I saw a comic this morning before I left the house. A caped girl, called Anxiety Girl, was described as “able to jump to the worst possible conclusion in a single bound.”
And then I proved her words true for my life.
I went grocery shopping with my son, and after our first stop, I realized that the money that should be available to us for food every month (we qualify for food stamps), hadn’t processed yet this month. It was okay for today, but I started panicking. What if it doesn’t come at all? What if there’s been a mistake? What if …?
We bought what we needed. And we are not in danger of starvation.
Yet, I feared.
Before we moved, my son wanted nothing to do with dogs. A former neighbor’s dog was loud and sometimes mean, and we’d had a few run-ins with some unfriendly, unleashed dogs that struck fear in all of us: dad, mom and kids.
Even gentle dogs, puppies, he would shy away from.
Then we moved to a new place and our neighbors here have dogs, two big ones we often see in the backyard when they’re out to do their doggy business.
And I wondered if it was only a matter of time before a dog bite. Or if my kids would always be afraid of dogs and if there was any way to help them overcome it.
Train tracks sometimes scare me. Even when there are gates. My heart catches in my throat as I imagine getting stuck on the tracks when a train is coming and being unable to move from its path. Maybe I watched Stand By Me one too many times as a kid or heard one too many stories about train-versus-car accidents. For whatever reason, crossing train tracks is an anxiety-inducing experience.
The first time we made the trip from our new house to my husband’s work, we crossed a set of tracks that have no gates, no lights.
And I feared the crossing every time we made the trip, twice a day or more.
Here’s the thing about fears and anxiety: it’s a really crummy way to live.
I’m no expert or professional on the subject, but I’m learning that for some fears and some anxieties, there is a way to meet them head on and live to tell about it.
A year ago, our food budget was almost non-existent. We’d been disqualified from food stamps due to a law change at the same time my husband was out of school and looking for full-time work. Some months, we spent $20 at the discount grocery and made it work. We ate a lot of PB&J and pasta. We also had some very generous friends who helped us out.
Ever since I watched The Pursuit of Happyness, that Will Smith movie where he and his son are homeless and just trying to get by and get out of that situation, I’ve feared being homeless and hungry. We were never in danger of either, but that season of leanness taught me to trust. God. People. Even my own resourcefulness to make a meal out of practically nothing.
On Saturday, we went to our local library branch for a program with reading assistance dogs. It was our third time visiting the library for this. A local couple brings in their greyhounds and the kids can sit on the floor and read or show books to them. The first time we went, my son was scared. He didn’t want to sit anywhere near them or leave my lap. Each time, he’s gotten more comfortable with the dogs. This time, he was almost more excited than his sister to go see the dogs. Now he’ll sit on the floor by them and let his monkey pet them when he leaves.
And we’ve been outside enough times when the neighbor dogs are out to know that the owners have a good handle on the dogs. They’ve never even approached us and they listen well.
Not all dogs are vicious. Not all dog owners are lax. We don’t have to fear all dogs. Experience is teaching us that fear denies us opportunities to learn and grow. These greyhounds are so gentle and special. Had we continued in our fear of dogs, we’d have missed out on a great relationship with them and their owners.
Every time I approached the unmarked tracks, I slowed the car and looked both ways and gunned it across. Then I began to notice that other cars paid the crossing almost no attention at all. They didn’t slow. They barely glanced. They just crossed. I wondered if the tracks were no longer in use, although I didn’t see a sign that said that. So, I took after the other cars and started crossing at normal speed.
Then one day, I saw the lights of a train farther down the track. Another day, I saw the back of a train going around the curve.
Not a dead track, after all. But the trains were moving slow, so I figured the chances of my car being hit by a train were slim.
Finally, we came upon the tracks one day when a train was moving around the corner. The conductor blew the whistle loudly and frequently as it approached and all the cars stopped on either side of the tracks. It was then that I realized that if the conductor was doing his job, I would hear the train long before it was dangerous to cross. And I wasn’t likely to miss the sound of the whistle.
Others who have traveled this road frequently must have known this. Now, I know it, too.
And I’m less afraid of crossing the unmarked tracks.
Not all fears are the same. I get that. Not all anxieties are the same. Some are deeply rooted in painful experiences and require professional and medical help. I’m not offering a one-size-fits-all solution.
But I wonder if some of our fears and anxieties can be overcome by some of these things I’ve learned:
- by experiencing the thing you fear. It could be that what I fear isn’t as bad as I think it could be.
- by building relationships and trusting other people. Positive experiences and relationships might counteract the negative ones that cause me fear.
- by learning from others’ example. My kids learn from me what to fear and what not to fear. Could I not do the same with more experienced peers?
Trust me when I say that I don’t have the anxiety thing all figured out. I still find my heart rate increasing when I’m in a crowd or trying to navigate the grocery aisles with two kids on a busy day. I still fear the worst when things don’t go as I expect.
But I don’t want to spend my life living in fear.
So, I’m learning. Or trying to.
Tell me, how do you overcome your fears? What ways have you found to send anxiety to the sidelines?