Today I’m waiting for the outcome of a friend’s surgery, and whether that’s fear or anxiety, it’s pretty hard to take because there’s nothing I can do to influence the situation.
Fear and anxiety have set in. Technically, they are different although I consider them blended cousins. According to the psychologists who wrote the DSM, the diagnostic manual of mental disorders, fear is “the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat,” whereas anxiety is the “anticipation of future threat.” Whatever. They’ve both got me today.
I know that fear has its place. When it’s collaborative, fear gives me warnings I need to stay safe. But today, it’s overstepped its bounds.
What to do when fear charges at us like a grizzly, leaving us caught on the trail, frozen like a deer, fearing those huge claws, yet unable to run?
Today, that’s what waiting feels like.
As I write these words, I’m watching the clock thinking about my friend.
With each hour that passes, my anxiety starts feeling emboldened.
I remembered when my husband had his heart procedures. I could bear the tension of waiting for a few hours while I distracted myself, but when the surgery went beyond its expected duration, a five-star alarm started ringing in my brain.
Today, I want to do it differently. I want to keep my sanity while waiting for news.
As part of my make-it-through-the-day strategy, here’s what I came up with:
1) Do nothing.
Knowing that this, too, will pass, I can give myself permission to dog-paddle around feeling completely dysfunctional, unable to place bank statements in the proper “Bank” folder or even call a friend. At some point, the tension will release, and I’ll move on. In the meantime, I’ll try to be compassionate. Lots of emotions are running, and I must remember not to get mad at the unhelpful service representative or scream at the dogs for once again tracking mud all over the floors I just cleaned.
2) Get busy.
If I can manage to do that filing, make those over-due phone calls, or even write that report, I may be able to do an end-run around the fear by staying busy, at least for a while. I cleaned up the muddy floors.
3) Eat dark chocolate.
According to the research, dark chocolate may improve blood flow and lower blood pressure–as if I needed a justification. Perhaps 7 am is a little early in the day to start nibbling, but today was an exception.
This could be tip number one, but it requires some intention. I try to take some deep breaths with longer exhales. I offer myself as many time-out-to-breathe moments as I need.
5) Put it into perspective/meditate.
This suggestion requires more focus because it involves using my mind. If I’m lucky, I’ll reframe the situation to align it with reality and bypass some fear. The surgeons were positive. That’s good. When lives aren’t at stake, I can try to put my worries into the “greater scheme of things.”
But reframing assumes that I have control of my mind. Today it’s behaving like a couple of crazed horses who’ve cut loose and left the barn. Meditation may help, but it’s hard to sit still when I hear the runaways galloping and shrieking. I may need to calm my body before I can meditate.
This one might sound weird, but I tell you, it works. Today, I put on some music and shook for ten minutes. I can’t believe how much it helped.
Generally, when we’re waiting for someone to come out of surgery at the hospital, we’re not encouraged to shake. Too bad. Movement, and specifically shaking, is one of our bodies’ natural defenses against fear. When shaking might seem out of place (really, who cares?), we can try running, dancing, digging or even discretely tapping our toes under a table.
One problem with fear is that it can immobilize us.
That brilliant maestro of somatic learning, Peter Levine, who spent decades studying how we recover from trauma, noticed that animals, in the wild, shake after they’ve gone through a terrifying experience. After the lion leaves, the impala shakes her way back to normalcy. Humans, however, are rarely encouraged to use the body’s natural responses to fear: shaking, trembling, crying, or even screaming. Instead, we learn to keep fear locked under wraps within our bodies, often for years.
Trauma experts suggest that by shaking and moving, we can release some of our held-in fear, whether it comes to us from past or present concerns.
Shaking or moving breaks the trance of immobility, and allows the amygdala an outlet for its fearful energies.
I’ve been praying a lot. Whether you believe in God or not, prayer is one of those actions you can take because “it can’t hurt, and it just might help.” I pray for my friend. I pray for the family. I pray to make it through the next half hour.
Prayer helps me break through the illusion that I’m in my distress alone, which is almost never true.
8) Take a small step.
I’ve decided to treat my small steps today like gifts. I’m going to give myself the gift of 15 minutes of filing, the gift of breakfast, the gift of paying a bill. Hokey, perhaps, but one thing people who have stood at the edge of death often say, is that it’s the small, routine, sometimes overlooked parts of life, for which they are acutely grateful.
Because they understand the gift that each small, routine, step represents.
Finally, one last, optional, step:
Ok. This tip is not for everyone, but it works for me. If you love dog kisses, you’ll know exactly what I mean.
Mostly, I’ve been trying not to get frozen by fear. It brings some gifts: heightening my senses and helping me to realize what’s most important.
Not so bad, really, not so bad.