A Manhattan doctor went bowling in my neighborhood recently and was diagnosed with Ebola the next day. It seems to be the only thing you see on the news anymore and it has people across the country truly frightened.
I got married in early October and my aunt, who’s from a small town in Arkansas, was anxious about flying into and out of New York airports. The 60-something Southern belle who’s in great health watches the news almost exclusively.
Your odds of dying from Ebola in the next year is 1 in 309,629,415, according to the Washington Post. You’re more likely to die in a flood, from a bee sting, or by simply suffocating in bed. But statistics aren’t necessarily enough to make people feel better. I understand that because I’m an anxious person.
I don’t care that the odds of dying in a plane crash are 1 in 11 million. My heartbeat and sweaty palms say otherwise. I don’t care if something has never happened to anyone anywhere in the span of Earth’s existence; I can still worry it will happen to me. Uncomfortable feelings take hold of me, get my brain’s undivided attention and tells it point blank: “Something has to be wrong or we wouldn’t feel this way.”
This week I realized that the Ebola epidemic has a lot of people acting just like me. Welcome to worry, folks. Feel free to tense up and pace, while your body undergoes a flood of life-shortening cortisol.
What’s worse is that media feeds our anxious curiosity. When we ruminate on issues that worry us, we go looking for confirmation that our suspicions are well-founded. When your fear is Ebola, you can get tons of information on it every day. All you have to do is turn on your TV or log on to your favorite news blog and see the headlines: Should we shut down air travel out of West Africa?; Should healthcare workers be quarantined?; How likely are you to get Ebola from the subway?
But if all this information isn’t a solution to your worries and you’re still feeling a sense of impending doom, it’s time to focus on something else.
Accept the unknown. Try putting that energy into something that is truly helpful, like embracing the fact that the future is unknowable. Without twists and turns, we wouldn’t be living. How many wonderful things happened to you when you didn’t see it coming? And what would joy be if there was never any suffering?
Focus on solutions, not catastrophizing. Support global health initiatives and funding for medical agencies. This is a practical, measurable way to know you’re promoting health and working to make the world a healthier place for generations. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the NIH) is currently working on developing an Ebola vaccine.
Find your constant. When your anxiety makes you feel out of control, stick to one defining truth to grip the handlebars:
- Worry has never helped me solve problems.
- Worrying keeps me from living life in the moment and robs me of potentially happy memories.
- I’ve never been able to predict the future.
- Working myself up about how something could happen makes me miss what’s actually happening.
- I can’t think my way out of my worries, but I can let them go.
When we engage anxious thoughts, we feel them take control of our lives. It may even lead to panic. I’ll never forget when I met my husband’s friend Matt. He was a guitarist with stage fright who was worrying before playing a set with his band. He was full of nervous energy and told me quite candidly that he had been having panic attacks lately, even in class. He described sitting in a seminar feeling panic wash over him and stroking the bridge of his nose, telling himself: “This nose is a constant. This nose is a constant.” I was impressed with how close he came to sheer panic but still held on to whatever he could.
The subway was already a place where I used to get panic attacks. It’s crowded, noisy, can get very hot, and it’s underground — I’m both claustrophobic and from New Orleans, where nothing is underground, not even coffins. Add disease to the mix and it’s a veritable hell-train. But I don’t think about Ebola when I take the subway, despite our rough history.
A defining constant for me is that life isn’t a dress rehearsal. I don’t want to lose time ruminating because I can’t get that time back. This grounds me in the present moment. There may be discomfort in the present, negative thoughts that make me stressed out, but the only way to solve them is to let them go and immerse myself in feelings that do serve me well.
Image credit: Flickr Creative Commons / John Picken Photography