Don't Worry, Be Happy (or, how Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK alone...trust me.)
I worry. A lot. With all of the terrible things we've heard in the news recently, it's hard to resist the urge to build a bunker in the back yard. I come from a long line of bunker builders. We are brave and tenacious and prepared. We're also scared. Turns out you can be brave and afraid at the same time.
I love worrying. It's so bad for me that it actually is eroding my insides, but I'm pretty much a professional at it. Everyone has a calling. My best work is during a major crisis. I stayed up all night during the Boston Marathon Bombing man hunt and memorized the map of the neighborhoods the FBI was searching in. I have downloaded police and fire scanner apps on my phone in the past because you never know when you might needed. <Yes, I realize what this looks like in print.> I got into a serious YouTube loop about plane crashes once - that was a rough one. Let me tell you from my extensive flying experience that no amount of worrying actually keeps your plane in the air...no matter what I say when I’m panic-reading the safety card in my seat back pocket.
The more horrible an event was, the more I'd obsess. I couldn't stop watching the news. Terrible news. It's always terrible news. And if there wasn't a tragedy to be engrossed in, I'd find something equally horrible to become mesmerized by. I was obsessed with Princess Diana's death. I know way too much about JFKs assassination. Like, WAY too much. I read the entire 9/11 Commission Report...all 567 pages. I think it all started with being fascinated with the Baby Jessica story when I was little…that might have been a red flag.
This obsession with the morbid and terrible made me a very good catastrophe insurance adjuster. It also made me slightly insane. You can be both of those things too.
My worrying became my life for a long time. When I traveled for work, I would push my hotel desk in front of the door, and then sleep on the farthest edge of the bed with the lights on. Or I’d have a Jason Bourne-esque escape plan when out to dinner with friends. I would find myself taking different routes back from claims just in case someone was following me. When I was home, I would check the doors and the alarm several times, then check my shotgun to make sure it was in perfect arms reach for when they broke in. Because there was always a They, and They were about to break in. Sometimes I would be overwhelmed with the thought that I could be shot at the grocery store, or that a log will fall off a truck on the highway like in the movie Final Destination…which I didn’t watch because why pay to see someone else’s anxieties in a movie? Last fall I called in sick to work because I was convinced ISIS was at the mall down the street getting an Orange Julius before they came over to my building to mow us all down.
Are you weirded out? Suck it up. That is just the tip of my anxiety iceberg. Let me know when you have a few days, and I’ll fill you in on my health anxieties, and other miscellaneous irrational fears.
My favorite pastimes are grilling after having two whiskey sours, and dress rehearsing disaster.
<PS, I realized halfway through writing this blog that I’ve already talked about rehearsing disaster - feel free to read "You're the Worst, Meg Ryan" whilst on the John at work...I’m on a roll here, so too late to find a new topic.>
Luckily for me (and I actually mean this), in 2015 I had several weeks of crippling panic attacks, followed by a year-ish of actually dealing with this worry and anxiety crap. Turns out, my lifestyle of keeping my head down and treating stress as a status symbol (#brene) was just not sustainable. My body knew what my mind didn't, and pumped the breaks pretty hard on me. I remember once, when I was in Super Weird mode, listening to a podcast with hypnotist Chel Hamilton (I know…but stay with me), and she talked about the unconscious parts of our brain. She asked whether there had ever been any times when you’ve driven somewhere, say work, and you get there and don't remember the drive at all. [um. yes.] She talked about how that part of our brain, the part where we've built deeply engrained habits, does things to keep us safe. The habits think that they're keeping us safe. It keeps us safe when we go into autopilot driving to work, but that autopilot keeps us stuck in any habit we build for ourselves.
Other things that happened when I was Super Weird: there were moments when I was outside in the spring seeing the green of the leaves, and having to actually stop walking because it was like the green was filling my cells. That's the benefit of having an over-sensitized nervous system: you hear, see, smell and feel everything like you’re on LSD. There, too, were many nights during that time that through terrified tears I'd beg and say out loud, "I just want to not feel this!" I would have taken anything to not feel everything so intensely. I wanted numbness more than I wanted my next breath.
That begging to not feel? That’s the part that’s a habit. The strength of a feeling doesn’t indicate its reliability.
There is a lot of information out there now about how thoughts are habits, and how they can be as addicting as the good-ol’-boys of drugs and alcohol. Actually, there’s some interesting stuff out there that I dare you to look up about how substance addiction and anxiety addiction are like pretty much best friends.
Recently, during a bout of particularly strong worry about someone else, I was being impressively neurotic and clingy, when I started to think something was really wrong with me. Why do I do this? Worrying doesn't actually solve anything, and it certainly doesn't keep your friends around. This kind of unproductive worry makes me actually sick. I get a stomach ache and chest pains. I get colds more. I can't sleep. I eat terribly. I sweat a lot. I drink wine alone sitting on my living room floor. I don’t leave my apartment when I know I should. It’s really hard to wake up and face yourself, isn’t it? It's hard to start to form new habits. It's like crossing your arms in the wrong direction. It’s uncomfortable, and awkward, and you look like a bit of an idiot.
Great news though! You can break the habit. Or at least kink the habit like a hose, so the worry trickles out a little slower. It takes practice, and a lot of patience. It takes wanting to make a change. It takes remembering that there's a difference between preparedness, and rumination on horrible statistically-unlikely events. Sometimes it takes help from an anxiety coach (thank you, Kelli Walker) ((www.panicandanxietycoach.com)). Always, it takes good friends and a lot of DeFazio’s and time in the park.
I try to give myself a break when I remember to, and tell myself that I’m not a weirdo when I've listened to every 9/11 phone message from the towers that’s been released, or look up “Where is ISIS” (like they drop a pin in Google Maps). I realized recently that, for me, it’s not about the morbid so much as it is about the good. I want to hear the stories about how people came together after a tragedy. How people loved right up to the end. How laws were changed, and how the community came together after things went tits up. There’s hope in that. I need to see how dark the dark really is, to see the blinding warmth of the light. Or something Buddha-ey.
Now-a-days, I practice skipping the middle man, and get right to the hope. I stopped watching the news, and I still hear the relevant crap anyway. I stopped engaging in unproductive negative conversations. I ask myself four quick questions things before my worry turns into rumination: “So what if?”, “Are you leaning in?”, “Where are your feet?” and “What are you grateful for?”.
I did this on repeat last night at Pilates.
Where I started: “I’m going to die or have a PTSD freak-out and throw up…I can’t do this.”
Where I ended: “I’m with a friend who loves me wants me to succeed. So what if I yack? Worse has happened at the YMCA.” Then I leaned into the fear, because fear screams like a hungry toddler when you run away from it. I focused on how my feet felt on the mat, and how strong I felt when I wasn’t tipping over. And lastly told myself how grateful I was to show up and have a good workout, that I have a nice yoga mat, that I like my pink socks with the geriatric grips on the bottom, that ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ was playing, and that I hadn’t yet farted. Then it was over.
And that’s what changes my worry habit. Not thinking about it, not wanting someone else to make me feel better, not avoiding things…you’re not in control of anything, so just lean in, and enjoy where you are. Force it until it becomes the new way you cross your arms. It works, I swear.