Anxious times

Just over a year ago, as my wife lay in the intensive care unit of the hospital after having suffered two cardiac arrests in the same day, I was sitting with her and dozing when a call for a “code blue” went out over the hospital PA. I started awake, felt my heart racing, scanned the monitors in my wife’s room and realized that the drama this time was over another patient. It took me quite a while to calm myself and catch a few more winks of sleep. The process repeated that night and a more times during her hospitalization. Months later, sleeping in my own bed with my wife beside me I dreamt of a hospital code blue. I woke, thinking I was having a panic attack once again. I though my heart was racing. But this time I had access to a way to check my heart rate. In fact, my heart rate was normal. I wasn’t having a panic attack, I was dreaming that I was having a panic attack. Once I could assess my situation, my anxiety calmed and I was able to return to sleep. The dreams of panic attacks recurred several times, but seem to have faded now.

I have been amazingly fortunate in regards to feelings of anxiety and panic throughout my life. I have been able to sleep at night without undue worry. I grew up in a safe home and have not had too many traumatic experiences. Throughout my adult life I have often been on call and received calls in the middle of the night that required me to respond. I’ve gotten out of bed and gone to assist others time after time and I have been able to do so without negative thoughts or feelings.

Anxiety is a normal human response. We evolved to have mental and emotional preparedness to respond to dangers and attacks. Like other animals, we have a flight, fight or freeze instinct that protects us from inappropriate responses to threats. In our modern world, however, the threats are significantly different than those experienced by hunter/gatherer societies. Mental health experts are often called to assist patients with anxiety disorders. People experience feelings of worry, anxiety and fear that are strong enough to interfere with daily activities.

Among the most common anxiety disorders are panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Significant research, often boosted by the increased trauma of wars, has been conducted over the past century have produced a variety of treatment modalities for anxiety disorders. Medications, including antidepressants, have been effective in some cases. Counseling can ease anxiety. After my experiences with my wife in the hospital, i had access to our community’s law enforcement psychologist. A session with him diffusing the experiences combined with private journaling of the experience gave me relief and kept my worries from becoming a problem. The treatment of anxiety disorders, many of which are far more severe than my experiences, is still an imprecise science. Doctors are challenged by the many differences in individuals and medicines that have different effects on different patients.

Talking with friends and family over the past day, I am aware that there is a heightened sense of anxiety in our community, nation and world. Many are obsessing with the news, looking for each sign that their chosen candidate will win or lose. I’ve heard reports of loved ones who are experiencing intestinal disorders, increasing their use of over the counter medicines, and obsessing over election news.

Patience is sorely needed in our situation as officials use care to count the ballots and assure us that the results of a very close election are accurate. The process of determining the outcome of the election can take days or even weeks while the nation waits. Some are handling the uncertainty differently than others.

The stock market usually does not respond well to uncertainty, but it soared yesterday despite the anxiety of the nation. I have no real understanding of the stock market and how it works, but I would not have forecast the rise in stock prices that we saw. Like many other parts of our world, there are lots of mixed signals and misleading signs. A single up day in the stock market isn’t a predictor of a trend or of how the market will respond to other news. I find myself paying more attention to the markets now that my income is more closely tied to investments that are managed by others and deeply dependent upon stocks. We have a participating annuity that rises and falls with market conditions. On the other hand, our savings have been invested in the market for years and I have not experienced undue anxiety over daily market fluctuations. I’ve been quite comfortable having others manage the investments and trusting the church system to provide for my needs.

I am, however, aware of friends and relatives who are very anxious and I sense from social media that there is a lot of anxiety in the world today.

Tich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Budhist monk, peace activist and founder of Plum Village. He has written extensively and continues to be a sought-after teacher even though he is now more than 90 years old. Knowing part of his life’s story and the trauma he experienced growing up in war-torn Vietnam with violence extending well into his adult years, one might expect him to be filled with anxiety. He, however, has developed his techniques of meditation and presentness to such a degree that he has not only overcome any potential anxiety disorders in his life and is able to teach others to manage their anxieties. He reminds all who read his works that there is a spiritual side to living with anxiety without having it disrupt your life. Although my spiritual tradition is distinct from buddhist ways, I have learned from buddhist teachers to value prayer and meditation practices that are common to both traditions.

These anxious times are times that call for centering prayer and the best of our spiritual traditions. As I engage in my spiritual practices, I pray that the anxieties of others and of our community may be eased and that people may be freed from excessive worry so we can together work toward solutions to our common problems.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!