Sometimes it seems like anxiety is trying to tell us something. Those tingly feelings in our guts do feel like a warning signal; alerting us to something serious and best not ignored. However, anxiety is not NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command).
I was listening recently to a discussion between 4 psychologists. One of them, Dr. Kelly McGonigal, talked about how we attach meaning – a story – to feelings. Kind of like we add sugar and cinnamon to oatmeal, to change and improve the taste. Dr. M said we do this because it gives us a sense of control; especially with fear and anxiety. In this way, what begins as a simple sensation in the body grows into sometimes complex beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
No really, it’s true!
Having attempted to convince many people (including myself) that anxious feelings are not iron-clad evidence that the add-on story is THE TRUTH, I can tell you that a crowbar is often not strong enough to pry apart feelings from story. (This is a metaphor, just in case anyone wonders what kind of bizarre therapy goes on in my office. I can assure you, my crowbar stays put in my garage.)
In our COVID-y current reality, it’s no surprise that we all experience some anxiety. While these sensations can be very strong, and may seem like an air-raid siren going off inside of us; they are not the same.
NORAD (I’m winging this, drawing mostly on action movies; so it may not be entirely accurate) involves a network of sensitive electronics, able to pick up on threatening activities many miles distant. I imagine it’s pretty accurate. (Heck, it tracks Santa every year!)
Expectations vs Reality
Our nervous systems, on the other hand, are not connected to remote sensors and do not pick up on events happening many miles away from us, and/or in the future. Stuff right in front of us — picture a big, snarly German Shepherd running toward you — our nervous systems register fine. Stuff happening in another city, country or continent? Ummm… not really.
Nevertheless, this does not stop us from assuming twinges of anxiety tell us for sure that doom is approaching. This gets reinforced when people around us say, “I told you! I had a feeling __ was going to happen. Look, it did!” The fact that this person’s feelings also predicted dozens of other catastrophes — none of which panned out — is typically forgotten in such moments.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that all claims of distant/future events are wrong. I’m saying the butterflies in your stomach are not irrefutable proof.
Anyhoo… back to COVID-19. When the icy fingers of anxiety grip your guts, this is not evidence that you and/or your family will get the virus. Nor is it a trustworthy sign that bad things are going to happen to big, important stuff like the economy.
Which sucks. I wish anxiety could pick up on danger stirring on the far coast of the country. That would be a superpower, and I’ve always wanted a superpower.
“Thank goodness! Predict-o-Man is here! He can tell us exactly what to do.”
Uncertainty… that nasty word.
Maybe the economy will tank; or maybe not. Maybe you will get the virus; or maybe not. In other words (sigh) we’re stuck with a big, bad word: uncertainty.
This is why I think Dr. McGonigal has a good point. The trying-to-get-a-sense-of-control part, to be specific.
I might use a different term and call it a sense of predictability. If, after all, I can predict something, then I have more control because I can plan to avoid it. Or defeat it. Or if nothing else, brace myself for it. Any of those seem better than getting taken by surprise, and overwhelmed.
In fact, you might be thinking, “Why would I ever want to give up a sense of control and predictability? Live with uncertainty; are you nuts, Mr. Therapist?”
First, the sense of control and predictability is an illusion. Anxiety is not NORAD. Furthermore, it’s an illusion put in place to protect against something which may never happen.
And here’s the most important reason of all: living in fear and worry sucks. So it ain’t easy to let go of the security of NORAD, and live with uncertainty. But it’s worth it.
Next time, I’ll get into further detail of how to do this.