I am feeling more anxious than the past few weeks this week. I could feel it in my stomach, in my shoulders, and in the way I am more over-functioning than usual. As Korea’s COVID situation becomes worse and China still yet to open its borders to us, I am stuck in limbo in a local hotel on Jeju island.
When China’s border was clearly closed to all but the most politically or economically connected elites, I was quite calm. My family took it with stride. When there is no hope in sight, there is at least the certainty of impossibility. So we settle into our limbo state with tranquility that comes from resignation. Now China has begun to open its border and our visa approval has started to arrive one small step at a time. The tension all of sudden becomes more palpable.
When something is more within reach, it counterintuitively but reliably feels harder. It could be our journey to our next destination during this pandemic, the last of a 5-round interview process, or the final 10 seconds of a 2-minute plank. Our nerves or muscles or both seem to scream louder. Our intelligent cells are sensing the approach of relief. They are also feeling it is safer to express their fatigue now. In their hope for rescue, the excitement makes it harder for me to sustain the existing status quo.
Choosing what feels familiar even if not better
This is exactly where my body is at now. It is particularly more noticeable since I am an anxiously attached person. Born to be sensitive and raised to be nervous. I have spent most of my life trying to become competent in everything. Everything included what I should do for myself and too much of what others should do for themselves. This type of over-functioning is typical of anxiously attached individuals. I am competent but(or because) I have an exaggerated sense of risk when things are not done. The anxiety from uncertainty, which is common for all humans but more heightened for anxiously attached. It creates nervous energies that my body feels compelled to release through taking some action. Whether the action can improve upon the situation makes no difference at all. It could in fact makes it worse(by making me too tired to act when information required for making the best decision is finally available). It feels better subjectively to the anxious person to do whatever course of action available in the moment regardless of if enough information is present to do so.
So here I go, falling into the old grooves of over-function to assuage my own anxiety in the moment. Psychology teaches us it is not what is most comfortable that determines our action, it is what is most familiar. Even if over-functioning tires me out and produces more stress, I grew up watching both of my parents do so in their own families. The coding was done. I have worked hard to modify the neurological pathway that leads to those unproductive actions. The results are obvious but also slow. It takes a long time for new programming to soften the old groove and make way for new patterns. I am managing my father’s projects when he could do most of it with no significant impact on outcome; doing at least partially unnecessary work that has no real productive value(like moving virtual boxes from one corner to the other in organizing my affairs); and trying to control outcomes even on things with little to no impact on our financial, emotional or physical wellbeing(such as figuring out optimal cost for shipment even when we are not the ones paying for it, although you could argue I am saving resources for the company who are paying, but let us face it that is not the primary driver).
On the bright side, the fact I am aware of it even while I am doing it is huge progress. It does not necessarily stop me right in the middle of doing it. My body and mind have conspired to put certain course into action, the effort required to counter that momentum can feel out of reach. However, each moment of awareness instills some energy into the calm part of me. It slowly builds up into a new force that can then prevent the nervous energy from spinning into a hurricane. It helps me bring back my equilibrium in my daily presence with myself and others. I could, otherwise, easily project that stress from the overfunctioning fatigue onto others around me and setting off relational storms. The level of emotional awareness helps me build my emotional regulation strategies. It helps manage my anxiety. And the maturity level of my strategies is directly proportional to the speed that I can counter my old behaviors. The quicker I can re-establish a new balance the sooner I stop wasting energy on actions that keep me busy mindlessly and increases my anxiety.
So to answer the question that started this blog, emotional regulation is a skill that can be used to help everyone, especially anxious ones like me to stay calm. Like all skills, we must build muscle memory slowly before it can automatically kick in during the peak of our anxiety. For it to help us avoid the anxiety, in some cases altogether, it would mean a consistent daily workout that reinforces our whole-body awareness. Whether it is yoga, meditation or other ways of connecting with our body, heart and mind, it is taking the control and the burden out of mind and into our whole organism. During anxiety-inducing times, The body will jump into the default action mode that we grew up with. It is the only route it knows to escape from stress, even if it actually slows us down. It will feel right because we have been through and survived in this mode multiple times, it feels like home. It won’t know there are other alternatives until our limbic, amygdala and cortex build an new path with light bright enough to attract our attention during stressful times. Then, only then, we can remember that stopping our frantic actions won’t mean catastrophic outcome. It will conserve energy until a better course of action is much clearer.
That is what I am doing in this moment. I stopped all that I was doing(after finishing most but not all on my original “keep-busy-to-manage-anxiety” list) and sat down at a coffee shop. I am taking slow and deep breaths as I am writing this. Once the new neural path that I have built through daily meditation and yoga practice have gotten my attention, I stopped. It has gotten a little easier to remember that the only way to approach each day, whether in peak stress or otherwise, is through these check-ins with myself. Through deep breathing, I release the negative stress interfering with my rational thinking. With writing, I sort out one word at time chaotic thought strands in the mind.
Now my anxiety level feels much lower. Most of us could never bypass the rise of our body’s anxiety level in stressful times. It is a useful and even vital flight or fight instinct. Feeling absolutely no anxiety at all times is not good and neither feeling too much too often. We can manage our own anxiety level by becoming more aware of our dysfunctional coping strategies. Then we can develop new emotional regulation techniques for better responses.
In good and bad times, take care of ourselves first, so we can be strong and present for ourselves and others. That is the best modeling we can do for anyone in our family or our clients. Now let us take a deep collective breath and bring back the calm.