Monday, April 11, 2016

When Worry Strikes: Read This

Recently, I was on an airplane that took off in high winds, headed for 40,000 feet, with a planned flying time of approximately 6 hours in duration.

These are facts. Shared with all of us passengers on the plane by the pilot via intercom. This is the weather. This is the height we plan to fly. This is how long we will be flying. No biggie, his voice seemed to convey. Just sit back, relax, etc., etc.

Notice these facts. Devoid of any emotion besides those which you - the reader - imposed based on your own experience of flying. Editor's note: Did I mention I was flying in coach? That's a fact too. Do with it what you will.

Now, here's how I felt about the facts:
Recently, I was on an airplane that took off in high winds (JESUS F*ING CHRIST!!), headed for 40,000 feet (IS THIS A ROLLER COASTER??? WE ARE ALL GOING TO DIE!!), with a planned flying time of approximately 6 hours in duration (WHAT FLYING TIME??!! WE ARE GOING DOWN BEFORE WE EVEN GET UP!!!AND IF BY SOME MIRACLE WE GET UP TO 40,000 FEET WE'VE GOT 6 HOURS TO RIDE THIS ROLLER COASTER OF DEATH!!!!).

Ok, those are my thoughts, my interpretation about the facts. My feeling was quite simply, terror. Beyond fear, I was terrified.

If we connect my feeling of terror to my thoughts it would look like this:
I feel terrified because I am sitting in a tiny seat, in a plane I have no control over, in very uncomfortable, turbulent weather that makes me feel dizzy and disoriented and nauseous. I feel terrified that these very uncomfortable conditions will continue for 6 hours and that I will be violently ill and that the plane and the pilot will encounter unexpected issues that will lead to our untimely death. I feel terrified that I am going to die a scary horrible death in this plane today. 

My thoughts are my interpretation of the facts. Everyone will have a different interpretation of the facts based on their own experience.

FYI: Feelings are experienced in the body. Thoughts occur in the mind. I feel terrified. I think I am going to die. The facts are that I am in an airplane, in high winds, traveling to 40,000 feet, and the time it will take to arrive at our destination is approximately 6 hours.

When individual interpretation and feeling is removed (without getting too philosophical about it and debating over whether time and distance and high winds are, in fact, "fact"), the facts remain. They are what they are.  The facts are the cheese. The cheese stands alone. Something like that.

Why does any of this matter?

Because we impose interpretation (thoughts) on everything and those interpretations (thoughts) impact how we feel. How we feel impacts how we act which impacts our progress in life, our self-esteem, relationships, and the list goes on.

Going back to my airplane story, I felt terrified and so I immediately did what I always do when I feel scared: I looked for any way that I could control the situation. I turned towards the window and I stared out at the clouds, the ground, the wing of the plane. I looked at the seatbelt sign (still lit). I checked my seatbelt. I turned off my music to make sure I could hear any announcements from the pilot. I crossed and uncrossed my fingers. I prayed.

While I was busy trying to find a way to control the situation I found myself in, my body automatically did what bodies do when they sense threat: My heart-rate sped up, I started to breathe heavily, my face flushed (blood pressure increased), I stared to feel clammy and sweaty, I felt a strong knot in my stomach as my digestion slowed down and prepared me to try to escape. This automatic reaction is the "fight / flight / freeze" response that all humans have in response to threat. These bodily functions happen without us thinking about it. They are part of the autonomic nervous system and take care of all of the things that keep us alive: breathing, heart rate, digestion, etc. Fight / flight / freeze have kept us alive for millions of years, running from tigers, protecting ourselves from aggressors, standing still until a threat passes.

But fight / flight / freeze also takes a toll on the body if sustained. Elevated heart rate and blood pressure, slowed digestion, increase in hormonal activity (cortisol and adrenaline) are not supposed to be activated for long. Nature intended for these systems to kick in temporarily to help us get away from a threat, not to hang out for hours and hours (and days and weeks) in the threat. In other words, the tiger is coming, run away from / kill / hide from the tiger and then get on with your life.

But what if the flight is 6 hours long and it's going to be a really bumpy ride? Or if you have a medical diagnosis that must be followed every 1-6 months to assess progression? What then?

I'll write more about this in future postings, but here's what I did during this particular flight. It almost felt like magic.

I didn't "do" anything.

What??!!, you might ask. How the hell is that magic??

Here's the thing. As I wrote at the beginning, facts are pretty much facts. Again, many philosophers I know (and you know who you are) might (would definitely) argue this with me. But in general, things like time, distance, speed, height, weather conditions are what they are in the moment. The same thing with blood test results. Yes you could argue that the instruments used to measure any of these things might be faulty and, yes, many instruments show different values. But assuming that all of the tools used to measure are well-calibrated, the measurements are what they are (i.e. You can blame your ten pound weight gain on the scale, but that's just because you don't like what it says. Interpretation. Nuff said.).

At the end of the day, our problem comes from our interpretation of and feelings related to the facts. My flight was shaping up to be a long, very bumpy one. I do not like the feeling of turbulence, I do experience motion sickness, and I don't like sitting for 6 hours feeling uncomfortable. My feelings impacted my interpretation of the facts: that this particular flight in these conditions would lead to unpleasantness and death.

So in this case, I suddenly realized that all of my staring out the window and nervous twitches and tics and white-knuckling didn't have ANY impact on the facts at all. Nothing that I was doing to mitigate my feeling of anxiety while strapped into my chair in row 29 was going to change the weather or the plane or the pilot. NONE OF IT. In other words, all of my worrying was entirely useless. It was only making me feel sick. My high blood pressure wasn't going to smooth out the turbulence.

I decided to do the opposite of everything I wanted to do which was to run screaming down the aisle (or really, to get off the plane). I sat facing forward in my seat. I folded my hands over my belly. I closed my eyes. And I counted slowly backwards from 100, telling myself that I could not open my eyes until I reached 1. Why? Because whether or not my eyes were closed was not going to change the turbulence or the pilot. I made a decision to sit with my uncomfortable feeling. This is the very essence of mindfulness. Did it feel shitty? You bet. But I am strong. I can tolerate shitty feeling. It's not going to kill me. Fear, on the other hand. Fear will kill you. High blood pressure will kill you. Sitting with my eyes closed, hands gently folded, facing forward, I allowed myself to just be in the discomfort knowing that this feeling would pass. Believe it or not, all feelings ebb and flow. Give a crappy feeling 10 - 15 minutes and it will be at least a little better than it was. I sat and I counted and I rode the waves. I didn't try to interpret what I was feeling, I just counted and rode. You'll never believe what happened next.

I fell asleep and woke up as we were landing safe and sound.

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