now that I’m in my thirties and “successful” my concerns have morphed, and in some ways skyrocketed. I’m a mother now. Motherhood is terrible for anxiety! Everything seems so much more dangerous, and the stakes are so much higher. Somehow, I’ve managed to cope pretty well and am a mostly functioning adult. One of my best kept secrets is to marry someone with similar anxiety issues. If you’re a type-A, first born, overachiever marry one of those. It sounds counterintuitive, but calm people don’t understand why you’re so anxious and it helps if one person can shoulder half the worry. It really works for us! That’s not to say it’s never stressful, but we actually do a pretty good job balancing each other as long as we avoid the anxiety spiral we both face if we try to make a big change. The other secret is my newly realized but long-held mantra. “It could happen, but it probably won’t.”
I’ve found facts to be the best balm for my anxiety. During my first pregnancy I was terrified of childbirth, or more specifically, tearing. Like, beside myself terrified. When I mentioned it to my doctor in the most casual tone I could muster, she said “Look, it’s your first baby. You’re going to tear.” and you wouldn’t believe how much better I felt! There was no point in worrying about it; it was just going to happen. Unfortunately, few things are sure bets (and yes, I know not everyone tears…and I didn’t tear…I had a c-section.), but statistics can still be your friend. My sister is afraid to fly and she’s very aware that air travel is safe (fact), but also that planes sometimes crash (also fact). Knowing that both facts are true isn’t all that helpful. I once blurted out in a fit of
being a good big sister annoyance that “sure, the plane could crash, but it probably won’t.” and it actually brought her some sense of relief. I mean, she’s still afraid to fly, it’s not magic, but it helped. Some version of these words has been said to and by me so many times, and they bring me so much calm. The best way for me to handle my anxiety is to look at the facts, make an educated assessment of the risks, and chill out. Once I know what I’m dealing with, I feel better.
Recently I was talking to a dad at a three year old’s birthday party, and he was telling me that he is about to start a job as an officer with the Houston Police Department. This was a day after a sheriff’s deputy was killed outside of Houston as he was pumping gas, gunned down without provocation. We were discussing fear, and danger, and he said he still felt fairly calm about starting his new job, but also mentioned that his wife is nervous in movie theaters these days. We were talking about the culture of fear that is creeping into our lives, and I said it. “Sure, you could be shot in a theater, but you probably won’t be.” The facts are there. How many shootings have occurred compared to the number of movies playing at all times of the day in countless theaters across the country. Odds are, you will be safe. It hit me then that this phrase had become my coping mechanism and I hadn’t even noticed. If the words ring true, I know a situation isn’t worth my concern, and if they don’t I need to back away.
It’s not a perfect system. There are so many life choices that fall outside the reach of these words, but when I’m taking a shower and my husband isn’t home and I’m sure someone is going to break into the house right then to murder me, or I’m on the operating table, awake, during my second C-section and sure I’m going to die during surgery, or panicking about my car being submerged in water and not being to get my kids out…while I’m not even driving (this might have happened this morning), these words at least take my anxiety from a 10 to around a 4. Not bad!*
*This post is not meant to suggest that anxiety can be cured with words. It’s just one anxious person sharing something that helps sometimes.