Do you think you’re a good driver? Of a car, bicycle, scooter, or buggy, it doesn’t matter which. I quite love driving (especially shift) and I like to think that I am a competent, conscientious motorist. I signal to switch lanes, I (mostly) obey the speed limit, I plan my route in advance, and allow people to merge. I’ve driven in many of Canada’s major cities, Los Angeles (crazy), all over the Irish countryside (breathtaking), and to the tip of Cape Cod (you’re gorgeous Provincetown). Driving in a new city is fun-scary. I spend more time figuring out where I’m going beforehand because, for me, a solid plan conquers fear.
Despite my confidence behind the wheel, if you put me on an Indy track I’d most likely pull over and walk away. I know with absolute certainty it would all seem too fast (or I’d be too slow). I wouldn’t know how to take the corners, and I would be worrying about what was coming up on the track ahead of me. At Indy speeds, I know I would need to opt out.
For people struggling with anxiety, day-to-day life can feel like an Indy track – treacherous, exhausting, and confusing. Heap on to that a healthy dose of self-loathing and a feeling of failure, of not be able to cope like everyone else does (or seems to), and we’ve got a big old pile up in the middle of the freeway to clean up. In my office, I see clients dealing with two types of anxiety – I’ll call it specific anxiety and vague anxiety. No, these aren’t clinical terms, they’re Jennie Ormson Originals created to keep it real.
Specific anxiety is about something (you guessed it) specific. It might be a speaking engagement or a difficult conversation that needs to happen, an exam or a career change.
Vague anxiety is a more permanent, or frequent feeling of things just not being okay. You can’t point to any specific reason or cause, and sometimes that makes this type of anxiety feel even worse. You have all of the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety, without a clear event or issue to link it to.
The good news is that you can use the driving model to approach BOTH types of anxiety and I’m going to lay out three simple steps for you. I’m not a police officer or traffic specialist, but I suspect people not paying attention to the present moment is the cause of many motor vehicle accidents. Maybe they’re distracted by someone in another lane or thinking about something they need to do later that day. Perhaps they’re thinking about a left-hand turn they’ll need to make five kilometers down the road or worrying about the parking situation at their destination. My guess is that they’re not fully tuned into the here and now, focusing on exactly what they’re doing and what’s happening in their immediate surroundings.
Step One – Be Present
When we’re not focused in the present, we open opportunities for accidents.
I find that most anxiety is not solidly grounded in the here and now. People worry about the future, people worry about the past. We need to be aware of what’s happening in the moment. Not three weeks ago (or three years ago) and not three days from now. Present. Bring your focus back to where you are and what you’re doing right now. A great way to practice this is to tune into your thoughts at regular intervals throughout the day and ask yourself, “What was I just thinking about?”. It’s completely fine to have your thoughts drift, and it’s no secret that I’m a huge proponent of daydreaming. But when anxiety strikes, refocus on what’s right in front of you.
Step Two – Stay in Your Lane
When we’re focused on what everyone else is doing, we lose focus on what we’re doing.
When I’m driving, I need to have a healthy awareness of what the motorists around me are up to. If there’s someone racing up behind me on a motorcycle, weaving in and out of traffic, I need to be aware. If there’s an accident just ahead of me, I need to make plans to change lanes. However, my primary focus should always be on how I’m driving, not on how other people are driving. A great deal of anxiety is created through comparisons: “She has five kids and is so patient and organized, why can’t I do it?!”. “We graduated from law school at the same time and now she’s partner in her firm and I can’t even move past this feeling of throwing up every day before court”. “Why is life so easy and effortless for her and just the thought of attending a dinner party has me weeping and wanting to stay under my covers”?
Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing or how they appear. Wendy Mass has this beautiful quote in her novel The Candymakers”:
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Step Three – Keep Moving
Prolonged stops give rise to anxiety, keep moving.
If you’re on the freeway and you stop and remain stopped in the traffic flow, it’s dangerous. It makes the other drivers around you frustrated and it’s an incredibly treacherous place for you to be, sitting there with traffic whizzing about on all sides. How the hell are you going to merge back on when there doesn’t seem to be an opening?!
One of the ways anxiety tempts people into remaining stuck is by seducing them to retreat from real life and cocoon themselves away. I’m not talking about a planned break to recharge a dying battery. I’m referring to the “I just don’t want to leave my room, the house, my safety bubble” type of retreat that has no end in sight. It’s harder for the deep roots of anxiety to take hold if you keep moving. The pace may be gentle and slow and you may need supports in place to help you begin or maintain the momentum. That’s quite all right; it’s not a race.
Do you remember first learning to drive? There seemed to be so much to remember: gas, brake, signal, clutch, and shift. Add to that a rainy night and you’ve got high beams, low beams, and windshield wipers to contend with. Bit-by-bit, little-by-little, driving becomes second nature. So easy and automatic in fact that we need to work hard to stay present and not let our thoughts drift. Mastering anxiety isn’t a whole lot different. At first it may seem insurmountable, but little-by-little, bit-by-bit, you can drive past your anxiety and leave it on the shoulder. Be present. Stay in your lane. Keep moving. You can do this.