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Honesty time: I’m quite a nervous driver. I find roads at night, roads at high speeds, or roads in rain/wind/snow highly stressful. In fact, if I know there’s a long drive coming up, I check the weather obsessively for days beforehand. Every time I think about the drive, I feel a tightening in my stomach. If I let it go too far, I even begin to picture different ways the drive can go wrong.
OK, that’s too soft to put it. I picture the different ways I can die on the road, friends! No wonder I’m often shaking as I get into my car. And no wonder I try to avoid these drives as much as possible.
What I’m describing here is anticipatory stress and anxiety.
What is anticipatory stress & anxiety?
You might also find yourself obsessively rehearsing a possible event in the future, wether it’s a difficult conversation, an upcoming drive in difficult weather, or upcoming financial concerns. Sometimes we can even feel anticipatory stress about a situation that’s highly unlikely to happen! Constantly rehearsing a future stressful situation might be how your mind/heart is trying to prepare for the future.
Is it healthy to experience anticipatory stress & anxiety?
Thinking about a future stressful event might help you make necessary preparations for when that reality comes to pass (like from my example, checking the weather or finding the best route ahead of time). But this mental and emotional anticipation can also become an unhelpful occasion to worry (ie, borrow trouble from the future). It can take us out of the present moment and even increase the magnitude of emotions we’re trying to cope with in the NOW.
The questions that underlie a stressful situation usually sound like these:
What if….? How will I cope when….? Have I done enough to prevent….? What will I do if….?
The root of our stress/anxiety is actually fear.
I don’t know about you, but the roots of my stress/anxiety always point back to my fears of:
what others think
pain (esp. pain from the past being repeated again in my future)
I might be feeling all the emotions now, but because these things haven’t happened yet, all my fears are actually of the unknown, uncontrolled FUTURE.
Chip Dodd asserts in his book, “The Voice of the Heart” that fear is a normal human emotion that needs to be expressed both to ourselves and others. However, when we repress our fear, it can be compacted and misconstrued. That’s when it all manifests as this horrible feeling of anxiety.
Dodd then defines anxiety as trying “to control our future in order to prevent the recurrence of painful past experiences.” While the healthy expression of fear can lead to wisdom and connection, anxiety triggers the “flight-or-fight” response. Dodd explains that when triggered, “anxiety misinforms us. It says for us to control when we need to let go.”
Anticipatory grief can feel like being in a canoe that's swiftly drifting towards some rapids. The things you're anticipating up ahead make life in your canoe quite scary. You might be feeling increasingly anxious and fearful, even though the rapids might be quite far ahead.
So, what to do???
Grab a journal, sketchbook, or loose pice of paper. Now grab a pen.
Ready, set, go!
(The following is adapted from a writeup by Jen Alward (Art Therapist) of Hope and Healing at Home, for whom I originally composed this activity. You can also view the live IGTV version of this activity below. Project starts at min. 4:37)
Pencil, pen, colored pencils, markers, or crayons, etc.
Start with drawing an image.
Draw a banana shape in the middle of your paper.
Draw a post by each point that extends slightly below the banana curve.
Draw waves across the page under the banana shape, connecting with the bottom of the posts.
Slightly behind that, draw the other side of the river, by drawing a wavy line on either side of the boat.
Emotions are like river currents and waves - they flow in and out and past and through our lives.
What emotions are you experiencing right now as you think about the upcoming stressful situation? Write these emotions in the water under the boat and connect them with with wavy lines to create more waves and currents under the boat.
Next, think about the things you are carrying with you on this journey. These can be considered cargo in your boat: duties, expectations, decisions, questions you have, conditions you can’t control, things you feel overwhelmed by, etc. Write these inside the boat.
Read/think: We know there are rapids coming. We see the changes and loss approaching and our boat is heavy. We need to sift through it and decide what can be pitched overboard so our boat can float higher and survive the rapids. What can be delegated? What can be put off or postponed for a bit? What can just be left undone or released? Some of these things will float down the river on their own and we can pick them back up later. Others we may choose not to pick back up. And still some, may simply take a different path of their own.
Choose how to depict these cargo items leaving your boat. I like to draw arrows coming from each item and descending into the water below.
Last step: Re-gaining a sense of control
This feels better, but it still feels like things are out of control and you’re not sure what’s coming next. We have one more step in this activity that will help give you some power back.
Draw an oar, or two (I use simple spoon shapes in the demonstration). An oar represents direction, strength, and energy - the things you write in these oars will help you navigate the rapids and obstacles ahead. Things like your spirituality, good friends, your pets, self-care activities and even things that may distract you or bouy you up with a little hope.
What gives you direction, strength, or energy? Write your ideas around your oars. Examples: Taking a nap, going for a walk, buying yourself flowers, looking at photos, being intentional to have quality time with the person, pet or place you’re about to lose, etc.
Questions to Ponder:
Is there anything you’d like to add or change in your image?
Are there obstacles you’ve already come past? What helped you get past them?
Do you see any specific obstacles coming up? What might help you navigate the upcoming obstacles successfully?
What insights or messages would you like to carry with you from this activity?
Emotions are states of being that we pass through. They’re like the water beneath the boat. We can choose to navigate the river, instead of being drowned by it. In order to navigate well, we need to lighten our physical/emotional/mental loads a little bit. To regain a sense of direction and control, we need to obtain or take up our oars.
According to dictionary.com, the word “Equanimity” means the “mental or emotional stability or composure, especially under tension or strain; calmness; equilibrium.”
Statement of resilience:
I am equanimous: able to weather many storms. I can’t take away or avoid all the storms, but with a few adjustments, as well as support and outside help, I can weather them well.
If you feel comfortable sharing an image or your thoughts on this process with us, please do. Email myself at email@example.com or Jen Alward at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also post your finished piece on Instagram and tag @ProjectGriefArt and @hope_and_healing_at_home.
As Jen writes, “It’s always encouraging to see how others are using these activities and how art is helping to bring hope and healing into your lives and homes.”
If the brief explanation of fear and anxiety were helpful to you, I highly recommend Chip Dodd's book, "The Voice of the Heart" for help understanding even more roots in our complicated emotional lives. Dodd's helpful perspective helps readers understand that emotions we view as negative, are in fact only negative when we impair their expression. There are gifts to be found hiding within the healthy expressions of fear, sadness, hurt, and yes, even anger.