You see, I suffer from anxiety and depression and a 3,000-mile road trip is a big stressor. After years of therapy, I’m proficient at avoiding preemptive anxiety. I don’t take an “everything that can go wrong will go wrong” attitude and I don’t immediately wilt at the first sign of defeat. But in the moment, I have a lot of trouble pumping the brakes and applying coping strategies.
I tend to overplan and control everything. If things don’t go according to plan, I feel like I’ve failed. As the stress builds, I don’t remember to tell myself to stop what I’m doing and focus on my breathing. Instead I explode with anxiety and find the odds insurmountable. I don’t take the time to reorient my train of thought and, while I focus on the negative and feel overwhelmed, depression starts to drag me down like quicksand.
I know this pattern well. It makes it difficult for me to try new things. It made it very hard to settle in when I moved to Brooklyn eight years ago.
But I also know that situations like these are the perfect opportunity to sharpen coping tools, get into the habit of using new strategies and reacting to life differently. I’d like to be more laid-back. I no longer want to make time for worry and waste my life thinking about every bump in the road. I want to give up “stressing” as my hobby.
So what do I mean when I say laid-back? I like to think of it as being able to roll with the changes and embrace spontaneity.
laid-back /lādˈbak/ (adjective informal): relaxed and easygoing.
Synonyms: relaxed, easygoing, free and easy, casual, nonchalant, unexcitable, imperturbable, unruffled, blasé, cool, equable, even-tempered, nonconfrontational, low-maintenance, insouciant, calm, unperturbed, unflustered, unflappable, unworried, unconcerned, unbothered.
I’m not laid-back. I never have been. I envy people who don’t go to pieces when they have to improvise. The funny thing is that I can improvise quite well, but instead of meeting it head on with confidence, I stress over it first and stress is a killer. Here’s a succinct explanation from LiveScience:
Stress causes deterioration in everything from your gums to your heart and can make you more susceptible to illnesses ranging from the common cold to cancer, according to a review essay in the Dec. 2007 issue of the Association for Psychological Science’s magazine Observer.
If I follow the advice of self-help author Rosie Molinary instead of a steadfast New Year’s resolution, I should pick a single word to be my guide for 2015 and that word is laid-back.
I know it won’t be easy, but I believe change is possible. Sure, maybe some people are born with a laid-back temperament, but we can change the way we perceive and react to the world with practice. For instance, people would never describe me today as a shy person or a wallflower, but five to 10 years ago that’s just what I was. How did I change? I’ve found that the best way to get comfortable with something that makes me uncomfortable is to expose myself to it. If you strategically place yourself in the position you fear the most, you learn to be competent in that position. (No, I’m not a CBT guru, but it has worked wonders for me.)
So I’ll be exposing myself to a lot of potential stress in the coming year:
- Packing up the apartment.
- Selling most of our furniture.
- Driving across the country, visiting family in three different states along the way.
- Traveling with a French bulldog who is allergic to almost everything, including the very yeast that occurs naturally on his skin.
- Subletting and then finding a new apartment.
- Getting new furniture.
- Trying not to spend all our savings.
- Hoping my husband gets a job soon after we arrive.
- Buying a new car — because people who don’t live in NYC have cars.
- Getting new drivers’ licenses, health insurance, and voter registrations.
- Learning a new city and a new way of life.
- Making new friends!
- And everything else I haven’t thought of.
It bears noting that I’m also traveling with my laid-back husband, who’s a pretty great model for optimism and rolling with the punches.
All the while, I plan on writing about my experience, both here on Psych Central (home to the most insightful audience in the world) and hopefully put a book together as well.
I think my first and primary goal is going to be learning to take a step back when I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed or unhappy, instead of letting it grow and fester. I want to ask myself two questions: Is this how I want to feel? and How did we get here? When in doubt, remember what Richard Carlson said in Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: “The truth is, in order to experience a feeling, you must first have a thought that produces that feeling.”
What do you think about my plan? Do you suspect a series of meltdowns are in my future? Do you think people can cultivate their own temperament? Where would you start?