You never know what you’ll discover on a daily walk. Some days you learn more than others. A recent walk reminded me of the galvanizing force of anxiety.

damaged-lawn

The Event

On a street lined by well-tended lawns, I came upon a properly dressed older woman I recognized from previous walks. A devoted gardener, I had often seen her in the middle of her lush rose bushes, trowel in hand, methodically extracting weeds. On this day, however, she was kneeling on her concrete driveway, furiously scrubbing the pavement with what looked like a dishwashing brush. Something was up.

When I asked her how she was, she slowly stood up and nodded in the direction of her two-tier front yard. Weaving through a row of flattened rose bushes and four newly staked fruit trees were two muddy car tire tracks. One track ran across the lower level of the garden. The other ran in parallel through the flower bed a foot and a half above.

As I stared in confused silence, the woman described what happened the night before. She and her husband had just finished dinner when they heard a loud roar outside. They sprang to their feet and threw open the front door in time to see a car hurtling down their street. The vehicle ricocheted back and forth between street curbs until it leapt up onto the sidewalk, toppling in sequence two twenty-five-foot-high streetlights.

Without stopping, it then plowed through several front yards, including the gardener’s, dodged a parked car, and finally crashed into a third streetlight at the intersection. By this time, the police had arrived. As the officers helped the driver out of her now disabled car, she yelled in slurred words, “I just wanted to go home!”

The Aftermath

Fortunately, this event, while bizarre, did not result in any personal injuries or permanent damage. The streetlights and plants will be replaced. The driver will lose her license and spend a lot of time negotiating with the city’s public utilities department and insurance companies.

The woman gardener, however, was left feeling anxious. She now knew that her safe neighborhood could be invaded by a drunk driver running over anything (or anyone) in their path of travel. Worse, the gardener thought there was nothing she could do to stop that from happening again.

Scrubbing the oily tire marks off the pavement to discharge tension was the beginning of her recovery process.

Our Anxious Times

As I reflected on the gardener’s situation, I was struck by how it mirrored the widespread anxiety caused by the current steady flow of unexpected, jarring events over which we have no control.

Not a day goes by when I don’t hear someone say how anxious they feel. Often the comment comes from normally centered people who grit their teeth and push through adversity. The sources of their anxiety cover a wide array, including such events as:

  • A company with a history of long-term loyalty to its employees does a large lay-off, eliminating jobs and full departments.
  • An unexpected health diagnosis that the medical community can’t explain.
  • A major flood, wildfire, snowstorm, or other natural disaster sweeps into their city and damages many homes.
  • A hack into a bank’s computer system cuts off access to customer accounts and jeopardizes their security.
  •  Or, . . . a drunken driver tears up the neighborhood.

Whatever the event, it revs up a person’s stress engine, kicking in the emotional and physical reactions of anxiety.

To Be Anxious is Human

While both animals and humans experience fear in the face of a present threat, anxiety is uniquely human. Humans fear not only present threats, but also the possibility of negative events occurring in the future. Anxiety is more than the usual discomfort that comes with change, expected or not, because it includes excessive worry that danger could occur.  As described by Psychology Today:

Anxiety is both a mental and physical state of negative expectation—mentally characterized by increased arousal and negative expectancy tortured into worry, and physically by activation of multiple body systems—all to facilitate coping with an unknown or adverse situation.

The Brain and Anxiety: A Brief Primer

Anxiety is felt physically, but the mental processes of the brain motor it. According to brain scientists, anxiety begins when the brain’s central emotional processor, the amygdala, reads incoming stimuli as a threat. It responds by sending out an alarm to tell other areas of the brain to prepare for defensive action. The heart rate increases, blood pressure rises, and breathing quickens. Areas in the brainstem switch on, causing high alertness and vigilance. The hippocampus, which houses memories and learning, tries to find a comforting context for the incoming information based on past experiences.

The prefrontal cortex provides an overarching executive function for all these systems. It converts the information collected by the brain into problem-solving and decision-making.  Normally, it prevails over the amygdala. However, an amygdala activated by negative input can prevent the prefrontal cortex from doing its job.

In other words, when an event upsets you, your anxious reaction can get in the way of solving the underlying problem.

The Way Forward in Three Steps

Anxiety gives you a choice. You can stay worried and stuck, or use it as an opportunity to do something positive.

To shift into a forward-looking gear, here are three steps to consider:

1. Honor your reaction

The fear of danger from event-triggered anxiety feels awful. Dealing with it by not dealing with it is highly tempting. The temptation is made worse by societal pressure to look like you have life handled, which doesn’t solve the problem, and can come off as playacting.

