We were dressed up and ready to drive into the city for the first time in more than a year. Our dinner reservation was a little less than two hours away and I looked forward to people-watching, seeing the Boston Public Garden come to life in spring, and enjoying the company of old friends we hadn’t seen in a long time.
As I slipped on my heels and brushed a bright color on my lips, something else I hadn’t done in a while, I started to feel anxious and excited, the kind of nerves you might feel on a first date. I wondered what was going on as I walked downstairs but quickly dismissed the feeling in favor of checking to be sure the cat’s litter boxes were cleaned before we left.
As I scooped their poop (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the anxiety reappeared, this time turned up a notch or two minus any excitement. Something wasn’t right.
I stopped what I was doing and sat down on the couch to give myself a chance to catch up to my feelings. Eyes closed, arms wrapped around my shoulders, and focused on my breath, I noticed a few things right away. I felt nervous about leaving our home. I worried about traffic and whether or not we’d find a parking spot near the restaurant. I wondered if the cats would be okay alone and if we’d be home in time to feed them their final meal of the day.
As I type this, I know this might sound silly to some of you (it does to a part of me, too), but the anxiety was real. Turns out I wasn’t alone. After bringing up my pregame jitters to our dinner guests that night, I learned that several of them had felt the same way.
During the pandemic, most of us were trained to be vigilant – to scan for danger at every turn. For some, this vigilance turned into hypervigilance creating habits that formed deep neural networks. Now, just because the doors of life are opening up, it doesn’t mean we can shut these behaviors off and get about the business of living. It’s a lot more complicated than that.
When we stepped out the front door on our way to see our friends for dinner, I knew it was time to retrain my brain. As I got in the car, I took my anxiety with me. Rather than ignore it, I put my arm around it, told it we’d be okay, and put it in the backseat. Each time it tapped me on the shoulder attempting to remind me of a potential problem, I smiled, listened carefully, and turned my attention to wondering about the fun we’d have with our friends. After a few fatal attempts, the anxiety settled back into its seat and I was free to enjoy our new adventure.
The decision to put fear in the backseat and shift from worry to wonder was a choice to weaken the old, fearful neural networks that had been developed during the pandemic and build new ones dedicated to living life with joy and curiosity. I knew this process would take time, that our outing was the first leg of the journey back to a more relaxed way of living life.
We had a great night and a wonderful visit to the city with friends. Lesson learned? Let yourself have your feelings. Be curious and patient. Work with yourself not against yourself. And stay focused on the good that’s coming your way.
PS – The “Self Care by the Sea” retreat is sold out. If you’d like to be added to the wait list, you can do so, here.