It’s September, and if you live in Ontario, we’ve just finished the first week of a new school year. If you are a student (no matter your age), it means new teachers, new subjects and maybe a new school with the potential for new friends. For non-students, the beginning of September brings the end of summer and the return to old routines, or creation of new ones. In fact, many people see Labour Day as a more accurate indicator of a ‘new year’ than January 1. And…all this ‘newness’ can lead to anxiety.
Elaine had never traveled on her own before, but when she was given the opportunity to meet a friend (Karen) in Germany, she immediately said yes. The thought of travelling alone scared her a bit, but as the trip was 6 months away she ignored any anxious thoughts that popped up. Excitedly, she booked her flight. In order to safe money, she booked an indirect flight to Frankfurt. During the following months, the women planned that Elaine would rent a car and drive to the small town where Karen was staying.
As the date of the trip drew closer, Elaine started to become anxious. She had her flights in place, and now she had to think about everything else. Her brother (Brad) helped with booking the car rental, so that was taken care of. However, when Elaine thought about what was causing her the most anxiety, it was the actual travel experience. What if she was late for her flight? What if she couldn’t find her gate at the airport? Once she landed, how would she find the car rental place? When she booked her flight, she didn’t think that a two-hour stop-over in Chicago was a big deal. Now she wasn’t so sure. What if she missed her connecting flight? Elaine was starting to wish that she hadn’t agreed to visit Karen. She wondered if it was too late to invite another friend to join her.
The Connection Between ‘New’ and Anxiety
No matter the time of year, while novel things can be exciting as they move us out of our comfort zone, they can also promote anxiety. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between excitement and anxiety as they can feel the same way in the body–tummy butterflies, repetitive thoughts, sweaty palms. So how do we know the difference? It’s the internal dialogue that shows us the difference.
When we look at Elaine’s story, she was excited when she approached by Karen and decided to go on the trip. She wasn’t ruminating about what could go wrong. Instead, she recognized that she hadn’t traveled alone before, and was able to put the ‘what if’ questions aside.
Growing Edges and the Stress Response
We often think about stress as a bad thing…and chronic stress does have negative effects on our minds and bodies. Chronic stress happens when we are living in conditions where we have little or no control over a difficult situation (at work or home) and it continues over a long period of time. Our bodies react by increasing our levels of cortisol that eventually wreaks havoc with our adrenal system…possibly leading to adrenal fatigue and depression. Generalized anxiety is the first step down this path.
“Good” stress is something different. Good stress is paired with excitement. We experience good stress when we are pushing ourselves to try something new–moving into our growing edges. As a wise mentor once told me…”growing edges are meant to help us move to a next level, not break us!”.
The Story Continues…
While Elaine was thinking about cancelling the trip, Karen (who didn’t know about Elaine’s anxiety) was sending her pictures of where she was living and ideas of things they could do when Elaine arrived. Elaine started to feel ambivalent…she wanted to take part in the exciting plans, and was afraid of what it would take to get there. Plus, she didn’t want to lose the money she had paid for flights, or disappoint her friend. Elaine decided that she needed to come up with a plan.
Elaine’s first step was to ask for help. Talking to Brad, she learned that what she was feeling was normal. Brad shared with her that the first time he traveled alone he was terrified…especially as he was travelling to a country where English wasn’t the first language. Brad explained that his plan was to think about what could go wrong with the goal of putting safety factors in place.
- She spoke to service providers who were able to answer her ‘what if?’ questions.
- She found maps of the airports she would be using and learned how to get where she would need to be.
- Elaine was able to speak to a car rental employee who gave her detailed directions to get to where the office was located, and offered the use of a GPS as an upgrade.
- Google Maps provided backup directions in case the GPS didn’t work. Using Google Earth, she found visuals of her route.
Finally, Elaine let Karen know about her anxiety. Even though Karen offered to meet Elaine’s plane, Elaine was confident in her plan and excited to see if she could do it on her own.
Ways to Cope with the Anxiety of Trying Something New
Our lives are enriched when we try something new–whether the new thing is pushed on us or we choose to branch out. So here are some ways to make the growing edges easier.
- Be patient with yourself. If possible take baby steps. You can do this by breaking the new experience into manageable steps. For example, if Elaine could have tried travelling on her own by taking a smaller/shorter trip.
- Remember past successful experiences of trying new things. Chances are that you have tried something new before and enjoyed it. Use those memories to decrease anxiety when it shows up.
- Plan ahead. Follow Elaine’s example and map the potential new experience into as many detailed steps as you need. You’re not thinking about the ‘what if’s’ as an exercise in worry, but as the items for an action plan.
- Recognize that anxiety in this situation is normal. Are you feeling anxiety or excitement? Both are normal, and anxiety is a matter of degree. A bit of anxiety is normal, but if it’s getting in the way of doing what you want to do, or becoming a constant companion, it’s gone overboard!
- In moments of anxiety, breath. You can find a downloadable breathing exercise here (at the bottom of the page), to help cope with anxious feelings.
So here’s to trying new things!
And now…speaking of air travel…here’s some vintage Frank Sinatra. Enjoy!