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How I Cope With Anxiety and Small Changes in Plans

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When you live with anxiety or another mood disorder, the slightest change in plans can send your brain into overdrive. Suddenly, you wonder why the plans changed, who is coming over, when, what do you wear, and the dreaded “do we have to make a decision about food or eating.”

Because we’re all different, one scenario may send you over the edge but not bother someone else. My personal landmines have to do with not being able to park in my garage and choosing where to eat — especially if there are several people trying to make a decision on where to eat, I seriously don’t understand why that is so hard – and unexpected changes in a plan.

While it would be great if every day unfolded exactly as I wanted, the likelihood of that happening is zero. So, I had to find a way to cope.

My coping strategy for small changes in daily routines is having a buffer. It’s something my husband and I developed years ago when we were first dating.

The situation at that time involved both of us being divorced with small children. He had a daughter. I had a son. Trying to plan dates around work and kids proved to be complicated but we usually found a way. Inevitably, something would come up in his life necessitating a change or cancellation in our plans. In the beginning, he would call and say, “Hey, I can’t meet you tonight. I have to go pick up my daughter,” or “I know we planned to go to the event tomorrow but I have to do something else now.”

Logically, I understood his responsibilities as a dad were sometimes more important than watching a movie or hanging out at my house. In fact, his dedication to being a great and involved parent was one of the reasons I liked him so much! However, my brain was not built in a way that supported unexpected change. Whenever he would alter or cancel plans, the next 30 seconds were filled with complete silence on my end or a barrage of questions relating to why things were changing. It didn’t take long for him to realize I had some difficulty shifting gears, particularly with little advance warning.

So, one day, he’s trying to tell me he has to leave in an hour to go get his daughter. (We had plans for that night and now they were completely and unexpectedly disrupted.) He seemed hesitant as he spoke, as if he didn’t want to tell me. I threw approximately 27 questions back at him in rapid-fire, then we stared at each other. “Are you mad?” he asked. “Of course not,” I replied. “You need to take care of your child. Why would I be mad about that?”

A lightbulb dinged over my head.

“Oh. The silent stare of death and 80 million questions probably seems like anger to you,” I said. “I promise, I’m not mad, I just need time to process change. It’s kind of hard for me.”

“Like a buffer?” he questioned.

“Yeah, I guess so,” I replied.

“So, if I think something is going to be different from what we planned, I should give you a heads up – a buffer – before it happens so you have time to think about it and be OK. Right?”

“Yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I need. Space, time, a buffer between knowing something might change and when it actually changes,” I said.

From then on, he did his best to call or tell me in advance if our plans might have to change. He still heard silence or a ton of questions immediately following the notice, but by the time I got home, I was fine.

More than 10 years later, we still use the buffer method on a weekly basis (and I personally think it contributes a lot to the success of our marriage). Most often, it goes like this:

Me: “Hello.”

Husband: “Hey, I want to give you a buffer. I’m going fishing in the morning so my truck and boat are in the driveway. You can’t park in the garage when you get home.”

Me: “Ugh! I don’t like parking on the street. Thanks for the heads up.”

Two or three hours to process this information.

Drive home.

Get to my street and see the truck blocking my entrance to the garage.

Park by the mailbox.

Walk in the house feeling fine.

Once again, annoying, anxiety-driven crisis averted.

Photo by Kevin Grieve on Unsplash

Originally published: March 26, 2019
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