At the end of last year, I needed to have surgery. It was minor enough to be a day patient procedure but major enough to require general anaesthetic—the prospect of which freaked me out. Before this point, the most dramatic medical procedure I’d ever experienced was a lumbar puncture when I had meningitis as a child, so the idea of being unconscious while people cut me open left me feeling totally wigged out (hello, control issues). Add to that the fact I had a four-month-old baby (which brings up allll the feels about the uncertainty of life, mortality, the future, and existential joys and fears), and I was anxious about the whole event.
After a few nights of waking up at 2am to feed my daughter, then lying awake until four or five feeling a sense of dread and fear about something that, in my rational mind, I knew wasn’t the almost-certainly-life-threatening event my monkey mind was making it out to be, I knew I had to do something to calm my anxiety.
I know I’m not alone in experiencing this kind of anxiety about upcoming events where much is out of our control. And I know facing these events head-on is part of life. So in this week’s post, I want to share a few of the things I found helpful when thinking about my surgery. Whatever you’re about to face (or might face in the future), I hope they’re helpful for you too:
Many of my fears came from the fact I knew nothing about surgery, beyond TV shows where people seemed to randomly stop breathing while under anaesthetic (thanks, Grey’s Anatomy). Learning more about how everything worked and statistics helped give me a far more realistic perspective. This option isn’t for everyone and I know people who find it more comforting to take the “ignorance is bliss” approach, but I prefer to know what I’m facing head on. I will research risks, options, and every aspect of something I’m anxious about until I feel like I have a handle on it. In this case, my research confirmed what my rational mind was telling me: it would be fine, I would be fine, and in a few months I’d look back at the whole event knowing there was nothing to worry about (which is exactly what has happened).
What information are you missing about the source of your anxiety? Where can you find it? Who can you talk to in order to feel more informed?
2. Practise negative visualisation
Although we tend to avoid thinking about the worst that could happen, why not let yourself go there? My worst case scenario was that I would die (yep, really), which was unlikely given it wasn’t major surgery (and, as I knew from my research, the odds were incredibly low anyway). After a couple of weeks of telling myself not to be so melodramatic—which, funnily enough, doesn’t help—I allowed myself to contemplate my worst case scenario without shutting down that train of thought.
Even though it was uncomfortable, it actually helped me feel calmer. The worst case scenario with everything is: we die. And, although dying is a bummer, as Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations, it’s not like we will feel anything or know we’re dead so what is there really to be afraid of? The most useful thing we can do right now is stay in the present and savour what there is to savour.
What is your worst case scenario? Write out everything you think could go wrong and face it.
3. Focus what you can control/not control
Most of the things we tend to dwell on are out of our control. My theory is dwelling on all of these things gives us a false sense of regaining some of that control as though our thoughts (and how long we spend thinking about them) somehow has the power to change them. Of course, this isn’t the case. Focusing on the things we can control is helpful, focusing on the things we have no power over or ability to change, not so much.
When I was focusing on things I couldn’t control pre-surgery, I found I was distracting myself from focusing on the things I could, which was self-defeating. Shifting my focus to the things I had control over helped me feel more at peace about the things I didn’t.
Create two lists: one of everything you can control in this situation and one of everything you can’t control. Are you spending your time focusing on the right list?
4. Do something from your When Life Works list
5. Enjoy the small moments
To borrow a quote from Dani DiPirro, ‘Focus more on what is than what if.” This might seem like it contradicts negative visualisation, but these two things actually work together. Rather than trying to shove away negative thoughts and focus on the positive, give yourself a chance to let them happen. Take what you can from it—an appreciation of the present—then move on to focusing on what is.
What would you do differently if you focused more on what is than what if?
It’s simple, and it works. Taking nice, slow deep breaths, dropping our shoulders and relaxing any parts of our body we recognise to be tense helps us relax. According to clinical psychologist Marla W. Deibler, slowing our breathing helps take us from fight-or-flight response to the calmer domain of the parasympathetic nervous system. If you think about how being in fight-or-flight mode affects your emotional wellbeing, your physical body, your thinking, and decision-making abilities, calming our breathing has obvious benefits.
Take a big deep breath to the count of five, then exhale all the way to the count of seven. Repeat this 4-5 times and notice the difference in how you feel.
7. Think of times you’ve faced a similar challenge in the past and it’s turned out ok
While nothing might be as anxiety-provoking or as big an obstacle as whatever you’re facing, it’s still helpful to think back to the previous times you’ve encountered uncertainty, doubt, fear, and to think about how you handled them. Not only does this help us look at lessons from the past but it can also bolster our confidence in our ability to handle the future.
When have you faced a similar challenge? What worked? What didn’t? And how can that inform how you approach this event now?
8. Share your fear
On surgery day, as I walked up to the theatre, the nurse asked me how I was feeling. I said I was nervous. He said he understood, he had recently had five (!) surgeries to remove a stubborn kidney stone and everything had been fine each time. Hearing his story reminded me: people do this all the time, I am not alone in what I’m feeling, and more often than not everything goes well.
Who can you share your fear with? And what do you need from them? Reassurance? Understanding? Advice? Have a clear request in mind and go and share.
9. Remember: thinking something doesn’t make it true
Our fears will not inevitably come to pass, even though it feels like they might. When we feel anxiety around something, our feelings can make the worst case scenario feel far more likely to happen than it is in reality. When I notice my thoughts are going off the rails and I’m buying into them as truth, I say in my mind: “This is just a thought. This is just a thought.” It helps take the power out of the thoughts and reminds me they aren’t necessarily true.
10. Explore the beliefs underneath the anxiety
I have noticed I feel more anxious in general since my daughter was born. Part of that comes from having far more responsibility. Part of it is hormones (so many hormones). Part of it also stems from buried beliefs about myself and my life that no longer serve me.
The truth is that right now things are great. Being a mother is far more rewarding, fun and, in some ways, easier than I thought it would be. Things are going well in my relationship, we have exciting plans for the future, I’m in good health (except the reason behind the surgery, which is now A-OK), and I’m slowly finding a balance between parenthood and other aspects of my life and identity that are also important to me.
And while this is all going on, part of me is waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the catch. This part struggles to believe things could be this good without some kind of karmic re-balancing coming my way. It latches on to anything it can feel anxious about and runs with it. Everything is fair game. I know this part is stuck in the past, at a time when waiting for the other shoe to drop was rational self-protection because it would, at some point.
Even though I’ve been doing this kind of self-reflection and self-work for 10 years now (and I’m in a very different place in my life), I still find it hard to feel happy. This is something I’ve only really become aware of since my daughter was born, and it requires constant vigilance to remind myself that things are good, right here, right now, whatever the future holds.
I don’t think beliefs around deserving/not deserving to be happy are at the root of all anxiety (although I’m sure it is for some people). But I do think the beliefs we have about ourselves and our lives are powerful. The more we become aware of our beliefs and the sway they hold over our lives, the more we can decide which we want to hold on to, and which it’s time to discard.
What beliefs could underlie your anxiety? Are there any old or obsolete beliefs there it’s time to update?
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