The unknown is at once liberating and maddening. Though the real trouble comes in our attempts to avoid the unknown or to control it. Tools for adaptability, resilience, and acceptance are certainly part of managing the unknown and its outcomes, but I’d bet that we’d be better off first getting to know our friends; uncertainty and anxiety.
Uncertainty – an inevitability when living a life of growth and self-development. Anxiety is is the lovely insidious sidekick of uncertainty, which takes us anywhere from chronic muscle tension to paralyzed actions. The etymological root of anxiety is the Latin term for painful & tight constriction.
Anxiety is a physical sensation. Situations that create stress – like excitement, anticipation, worry or fear – create an increase in our sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The SNS signals us to sweat, expands lung capacity & shunts blood to the muscles & away from digestion. The adrenaline that surges in our blood increases our heart rate and makes us hyper-vigilant of our surroundings. We become filled with an intense desire to move – or stay perfectly still until the time is right. Anxiety clamps down on the releasing these SNS responses, and creates a tightened inhale-exhale pattern (hyperventilation) and makes us default to our reactive emotional behaviours for self-preservation.
Instead of seeing anxiety for the physical sensation it is, we often use it to describe the feeling of uneasiness within us. Anxiety is the body processing a constricted emotion, not necessarily an emotion in itself.
Depending on our familiarity with emotional vocabulary, anxiety sometimes shows up as other broad terms, such as “stressed-out”, “depressed”, or “worried”.
Occasionally, we mis-identify anxiety as fear. Fear is a life preserving emotion. Fear triggers responses that get us out of dangerous situations, with the same SNS responses from above. Anxiety is the result of constricting an emotion from pouring out. The relevance of distinguishing these is:
- There is no immediate danger in anxious states, only perceived danger/disappointment.
- The anxiety response magnifies in uncertainty, as a “best” course of action can’t be readily identified.
- Mistaking anxiety for fear triggers an almost uncontrollable response to protect the self from the situation at all costs, whether through avoidance or actions with severe consequences.
5 Questions you can ask yourself when you feel anxiety uprising:
Is it important?
Given limited energy and unlimited unknowns, decide whether this situation is important enough to dedicate your body’s resources toward. If your answer is a strong yes, it may be worth the resources to combine your best efforts with chance, while staying open to the unexpected outcomes. If it is anything other than a strong yes, let the sensation of “allowing” to frame this situation, and let your resources direct toward something you choose.
Can I feel it in my body?
Once the uncertainty has arrived, recognize how it impacts your body. Notice what tenses, what releases, what picks up and what slows down and, where do you feel the epicenter is in your body? If you have a meditation practice, this is a great time to settle with it. If meditation is not your thing, keep noticing the physical sensations and if it feels right, use your hands to help you visualize a softening or removal of the sensation.
Am I letting the emotions through?
Often when uncertainty arrives, we run circles around the situation compounding the discomfort and tension. In that circling, we don’t take time to acknowledge the emotions we are having, nor process how we would handle ourselves if things don’t go as we wish; An important question to ask within this is: How do I handle disappointment?
Can I build realistic time frames?
Uncertainty means that our own timelines are thrown out the window. Practicing patience with ourselves and others is tantamount to our ability to relieve anxiety. With each disappointment we have more information with which to create more appropriate expectations. Sit down with your expectations and check if they are achievable in your context.
Can I ask for help?
The term “failure is not an option” is built for situations that lack support networks & healthy coping mechanisms. Knowing that you can open up about your feelings through self-reflection, with friends, or with counsellors can a pillar in being able to walk through uncertainty and disappointment. Each time we go through disappointment with support, we build our internal resources and healthy coping mechanisms for the next time. Anxiety is easier to quell, if we feel safe enough to fail.
Anxiety, we often use it as an emotional descriptor, but for clarity in self-understanding, I’d like to suggest changing our language. Feeling anxious is akin to feeling tight & constricted in the emotional body. So next time you feel anxious, instead of ending yourfeelings vocabulary at the term anxious, what is the emotion underneath that you might be constricting?
“If you are protected from dark things, then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”
– Neil Gaiman.