Anxiety is the most common mental disorder in the United States. Make of that what you will. Blame it on politics, culture, or the way we were raised, but the fact remains: we Americans are a high-strung people. We fret, we panic, we freak out—and we are horrible at managing our fears.
Our society’s two dominant modes of dealing with anxiety seem to be
A. Bottling everything up; refusing to recognize it, or
B. Releasing it as anger or other maladaptive behaviors
Methods A and B are actually related, as A is unsustainable and frequently leads to B. But I’d like to propose a third way. When the going gets tough, make a tomato sauce.*
Yes, a tomato sauce.
Go to the farmer’s market or the store and buy a peck of ripe tomatoes. Bring them home. Turn on some good music, but not too loud. Background music. Assemble a cutting board, some good kitchen knives, a sturdy wooden spoon. Heat a large kettle of water to boiling. Drop in the tomatoes. Count to 30. Fish them out and shock them in an ice water bath. After this, the skins will slip right off in a satisfying manner. Put the nakey tomatoes into a bowl, and mash the hell out of them. Chop a white onion into very small pieces. Cry a little (it’s just the onion, I believe you!) Heat a pot or deep skillet, and test it with a flick of water from your fingertips. If it crackles in the bottom, it’s ready. Add some olive oil, and when it’s shiny, add the chopped onion. Stir occasionally until it is soft and clear. Smash several cloves of garlic with the back of a knife, chop them, and add to the onion. Wait again. While waiting, stack some green basil leaves and roll them between your palms until they curl in on themselves. Slice this curl into ribbons of basil, and add them to the garlic and onion. Pour your mashed tomatoes on top of this mixture, and stir again. Wait. Sing. Smell. Carry out each one of these steps as if it’s the only important thing in your life. Pour. Mash. Chop. Stir. Don’t think ahead, don’t look behind. Fill a sink full of hot, soapy water. Wash your dishes. Dry them. Put them away. Your tomato sauce is done. It doesn’t really matter what you do with it yet. The tomato sauce is not the point.
Because the tomato sauce is not the point, similar results may be found in work like knitting, baking bread, piecing a quilt, painting, housecleaning, tinkering with an engine, chopping wood, playing the piano, target shooting ...
The tomato sauce is whatever pulls you out of the past and yanks you away from the future. Something that engages your attention and your senses in the present. It has an element of ritual. It is comforting, but monotonous. Ordinary, but creative. It requires skill, but it is not difficult. It allows us not only to notice our surroundings, but also to control them in a positive way.
The tomato sauce method allows you to recognize your fear and make a conscious choice to channel it into something calming and productive. And if, at the end of it all, you still feel awful, at least you don’t have to worry about what to have for supper.
*Tomato sauce is a wholesome and delicious complementary treatment, but not a good replacement for anxiety medication and/or regular meetings with a therapist.