Sasha Obama, Fear of the Future, and Zebras


The recent news about where Sasha Obama was going to finish high school probably wasn’t a big deal to you, but two years ago it sent a teen client of mine into a tailspin.

The very bright, over-achieving tenth grader, whose parents had been driving her to see me from Palm Springs every Friday afternoon arrived in total despair. She sat down on the couch and hid her hanging face in her hands. She began, “here I was starting to feel so much better about the new school and things were going well, and then you wouldn’t believe what happened!

She had been making good progress, learning tools to self-soothe from her school anxiety and was releasing some of the immense pressure to succeed that she had put herself under, but a “big disaster” was now threatening her future and had sent her into an emotional dive.

“Guess who is going to come to my school to destroy it!”

When she could see that I couldn’t come up with a guess, she answered it, “Sasha Obama! The Obamas are buying a house here in Palm Springs to move to after they leave the White House, so Sasha is going to butt in on my senior year in high school and wreck it, after all the hard work I’m going to. They came for a tour of the school and like it. Do you have any idea how horrible it’s going to be? Someone’s senior year is supposed to be so special, but mine’s going to totally suck.

At the meeting for the parents, the administration told them what they would be doing for security purposes and it’s going to cost a lot. Guess who’s going to end up paying for all that. The parents, of course. My parents are already sacrificing a lot for my tuition to go to that school. It’s just not fair! Just think how it’s going to change the environment on campus with all those Secret Service people around and reporters.”

Luckily, once she took a breath, I was able to guide her back to the tools we had been practicing over the last few months and she started to relax into the present moment.

This is where zebras come in. In his now classic Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, primatologist Robert M. Sapolsky says that while zebras may see immediate trouble coming and prepare to run by mobilizing a stress-response, they can’t get stressed about events far in the future.

“It’s not a general mammalian trait to become anxious about mortgages or the Internal Revenue Service, about public speaking or fears of what you will say in a job interview, about the inevitability of death.” (Or if Sasha Obama will be a student at your school in two years.)

Those fears may never come to amount to anything. They are psychological stressors, not actual, yet if we stay in that fear with a chronic stress-response, it can actually be more damaging to our health than the actual event would have been, if it actually took place.

Right now, millions around the globe are experiencing psychological stress about what is ahead for 2017. Let’s take a deep breath and imagine ourselves as zebras to keep our strength and stamina with us, so when an actual immediate danger comes, we will be able to overcome it. As my mother said often, “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Oh, and by the way if you haven’t heard, the Obamas will be staying in DC for the next few years so Sasha can finish high school there.

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