By Wendy Rice, Psy.D. Licensed Psychologist
How would you feel about flying to Africa with the uncontained Ebola virus spreading throughout the continent?
Or, how would you feel about flying internationally on the heels of the one plane completely disappearing mid-flight and another one being shot down?
I can tell you that these are both questions I have pondered extensively over the past few weeks because I am about to fly to Johannesburg before heading out on a 9-day safari in Botswana and then a few days in Victoria Falls. I have been thinking about the risks of going to a country where I have to take Malaria pills and how easily illness can be spread in an airplane.
Thinking about things like this is normal. A bit of anxiety about situations such as these is also normal.
So, how do you deal with these types of concerns when the world is such a scary place?
First you arm yourself with knowledge – I looked into the facts and have learned about how Ebola is spread, where it is most occurring, and the steps the airlines are taking to protect passengers. I also checked into airline safety and now know that, despite the nonstop press about the tragedies of the two Malaysia Air flights, air travel is one of the safest ways to get around. Most pilots are not texting and flying!
I now know that the true level of risk I will be heading into is quite low. I have used logic and reality to help temper what could be runaway fears. I have decided that my desire to enjoy this bucket-list trip is far greater than my anxiety about what “could” but is very unlikely to happen.
I am focusing on the amazing animals I will see, the beautiful sunsets and all the adventures that lie ahead. Most importantly, I am sharing this experience with my mother to celebrate both of our major upcoming birthdays!
Being able to shift your attention to the positives, away from your fears is very helpful. I’ve been practicing acknowledging the negative thoughts and fears, noting that they are not hopeful and moving on to more positive and hopeful thoughts.
Anxiety is one of the trickiest mental health problems. It’s like having a voice inside your head that tells you that scary or dangerous things that have a small chance of happening are actually very likely to happen. Anxiety also sounds all sorts of false alarms and even makes things up.
So what’s the first step? Knowing and acknowledging that you are someone who is prone to anxiety then, talking back to that voice and challenging it with the truth.
And, let us not forget to give credit to the ever useful deep breath! Or many deep breaths!
I am a big fan of the deep sigh although others often think that I am suffering terribly when I do it. When you are very anxious or stressed, your breathing tends to become shallow as that is part of the “fight or flight” response that our bodies automatically enter under stress.
When you deliberately take deep slow breaths, sometimes referred to as “belly breathing” or “diaphragmatic breathing”, you give your body and mind the message that all is okay and you begin to calm down.
You probably know this but, when you are doing it correctly, your belly should expand when you breathe in and go down when you exhale. It’s pretty amazing how something so simple can make such a difference in how you feel. Try it for yourself!
This is also a great strategy to teach kids who struggle with anxiety because they can do it anywhere, even in class!
Of course, there are many, many other strategies for dealing with anxiety. This is just a small glimpse into what cognitive-behavioral therapy has taught us about how to effectively reduce anxiety. I use all of these – logic, reality, thinking positive, talking back to the anxious voice and deep breathing to manage my own anxiety on a regular basis.
Most everyone deals with anxiety in some form at some time, so knowing how to manage it can come in very handy. With any luck, my trip to Africa will be low stress and low anxiety but full of exhilarating experiences. As I continue to practice what I preach, I wish each of you a low-stress two weeks ahead!