On Anxiety & #TorontoStrong

Awful things happen every day.

When you see these events on the news, you somehow feel separated and protected. Those things only happen ‘out there’, and they would never happen here, in the multi-cultural, diverse, and safe city that we call ‘home’.

But something awful did happen here.

On Monday, ten lives were taken and sixteen others gravely injured.

The details are gruesome and horrific. One person’s actions are unforgivable and incomprehensible.

Our great city has come together and #torontostrong is everywhere we turn, in person, and online. The city is united. We are grieving as one.

Processing this tragic event in the first few weeks of being home from Mexico has been sobering.

Home is a place that I associate with safety.

When I feel safe, I have less anxiety.

Anxiety is a huge part of my experience of motherhood.

As a psychotherapist, I understand the cognitive theory behind anxiety. In simple terms: All anxiety, ultimately, is rooted in the fear of death. Your own death, or the death of the people you care about.

When I was six months pregnant with our first daughter, Arjan and I flew a red-eye to Ireland.  I fell asleep on the flight and woke up because I couldn’t breath. I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. I turned to Arjan with fear in my eyes:

“I need to get off of this airplane RIGHT NOW.”

The irony, as a mental health professional, I knew exactly what was happening to me: I was having a panic attack. But I had never had one before and had no idea how to help myself. All I knew was that I felt trapped and that I needed to get off of the airplane. (I didn’t say that it made sense, but that is what I felt!)

In distress, I said to Arjan:

“I am having a panic attack. Get the flight attendant and get me some oxygen.”

Thank goodness for Arjan’s calming presence. Within ten minutes, the panic ceased, and I was able to think clearly.

An experienced traveler, flying had always been a source of excitement for me.  Where had this panic been rooted? I had never had a fear of flying. Ever.

We traced it back to the morning of our flight.  At the recommendation of our midwife, I had gone in for an emergency ultrasound.  There were some irregularities in our initial ultrasound, so before travelling she thought it best to check things out. Thankfully, the new results showed that the baby was healthy, so we were cleared for our trip.

Subconsciously, during our flight, my mind’s deepest fears must have been triggered. The maternal instinct to protect my baby, at all costs, was telling me that if something went wrong (this possibility from the first ultrasound), I was trapped in an airplane where I couldn’t get the help that my baby would need.

I DID NOT HAVE CONTROL.

Loss of control intensifies anxiety.

As you can imagine, I have been anxious about flying ever since. After all, I am not in control of the airplane, someone else is. Over time, I have learned to manage that anxiety, and am happy to report that our recent flight home from Mexico was anxiety-free. The first time in seven years that I did not feel trapped on an airplane! It took a lot of personal work to get there, and I am so grateful to be on the other side.

Fast forward to the present.

We are moving back to Mexico for a year, beginning in August.

We have decided to drive and make it a fourteen-day adventure. I am (mostly!) excited about it. Our decision to drive is not based on my fear of flying, but on the necessity of our needing a vehicle while we are there.

While I am thrilled to go back to the sunshine and the salty beach air, my anxiety has now shifted from flying to a myriad of other things. Most of these anxious thoughts are not rooted in reality. They are about the things that I ‘think’ I can control.  If I am not in the right headspace, these thoughts can cloud everything and make me question our choices.

But something changed for me after Monday's tragedy.

I realized that no matter where we are in the world, we ultimately have no control over the big things:

- our job security

- our health

- other people’s actions

- natural disasters

Awful things can happen ANYWHERE. ANYTIME. To ANYONE.

So, why did this help with my anxiety and my fear of death?

I think about those ten beautiful souls who were taken from us on Monday. If they had known that that was going to be their final day on this earth, they would have taken in every moment of their day, choosing to spend it with intention, surrounded by the people they love.

Because that is how we should all live, every day.

That is why I am letting go of the anxious thoughts about the future.

Over the past year, our family has made huge changes that have been scary and unconventional.  All of those hardships and difficult choices were worth it. We are now living our meaningful life, in the way that feels right for our family.

I can rest knowing that if today was my last day, I have truly lived my best life.

There is a calmness in choosing to live fully in the present, one intentional moment at a time.

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#TorontoStrong Fund, please donate here.

In remembrance:

Beutis Renuka Amarasingha, 45, of Toronto
Andrea Bradden, 33, of Woodbridge
Geraldine Brady, 83, of Toronto
Sohe Chung, 22, of Toronto
Anne Marie D’Amico, 30, of Toronto
Mary Elizabeth Forsyth, 94, of Toronto
Ji Hun Kim, 22, who was a student living in Toronto but was from South Korea
Dorothy Sewell, 80, of Toronto
Chul Min Kang, 45, of Toronto
Munir Abdo Habib Najjar, 85, who was visiting Toronto from Jordan