As we begin 2022, many turn their thoughts making new year’s resolutions. Helpful tips for making resolutions can be found everywhere, in special news reports, internet blogs and in the self-help section of bookstores. 7 Proven Steps to Set Achievable Resolutions – Life Leaders Institute Indeed, over the years, I have also offered advice to help folks stick to their resolutions. Getting Real about New Year’s Resolutions: Some things to think about before making one. | Pastoral Counseling Syracuse NY (revmichaelheath.com) Today, however, due to COVID and other stressors, which have made 2021 so difficult and anxiety filled, I want to talk about a stress management/anxiety-lowering approach called Plan B.
Feeling anxious is sometimes unavoidable. There is some stress which can’t be avoided because some aspects of life are out of our control, However, even when things happen which are out of your control, it is possible, with some practice , to reduce our level of anxiety. When traveling unexpected problems like cancelled flights or rooms not being ready can cause emotional distress, if one, unrealistically, expects that things will go perfectly without a hitch. While hoping for perfection is understandable , counting on it is not realistic. Understanding how our brain reacts to surprises and having a Plan “B” to turn to when frustrations occur can dramatically lower our experience of anxiety. Here’s how it works:
Here are three reasons why it is difficult to deal with unanticipated changes which spoil our plans:
Unrealistic expectations – When things unexpectedly go wrong and anticipated plans are spoiled, most often the problem lies with unrealistic expectations. Sometimes we expect things to just work out without taking seriously enough all of the factors that go into a perfect projected experience and all of the things that can go wrong to mess up the experience. For example, I was recently in New York City and had timed tickets for an art exhibition which was 30 minutes from our hotel. Despite calculating what we thought was sufficient time, traffic made being on time impossible. Having been to NYC before and understanding the unpredictability of traffic, we had a back-up destination which worked out beautifully.
Avoidance – Very simply, many folks would rather avoid thinking about problems instead of anticipating them . As a result many are unprepared and get caught off guard when problems arise.
The Limbic System – It is important to understand that the human brain is not simply rational. It contains a very ancient part called the limbic system which is driven by anxiety. When unexpected events occur and interfere with our plans, the limbic system feels out of control and can panic, shutting off access to the rational part of our brain ( the cortex). In a heightened state of anxiety , we can lose all sense of perspective and even small inconveniences can feel overwhelming. (Remember what it felt like when a flight was delayed and you were going to arrive at your destination a couple of hours later than planned.) Unfortunately , in a limbic-based state of distress, we can feel overwhelmed, our judgment can be skewed , and our actions may become unreasonable. Stress and anxiety are not just about feeling bad. They can involve problematic behaviors and consequences.
Fortunately there is something which can help. Having a Plan “B” available is an effective way to prevent and calm sudden attacks of heightened anxiety and distress. Here are some questions to help you construct a Plan “B”.
– What if ? Anticipate and ask yourself, “What could go wrong?”
Sometimes, although, we plan our travel down to the smallest detail, we spend little time thinking about what could go wrong or how likely it is that we may encounter obstacles. Taking the time to acknowledge potential bumps in the road can help us form realistic expectations. Armed with realistic expectations, if problems do arise, they feel much less painful because, while disappointing, they are not as shocking and we have anticipated how to respond to them.
– So what ? Reality test: Ask yourself, “Is the actual harm of the unexpected disappointment really as bad as it feels ?”
Reality testing is a way to put the intense pain of disappointment into a rational perspective. Asking your self things like “Did anyone die?” or “Has something precious been lost or ruined forever?” can help calm the fear and restore the connection to the cortex. With anxiety calmed and reason restored, you will not only feel better but be able to make better decisions.
– What else ? Think outside the box : Ask yourself, “What else could we do instead of what we planned?”
Realizing that there are almost always substitutes available can ease the pain and even open oneself to discovering new and wonderful surprises. Taking some time in the planning stage to think of alternative activities and options can also reduce the shock of disappointment and the helplessness being caught off guard.
As we ring in the new year, in the face of COVID and other stressors, let us accept that some parts of the year are going to be difficult and a challenge. That said, let us also resolve to make 2022 a less anxiety ridden year. With a little courage, thinking ahead and reality testing of our expectations. we can better navigate and cope with the uncertain events which lie ahead.
HAPPY NEW YEAR !
Rev. Michael Heath, LMHC, Fellow AAPC 1/01/2022