Blog 36: Love & anxiety: Get off the Beaten Path!

Way off the beaten path. Children's village, Uganda Africa
Way off the beaten path. Children’s village, Uganda Africa

It may seem odd that I blog about benefits of traveling, right after one praising stillness and becoming internally peaceful. But I have noticed an interesting correlation. After experiencing times of external and internal stillness, being with, and befriending all of my being, including those parts I find harder to love, this practice fills me with renewed energy and desire to risk engaging with Life and novelty. Travel is a wonderful way to do this.

These thoughts are fresh in my mind as I just returned from traveling for the past few weeks. It was  work travel but I still found it engaging and stimulating. I know some personality types find travel and novelty much more enjoyable and stimulating than other personalities. However, we can all occasionally get off the beaten path even if it’s in our own home town.

Humans seem to struggle with the tendency to fall into ruts. At least those of us living in the developed world. We go to the same coffee shop, take the same road to work, sit in the same seats at the conference table or meeting. The familiar is comfortable to our brains. There is a sense of predictability in sameness that can feel like safety. However, there is a cost to being in a rut. Boredom can set in, and it is so much harder to be fully present when we do the same routine daily. Sleepwalking, or just phoning it in, is so easy when we are on autopilot. Living this way for years at a time can cause some people to make unhealthy choices just to feel something new or to offset the deadening sensation of boredom.

Barbara Brown Taylor http://www.barbarabrowntaylor.com talks about this in her wonderful book, “An Altar in the World”, in a chapter on the spiritual practice getting lost. She compares our behavioral ruts to those of dairy cows who walk the same small path back a forth from the barn to the pasture every day. She enthuses about what you can learn about yourself when you are lost, or out of your typical element, and how this can connect us in a sense of shared humanity and Oneness with all things. While it’s easy to notice when we are physically lost, what about when we are emotionally lost? Like after a big unexpected problem, such as an illness, job loss, divorce, etc. From her perspective, the same skills are needed for either kind of lostness. First we must manage our fear and panic, then we locate our existing resources or look for help and support. And, finally we see what this unexpected detour might have to offer. She suggests the loss of control we experience when lost, is well worth the possible gains of greater presence and more self awareness.

I agree with her assessment. That’s one reason I love travel. I find engaging in travel to provide a similar experience to getting lost. Going to a whole new place feels like being lost. We are not sure of all the turns to our destination. (Our GPS, knows but we do not). We need to find new places to fuel our bodies —restaurants or grocery stores — we see things we have never seen before, especially when leaving our own country and entering someone else’s. Here you get to have the experience of being the one butchering their language (unless you are like my friend Margaret who studies the host country’s language before she travels). You are the one who may need to stop and ask for directions, or the one who does not know the local customs or who hands over the wrong brightly colored paper money.

This whole experience of traveling can increase our anxiety levels and for some people this is why they don’t travel. The not-knowing and the possibility of looking foolish is too much for their Nervous System and comfort levels. But even with the increased anxiety, which will usually dissipate quickly if you can just go with the flow, there are so many gifts available in this process. These include; increased resilience, cognitive gains, reversing the coagulation of life caused by chronic sameness (boredom), a better sense of how connected we all are as a human race, and hopefully a dash of humility which tastes bad going down, but is so good for our souls in the long run.

To close I will focus briefly on travel’s gift of increased resilience. What we exercise and work gets stronger, what we don’t atrophies. While most of you have realized this is true of your muscles, from your own experience of exercising, or not exercising. This is also true physiologically. It’s true of our ability to gain increased self-confidence and a greater sense of self-efficacy, which translates to feeling safe in our bodies. Physiological resilience operates just like our muscles, use it or lose it!  Anxiety by its very nature causes most people to narrow their lives and limit their experiences. The more anxious we feel, the more we lose a sense of self-efficacy and safety, and the more we limit and attempt to control our lives. This is moving the wrong direction, away from resiliency and closer to collapse or depression.

Travel is a great way to build the muscle of your physiology and Autonomic Nervous System regulation. The more you “risk” new experiences, not knowing, not being fully in control, and you discover you are fine and in fact feeling more alert and alive than normal, the more your ability to regulate your physiology grows. This translates to increased resiliency. Developmental psychologists have long known that if a child is handed everything he or she desires and never experiences frustration or any minor hardships, that child really struggles to succeed and thrive in adulthood. It’s the very act of being appropriately frustrated and learning how to handle that sensation without a major meltdown, that grows increased resiliency in children. That “muscle” is being developed in them. We are not children anymore, but we all still can benefit from exercising the “muscle” of our ability to tolerate novelty, frustration, uncertainty, and not having things go the way we wanted them to.

I encourage you this week, if you are in a rut, step out of it. Try one of these suggestions. Go to a new coffeeshop, go have a totally new experience, get lost and see how you handle yourself, and/or plan a nice long trip somewhere you have never been. I would love to hear how it goes. 25th comment on this or providing an answer to any of the questions below, gets a Starbucks gift card. 45th comment gets to choose a title and receive credit in blog I create to go with their title.
Going Deeper:

1.) How is your frustration threshold? How do you handle being lost, out of control, or of your usual comfortable element? How does your body respond to novelty? Is there a joy and a sense of vitality, or more of a rush of anxiety and fear? Remember if you can breathe into any uncomfortable situation long enough, it will settle down unless you are in actual danger.

2.) What was your instinctive response to this blog? How much resilience does your ANS have? Are you able to easily bounce back from frustration, disappointment, not getting your way, or not knowing where you are or exactly what to do next? If your resilience is low, never fear, just like your muscles, you can increase it quite quickly if you put in the effort.

Join one of my Real Life Solutions 3 week anxiety reduction workshops held here in San Diego, CA. Mention this blog for a 20% discount.

1 thought on “Blog 36: Love & anxiety: Get off the Beaten Path!

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