Running away from anxiety will merely postpone and displace its impact. If your physical symptoms don’t remind you, your behavior will: You catch yourself yelling at your blameless dog or partner, complaining loudly to the grocery clerk about a torn paper bag handle, or spending an hour on the phone making life miserable for a customer service representative.

Rather than letting your anxious symptoms rip and create new problems, it’s better to listen to what your brain is trying to tell you. Give yourself permission to acknowledge your anxiety, physical symptoms, crazy making fears, and all.

2. Do nothing (or not much)

We live in a society with a strong bias for action. When something causes anxiety, a common reaction is to act rather than think. You jump onto the internet to research, chatter with random people, or pour a tall glass of wine. These strategies might offer the illusion of control, but without knowing what issue lies at the bottom of your fear, you could end up diverting rather than reducing your anxiety.

Quieting the brain

Years ago, I was blindsided by a personal situation that caused major anxiety and left me with no idea of what to do. Fortunately, I had a wise counselor who knew me well. After hearing my story, she said, “You are going to have to do something you’ve never done before.”  As a lifelong overachiever, I had no idea what she was about to suggest. “What would that be?” I asked. “Nothing,” she replied. That terrified me more than my situation.

Yet, anxiety had narrowed my perceptions. It prevented me from seeing that what I wanted to happen was beyond my control. I needed to look inside to figure out what worried me that I could change.

Avoiding a leap into action forced me to see life the way it is, not what I’d like it to be. The resulting detachment reduced my anxiety, allowing me to view my situation with a wider and more realistic lens.

Brain quieting tools

For those for whom doing nothing is not a natural act, start by scheduling a meeting with yourself. Sit still. Stare into the distance, or some other view that offers little distraction (i.e., not your computer screen). Breathe deeply and focus on the silence. If you are meditator, this is a good time to use those skills.

Try free writing. Free writing is an unstructured, natural flow of observations, feelings, and ideas that can range all over the place. It does not end with an action plan but, rather, breaks loose thoughts that you might not have realized are influencing your fear-based behavior. Use them to help isolate the source of your anxiety (see step 3).

3. Find the source and then fix it

You can’t fix a problem until you know what’s broken. If you don’t know what is causing your fear, you won’t be able to create an appropriate plan of action, much less a satisfying one.

One of the best tools for uncovering the root cause of your anxiety is conversation. What makes it hard is admitting your fears out loud and the feeling of vulnerability that goes with it.  Ask a trusted friend, colleague, or advisor for help. Their job is to listen, ask follow-on questions, and challenge gently if needed. In you are an introvert who finds initiating conversations challenging, choose someone who is good at both opening and follow-on questions.

For a more structured approach that can also facilitate conversation, try the 5 Why’s approach from the popular Six Sigma method.

The exercise starts with stating the triggering problem and asks a progression of why questions to get to the core driving cause. To the progression, add, “So What?” That is code for what are you going to do about it?

An example: Using the surprise layoff scenario, a 5-Why analysis might look like this:

The Problem: I’ve lost my job and I’m so upset I don’t know what to do.

The 5 Why’s:

  1. Why? I counted on that job and wanted to keep it.
  2. Why? I thought the company would protect me, so I didn’t have to worry about finding another job.
  3. Why? I hate job hunting and don’t like change.
  4. Why? I never learned how to network and dread asking people for help.
  5. Why? Asking for help was never an option in my family, so I’m scared if I ask for something, I’ll be ridiculed.

So What?: Therefore, I need to get coaching for networking skills and counseling to deal with my resistance to asking for help.

In choosing your “so what,” don’t boil the ocean. Figure out what you can achieve with a modicum of effort. Once you have a modest success, you can build on it to achieve larger things.

If you are a list person, write down an action plan. Keep it short, keep it current and celebrate every win, big or small.

On to the Future

woman-gardening

A few weeks after the drunken driver incident, I wandered by the gardener’s home. One of the fruit trees was gone, but the three remaining were standing strong. The roses had worked their way back to health. I noticed the lower bed was not weeded and the sidewalk still bore a tire track.  However, the grass next to the garden was mowed and edged.

I suspect the gardener continues to work on her anxiety, to her benefit and us walkers who appreciate her garden. I don’t know what she can or will do about drunk drivers, but her willingness to talk with people about the event will sensitize the neighborhood to the safety issue.

Dealing with anxiety head-on gives you a chance to look to the future and move forward to a better place.

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