My family has gone through several major challenges over the past few years, including losing a close relative due to Covid as well as a series of other challenges. Now bh it seems that life has finally settled back to normal, but it feels hard for me to relax out of emergency mode because that's where I've been for so long. I feel like part of me is just waiting for the next challenge to arrive. How can I help myself get the message that everything is ok now, especially when in truth life will inevitably present more yissurim sooner or later?
I’m sorry that your family has been facing so many challenges. Of course, everyone deals with problems differently. When there is a cascade of issues that seem to bombard us all at once, however, it becomes difficult to maintain our normal equanimity. Theoretically and intellectually speaking, we should be able to deal with a number of co-occurring issues in the same way that we would if they were spread out over a longer period of time. However, on an emotional level the whole appears larger than the sum of its parts.
Our emotions are always “running in the background,” and the more power that they assert, the harder it becomes for us to focus on the other side of our minds—our conscious, logical thoughts. It is our logical thought processes that allow us to deal with situations “appropriately.”
The dichotomy to which you alluded in your final statement is very poignant to many of us. Sure, I know that things are ok now, so I shouldn’t feel anxious. But I also know that bad things will happen—it is inevitable. So why should I not feel anxious?
We all possess a fight-or-flight response, allowing us to react decisively in anxiety-provoking situations. When anxiety is triggered, our bodies react by enhancing certain abilities, related to things like strength, speed, and sight. These abilities are manifested via increased heart rate and respiration, the draining of the blood from non-essential body parts like the face, and other physical effects. When we are in a truly dangerous situation, these reactions help us to fight or to escape. When our fight-or-flight response is inappropriately triggered in normal circumstances, we are left with the negative aspects and none of the positive ones.
The first step toward changing constant triggering of this response is to recognize it for what it is and to associate it with its particular trigger. It often feels like we are simply generally anxious without a particular reason. This makes perfect sense, since there often is no reason. This, however, doesn’t mean that there’s no trigger. Identifying the trigger that led to a feeling of anxiety allows our conscious mind to assert itself, thus reducing the unconscious mind’s dominion. Simply put, recognizing what made us anxious allows us to consciously decide to what degree we should be concerned.
Identifying specific triggers and resultant emotional reactions accomplishes something else as well. Part of the reason that dealing with numerous problems at once can be so overwhelming (more so than dealing with the same number of issues separately) is that it becomes more difficult to compartmentalize. We begin to react to everything, thus not consciously really dealing with anything. Since our unconscious mind is therefore more prominent, it is easy to feel that thing will become catastrophic. As we acknowledge triggers for feelings of anxiety, we often begin compartmentalizing in a better fashion.
Time is another factor that should not be ignored. They say that time heals all wounds. Although this is not always strictly true, it does generally work. As we grow distant from the source of our fight-or-flight response, our anxiety tends to decrease. If this is happening, you may be experiencing a normal reaction to a difficult period of time in your life. One reason that time heals is that the anxiety response lessens (as it is no longer necessary) and we are thus better able to view things from a logical perspective. Encouraging our minds to do this at an accelerated pace can help us to achieve this more quickly.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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