Tuesday, August 22, 2017

My Anxious Imagination

Here I am in China, the mysterious empire on the other side of the planet. Three weeks in (I'll be here for 10 weeks), I am finding it fascinating, much easier to get around than I expected and nowhere near as intimidating as I had imagined.

Imagined. That is the key word here. Boy, what I had imagined.
I didn't imagine this.

I imagined this.

Leo Babauta of Zen Habits calls it the stories we tell ourselves. Let me tell you about the stories I had told myself.

Let's talk about my travel to China. The story I told myself was that this trip (which consisted of a short flight between Philadelphia and JFK, and a direct flight from JFK to Guangzhou) would be horrific, destined to be one of the worst I have ever taken in my life.

I was wrong.

How did I get there? It's a question worth exploring because inside the answer is a key to so many triggers for my personal anxiety, which I'm going to guess is similar to your anxiety.

Online Reviews - I dislike online reviews. Even though I know the best approach to online reviews (throw out the top and bottom rated ones, read the middle), the negative ones seem to form my story. And once that negative review is in my head, I can't get rid of that information.  So when I read the numerous negative reviews for the airline I was flying to China, I was convinced this trip was going to be a disaster.

Bad Customer Service - The airline industry struggles with providing high-quality customer service (I hope that sentence made you laugh out loud.).  This same airline with the negative reviews has a seat reservation system that is inconvenient to say the least. It was impossible to reserve my seat online. Which meant I had to call one phone number to find out I had to call another phone number, then talk to a service rep who was clearly having trouble communicating. So he hung up. So I called back. He didn't hang up this time, but there was plenty of silence, as I heard sounds in the background (is he making coffee? is he in an office or his house? where is he on the planet?), received short answers, and finally was asked for my credit card information. You anxious for me?

This airline's website also states a carry- on weight limit of 5 kgs, which is about 11 pounds. 11 pounds for carry-on??!? Look, I'm good at keeping my weight limits down when traveling, but even I think 11 pounds for a long-haul flight is ridiculous. Do I pack 11 pounds or go with everything (which was about 16 pounds) and hope they let me on the plane? And yes, I was once stopped from taking an overweight carry-on onto a long-haul flight, and yes, I have not forgotten that experience.

Her Experience Will Not Be Your Experience - I love this phrase, given to me by Tara Tagliaferro. Unfortunately, I forgot it. Since some of my colleagues had had a negative experience with the demon airline, I convinced myself I would also have a negative experience.

Mental Tape Loops - once they're going, they're going. I have a heck of a time getting them to stop.

This all combined to make me a pretty difficult person to be around. At one point I yelled at Beloved, "Look. I know I am not handling this well. I am trying and I am failing.". He just looked at me and went back to his crossword puzzle. Smart move on his part.

So what did work?

Live in This Moment - which is really challenging for me when I'm feeling this anxious. But it works. I remind myself to live in this moment, not the one that just went by, not the one that's around the corner.

Trusting My Gut - which felt completely confused. I would literally stop myself, breathe, ask myself what was the best thing to do in this moment, wait for an answer and go on. I wasn't entirely successful (see yelling at Beloved above), but I tried.

Get Away - take a vacation from my anxiety. When I was as packed and prepared as possible, I dropped it all and went for a walk in Valley Forge National Park with Beloved. I looked at trees, I watched tourists, I felt the fresh air on my skin. This was the best thing I could do with my time and energy. At the end of the walk, I felt more settled and had a much better perspective on my life.

The trip? Ended up being one of the easiest long-haul flights I have ever taken. My flight from Philadelphia to JFK actually landed early. I was the first person to check in for the flight to Guangzhou. No one batted an eye at my carry-on. The customer service rep goodheartedly agreed with me that the seat reservation system was inadequate. The flight left on time and was comfortable. The food was airline food. Hey, we're not looking for miracles, just less anxiety!

And here I am.
Writing this for you, three weeks later, it is hard to recall how anxious I actually was. I mean my stomach is tightening, my hands are getting cold and my brain is looking for something to be anxious about, but I am realizing that all of this is still an anxious ol' story I tell myself. Living through this anxiety made me realize how I can work with my anxiety and not let it win every time.

What about you?

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