Anna Polumbo-Levy: Channeling your inner zebra

Wednesday, August 9, 2017 - 6:34pm

After nearly a year of attempting to finish a singular book — sorry mom, thanks University of Michigan — I finally did. The book was called, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers,” and the very, very, very basic premise of the book — a book which the author claims is already more basic than what is really going on — is that humans, unlike zebras, have an ability to think far into the future and way back into the past. So much so that while it can be great for many things, it can also cause us to stress and worry way more than the human body can stand, creating long-term health problems.

For me, the effects of these human capabilities work in a way where I often latch on to something that could end badly in the future, and I begin to think the possible scenarios will play out before I have any reason to think so. The one thing, though, that has helped me out of these places — even before I have the ability to confirm that the worst isn’t what will play out — is to breath and live in the moment. I am constantly working to think positively, think about what is good, what is  happening — and it isn’t something that we should shun, something that we should equate with naivete or something we should fear because we think it makes us sound like we aren’t being truthful to ourselves.

Of course, before I go further, I realize there are definitely times where it isn’t possible or it would be in bad character to ask someone to think about the positive in their current lives. But for many people who are in a position to work on this, it is nonetheless a crucial one.

I have seen more police dramas than I could count on my hands, and I’ve finished  more police dramas than most people would care to admit and in less time than most anyone would ever want to admit. I love the “whodunnit?” mysteries, getting to know the witty main characters, understanding how they figure out the mysteries — especially when the prime suspect has an airtight alibi, or you don’t understand how the pieces could connect until the last moments and it finally all makes sense. I love that thrill.

But what I realized only recently was how it fed a side of myself that has caused me more stress than was likely necessary. Recently, I took a blood test to see if I had an ulcer. (You’d be right if you have started to sense a theme to this column.) Unfortunately, prior to getting tested for an ulcer, I’d also seen a bunch of episodes of cop dramas where labs screw up test results or purposefully doctor them. So for about a week after I took the test, I laid in bed awake for hours panicking that the results I would get would be negative, but I’d actually be living with an undiagnosed ulcer because the lab was screwing with people’s tests. Then I started panicking about other future unknowns.

Even more importantly, I realize how this propensity to think the worst case scenario will come to pass, even if it is alright in the moment, only worsens the feeling that something is going to go terribly wrong, that nothing is really what it seems.

On election night, the website FiveThirtyEight initially said Clinton had as high as a 73 percent chance of winning, but I would almost believe it more if it said Trump was, because I have come to question each and every statistic so much so I don’t believe hardly any of it is true. Thanks in part to my pessimism, but also because of things like binge-watched crime shows that tell us there is always something else going on, it has become increasingly difficult for me to feel like I can relax.

Of course, a certain level of questioning the numbers and facts you see in front of you is really important. That is what has led to some of the greatest, most important revelations in history. But when you can’t help but pick apart everything, sit on your stoop and wait for the other shoe to drop, because nothing ever seems sure enough, it is time for something to change.

Having faith in what is real right here and now, what the facts are at the moment, is so important in all aspects of life. Whether it’s trusting that not everyone is out to get you, that people are genuine in the compliment they pay you or help they give you without expecting anything in return, or it’s enjoying something that seems too good to be true for what it is in the moment, being able to rest comfortably in it is key.

And even when you mess up — and you will, everyone does — remember that sitting around thinking about the worst-case scenario gets you nowhere. Wait until you have facts — clear, tangible facts — that tell you to worry. Many times, they will tell you the opposite. (I’ve learned this the hard way.)

There are many things going on right now in this world that I can point to that give me good reason to feel pessimistic and negative: the state of the union in the United States, the fact that developers sometimes skirt around building requirements to reduce costs and in the end can cost lives as well, actions by large corporations such as Wal-Mart that show how poorly they treat their workers. These are many tangible things we can worry about, many things that have happened and already happened that we can be upset about and keep fighting against. But you need to give yourself some breathing room.

It is crucial that we find the time to take a moment to remind us what is great in our lives, what good is happening in the world. And this is especially critical when we are living through a very trying time.

Thinking of a pessimistic scenario can make me more realistic at times, and serve me well, because it will make me think sharper, think smarter. But it can also eat into my ability to sleep, increase my levels of stress, and overall, make it harder for me to stay healthy. It’s important to be able to recognize a good thing when we see it, know that it is probably alright.

As the school year begins, and stressors begin to pile on, try take some time to channel your inner zebra and focus on the moment you are living in. Remember what you are hopeful about, what you love in your life and what you love about yourself.

Anna Polumbo-Levy can be reached at annapl@umich.edu