Our Scared Brains
Tensions have been running higher than I can remember for a very long time here in the U.S., and all centered around the presidential election. Fear seems to be everywhere and anxiety has gone through the roof. Many other countries around the world have gone through this before, but I think this may be the first time here that one of the big fears is that our democracy is at stake for the first time since the civil war. So first, we all need to take a deep breath.
At the time of this writing, which is just one day after the election, we don’t know who won. That of course could change before this podcast drops, but even if we do have an answer by then, it doesn’t appear it will go unchallenged. We may not know who the next President of the United States is for certain for weeks or even months. Regardless of who wins, the presidency has far-reaching implications across the globe and there is probably at least some anxiety outside this country as to who is pronounced the next leader, whether due to economic impact, trade, military, immigration, and even technology issues. It’s probably safe to say that between a global pandemic, civil unrest in various hotspots around the world and great economic uncertainty across the earth, none of us really needed one more thing to feel anxious about.
Our brains are basically scared now. And scared brains, unchecked, release stress hormones that only add to our feelings of anxiety. While we’ve talked quite a bit about anxiety over the past eight months, the requests for support and tools to cope continue to come in, so I sat down for a chat with an expert from New Zealand this week, who has a therapy practice in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Dr. Sharyn Kennedy holds a BS in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, a Masters in Educational Psychology and a PhD in Cognitive Psychology from Massey University in New Zealand. She also holds a Postgraduate Diploma in Psychological Practice. She has taught thousands of clients how to successfully manage anxiety, stress and depression. She loves helping people learn about and understand their amazing brain, so they can make sense of the way they think, feel and behave. Her ultimate goal is to teach people how to stay calm, capable and confident - even in the face fear and confusion, chaos, and problems.
I truly appreciate that Dr. Kennedy’s best advice to reducing anxiety is the simplest thing in the world. Just breathe, with intention. That is the core of mindfulness meditation. Focus on the breath. Use the breath to connect with the body. Recognize that when our thoughts are all over the place, our brains can’t always help us. But our bodies can send a powerful signal to the brain to calm down.
I think an important factor that came up in my conversation with Dr. Kennedy was about the importance of flexibility. An easy litmus test to determine how flexible our thinking might be is to simply pay attention to how many times a day lately you’re saying the word “should.”
“They shouldn’t behave that way.” “He shouldn’t be president.” “We should have an answer by now.” When you hear the word should, it’s a big, red flag that you’re in judgment, which is rigid, not flexible. We create a picture in our minds of how things “should” be and then when our outer reality doesn’t match that picture, we tell ourselves that it has to be wrong and we resist being open to a different picture. The main point being, of course, is that it’s a picture – a made up story we’ve visualized into an image. But that doesn’t make it true. It’s still made up. The more flexible we can be, the more open-minded to even a tiny possibility of alternatives, the less stressed and anxious we become.
Now, of course we’re anxious. And according to Dr. Kennedy, we’re always anxious, so it’s not about anxiety itself, but about the level of anxiety we’re experiencing. While she suggests that avoiding the uncomfortable feelings or thoughts we’re experiencing doesn’t serve us well, she also mentioned that it’s normal to try to move away from them, as well as situations or people that stir up anxiety, but there’s an aspect to that which we can use to our benefit during times of high anxiety, like this election.
While we don’t want to avoid what makes us uncomfortable, there are behaviors that we can change right now to ease our anxiety. Put down the devices and step away from the television. Listening to the constant rhetoric, second-guessing, accusations, arguments about what is or isn’t true, and absolutely unfounded predictions about what will happen in the world based on who wins an election, is absolutely futile. Not to mention trying to understand what the purpose is of the electoral college or why we have it. It just generates massive anxiety.
Stop watching, listening, and reading about it. We’ve performed our role – we voted. Now we can step back and recognize that the process will unfold however it is going to unfold. It is out of our control. It doesn’t matter what politicians say, what news anchors say, what conspiracy theorists say, what is posted on Twitter, Instagram, or the local community news bulletin board. None of that will change the outcome. Instead, we can breathe, connecting to our bodies in order to better control what our minds are doing. We can be patient. Why does it matter if we find out today, or next week, or next month? We will eventually find out who the next president is, and if we have anxiety about that outcome, we can deal with it when it actually happens.
There’s a quote I love that has been attributed to multiple people that goes like this:
“Worrying does not take away tomorrow’s troubles. It takes away today’s peace.” Similarly, Leo Buscaglia said, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow. It only saps today of its joy.”
I’m not saying you should ignore issues, or take no action, or not plan ahead. But when we have no factual information, we can’t take effective action. Worrying doesn’t accomplish anything, other than creating more anxiety. Live today. Stay in the present. Remember that everything else is only made up stories, whether yours or someone else’s. We can instead focus on all of the blessings we do have, love our families, care for our friends and community, and remember that whatever the situation is, it will pass. Remaining calm and focusing on today will only strengthen our resiliency and leave us better prepared to handle whatever may come in the future.
Thanks again to Dr. Sharyn Kennedy for joining us today. Check out her website, including her blog, at stillmind.net.