I've lived a lot of my life in two ways: totally and completely stressed, and constantly worried about the future. Looking back I would say that I was a pretty anxious child. (My childhood wasn't exactly ideal - but hey, who's is? We all have a story unique to us and no matter how it unfolded, you and I are here in this moment, let's honour that!) Anyway, as I grew older my stress moved from playground worries, to larger worries. I spent my teens and early adulthood in a constant rumination of thought, like a hamster running on a wheel, creating stories with every step. Think about that for a minute....as the hamster takes another step, a new worry is produced... 'Do they like me? Can I do this? Am I good enough? What if I'm late? I can't do that. Yes, I'll stay late'. Every decision I made was based on an anxious response... I was trapped.
I was 16 years old when I read the book "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and all it's Small Stuff", an amazing book full of tips and tools to reduce stress and worry. (To this day, some 25 years later, I still use the concepts taught in this book!). After I read it I really started to focus on my anxiety, which unfortunately lead me to create more of it. So I started meeting with a social worker named Jo and she taught me how to make anxiety my friend. She taught me how to use it as a form of willpower to start making decisions about what I wanted or needed, not what I thought others needed from me. She taught me how to change my point of view, and THIS, is a powerful thing.
In the past, when curiosity led to anxiety, I thought the solution was to stop my curiosity, instead of changing my point of view. But I became disengaged with myself. Here's the thing... I used to just stop being curious! I thought it was a solution to anxiety but it wasn't. It kept me stuck. For years.
Many years later, after a lot of work and a ton of personal growth, I am at a place where I manage my anxiety through awareness, and remembering the many tools I have gained along the way. And now I find myself in the middle of a global pandemic. Legitimate causes for fear and anxiety compounded with the loneliness and isolation of social distancing. A true test. So, I did a little experiment with myself.
Last week I kept up to date with all the latest news and articles on Covid-19. I would get lost for hours, scrolling social media, seeing what everyone is up to, toilet paper this, funny meme that... I noticed I was getting chest pains, my breathing was heavy, my body felt tense, I had this nagging pain in my left shoulder, my thoughts were consumed with fear and worry. My tone with my family was different too. My patience was running thin, and my thoughts uncontrollable. And you know what? Instead of judging the crap out of myself for falling into old habits and allowing fear and worry to consume me, I viewed this as an awareness... 'oh, look at that, I've allowed curiosity to flood me with fear'.
So this week, I did something different. I didn't want to squander my curiosity, so I switched my perspective. I've stopped scrolling needlessly and only keep myself informed with necessary information. I'm not in denial about what's happening around me, but I'm looking at it from a place of awareness not fear, there's a difference. Awareness breads truth... it's acknowledging what's happening, looking for credible sources for information, and taking responsibility for myself. I then shifted my curiosity to creative outlets. I started writing, painting with my family, I picked up a new book, and started yard work. The pain in my left shoulder is loosening and my thoughts have changed dramatically (I'm now creating a plan to get the kids cooking and learning about Gorillas). My whole energy system feels lighter!
This is a scary time we are in, and although we are all in it together, being in isolation for long periods of time can make us feel very alone, and allow for damaging thoughts to prevail. If you find yourself in a position with more time on your hands than usual, here is an idea. Make a list of things that peak your curiosity. Do you desire becoming an expert at anything? Or do you prefer to know a little about a lot? When we are curious, our brains are actually ideally primed for learning! Dr. Charan Ranganath, from the Center for Neuroscience and Department of Psychology at the University of California explains:"...curiosity recruits the reward system, and interactions between the reward system and the hippocampus seem to put the brain in a state in which you are more likely to learn and retain information, even if that information is not of particular interest or importance".
If you have high levels of anxiety then it's likely that you have a very creative brain. According to this research, it's also safe to say that your curiosity about anxiety-producing thoughts could be rewiring your brain's hippopotamus (memory) and reward system, causing further anxiety. So, would changing your curiosity change the way you respond to anxiety? I think this is an ideal time to try a little experiment with yourself and see :) Try a different perspective, a different outlet for all those curious thoughts. Please feel free to share your journey with me!