My yellow Labrador absolutely detests going to the veterinarian. Every time we pull into the parking lot and the vet’s building comes into view, she starts shaking uncontrollably and refuses to stop until she has returned to the safety of our van. Besides being amazed at what a fantastic memory she has, I am keenly aware of how exhausting this dread is for her, as well as me. Although we are going for routine and relatively boring check-ups, I have to coax her inside and do my best to comfort her throughout the entirety of the visit: she even refuses to enjoy the indulgent belly rubs or extra treats the staff offers her. The negative anticipation that surfaces when my dog spots the veterinarian office reminds me of how often we create extra stress for ourselves before even knowing what we will encounter.
When my first two children were toddlers, I struggled when my husband needed to travel and I was the only adult in the house. Upon learning of the upcoming trip, I would develop a bad case of the “What ifs” that would cause my stomach to churn every morning. “What if we all get the flu and I have to take care of the kids alone?”. “What if the furnace stops working during the coldest week of the year?”. I added so much stress to the situation by imagining potential catastrophes that my husband would actually wait until a day or two before the trip to tell me about it. By doing so, he was giving me a gift: the less time I spent fretting about my solo parenting stints, the better.
All these years later, I cannot remember a single disaster befalling us during my husband’s trips. I can now confidently say I wasted time and energy that could have been put to much better use. It is clearer to me now that focusing on actions I had control of, rather than thoughts I did not, would have cured a bit of that negative anticipation. Taking vitamin C, washing my hands, and getting enough sleep helps me stay healthy, but agonizing over how challenging the flu would be while my husband travels will only make me feel worse. More often than not, the negative anticipation of the trips was more stressful than the actual time he was out of town. I gave potential problems the power to shake my faith in myself instead of believing in my ability to handle potential problems.
Have you ever prepared for a multiple choice test, only to be handed a short answer exam when you got to class? In many ways, this is a similar experience to anticipating the challenges ahead: we put forth mental effort only to discover our visions do not come to pass or look entirely different than we expected. I have a friend who agonized over an upcoming presentation at work, fearful that nerves about public speaking would cause her to stumble over her words and her audience would lose interest. She maintained her composure and delivered an informative talk, which was especially important when she ran into unexpected technology problems while trying to show computer slides. We cannot know exactly what obstacles the future holds, but we can know ourselves and our capacity to adapt as needed.
I will never convince my beloved dog that we are going to the vet for a routine visit, no matter how hard I might try. However, in our own lives, we can begin each day anew and set aside these fortune teller predictions about the future: we can highlight our own strengths and proven abilities and limit the energy we spend speculating about possible negatives we might encounter. Perhaps, we can help ourselves even more by creating something positive we can look forward to each day. Luckily for my nervous yellow Lab, I plan a coffee shop drive-thru after the vet visit and she enjoys a little extra treat. Rather than wondering about unknown problems in our future, we can plan things we know we will enjoy and take back some of that anticipation stress.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.