You’ve already imagined the cancerous spot. The long-anticipated trip to France won’t happen and the money invested will be gone. Even with chemo on the horizon, will you live? Then, in contemplating these dire circumstances, you cognitively decide to create a super tough coping mechanism, fight until cured. You will “win” no matter what…hold on a minute. Is this scenario even true? How has your mind dominated the conversation and imagined only the most horrible scenario? You haven’t even had the medical test confirming a diagnosis! What just happened?
Anticipatory stress is real. Our thoughts often worry about the future about all types of topics. Fear and anxiety trigger emotions so much that our rational minds completely check out! Even when a wonderful vacation has been thoughtfully planned, we can experience anticipatory stress! Or whether it’s waiting for a life threatening diagnosis (which is hopefully rare) or dealing with the many everyday anxiety-inducing events, how we deal with anticipatory stress so affects our lives and well being!
When triggered by stress the amygdala, an ancient structure in our brain, the center of our “fight or flight” response, takes over. Experiencing a “perceived threat” , the limbic system sends a message to the pre-frontal cortext, the location of our “thinking” brain, asking for help. In some cases, it’s too late… fear takes over and we react. We become the horrible feeling!
We all have scary moments. Some experiences are associated with past trauma creating a bigger trigger, like my recent medical experience. Other times, emotions just “win out”. For years any time we left Colorado, my mind pictured our house flooding, similar to what we’re sadly seeing in the Midwest now. Many years before, when selling our home in Massachusetts, it rained every day for a month, setting a new weather record and flooding the basement. With water everywhere our ability to close the sale became very difficult. Thus, for years afterwards, in a mostly drought-ridden Colorado, my family feared floods! Anticipatory stress is not always rational. Sound familiar?
The good news is that there are ways to manage this difficult anxiety! Here are some suggestions from my own road back to sanity:
- Mindfulness, being present in the moment, closes the gap between our brain’s executive functioning and our emotional centers. Recognizing that you’re experiencing crazy (but also normal) feelings is the first step to not becoming them. Ask yourself” what do you know to be true right now?” Look for information that you can verify and feel ok about. My health numbers were outstanding. Those were the facts: I was actually very healthy (and continue to be).
- Get in the world. When under stress act like life is normal and remind yourself what normalcy feels like. This doesn’t mean avoiding the fears. Yes, acknowledge them (and this can be so hard) and still carry on with the good parts of your life.
- Envision how you want something to go and or imagine the perfect outcome. See the event unfolding aligned with your own vision. See healing happening. Stay open to other possibilities, outcomes we can’t imagine that can also be super positive.
- Give your body what it needs. Extra rest. A pause, ending your work day a little earlier. Stopping with chores in the evening. Eating well. Taking time to recover and rest from the stress.
- Support of family and friends. Share your concerns with family and friends so that they can empathize and hold a space for your worry. As much as you don’t want to burden someone else, usually friends and family are willing to support you when managing fear, easing your stress. Many friends helped me get through this recent stressful interlude.
Sometimes it’s just tough to beat our concerns. Acknowledging the difficulty is a Start towards managing versus being controlled by the scary and often mean feelings. With practice in mindfulness and self care we’ll be able to take care of ourselves, no matter the circumstances.
Wishing you well always on the full journey!