A while ago one of my friends tweeted that she’d woken up feeling full of dread and had been anxious all day for no apparent reason. I sympathised, of course, but my initial reaction was, You mean… you don’t feel like that every day? ‘Cos I sure do.
I haven’t always been like this; there’s photographic evidence to prove it. My mum has a picture of me aged around 18 months where I’m wearing brown cord dungarees and a white sweater, my pudgy face accentuated by a brutally asymmetric home-cut fringe. I’m standing at the bottom of the garden, clutching some clothes pegs, and I’m throwing my head back and squealing with delight. I’ve got pegs!!!
Perhaps it’s inevitable that our peg-holding joy seeps away as life picks us up and shakes us around a bit. I had a handful of not-fun things happen to me by the age of ten, from minor injuries to moving house, a little light bullying to my parents’ messy divorce. I’m too old to blame my parents for everything, but my DNA was deep-fried in anxiety. My mum doesn’t feel right if she hasn’t got something to worry about (this tendency led to her warning me about the possibility of cocaine at parties. When I was eight) while my Dad likes to keep a calm facade, doing a nice line in ulcers and migraines.
Whatever the reasons, I had a good anxiety habit going by the time I was in secondary school, but kind of thought that everyone else felt the same; that this is just how life is. I kept a low profile, avoided things that made me feel worse, and cried for weeks in advance of any kind of public presentation. Totes normal.
As I got older, I graduated to a panic attack or two, became increasingly socially anxious and was gripped by a terror that never entirely went away during a ride at The Place Where Dreams Come True™. I came home, couldn’t stop crying, and my GP diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. After trying nine anti-depressants without success, it seemed like therapy was my best option.
When you have any kind of treatment for anxiety, you usually get a speech about the fight or flight response. Our primitive brains are primed for a predator’s attack, so when we perceive something as a threat, we get the same kind of feelings as if a lion’s about to eat us, even if we’re just making a mildly unpleasant phone call. I guess it’s useful to know what’s happening when I’m flooded with panic, but it doesn’t really help.
And most of the advice for handling it doesn’t help, either.
One of the things friends, acquaintances, and actual accredited professionals have recommended is that I write down my worries so that I can address them, which probably sounds reasonable if you’re not overloaded with anxiety. (Top of the list: the thought of having to address all those worries.) But I tried it anyway, and came away from the experiment with four pages of A4 and an urge to hyperventilate.
The horrible truth about anxiety is that the specifics don’t matter — but we act like they do.
When I’m worrying, my thoughts are on a loop: I feel anxious about something, try to reason myself out of it (sometimes with the help of other people/the internet), feel some relief, then within seconds or hours it starts again. It feels so good to have that momentary calm, my mind will do anything to get to that feeling again. Sure the worries have some basis in reality — they wouldn’t resonate with me if they didn’t — but they’re not the real problem.
The real problem is a physiological and psychological addiction to worrying that’s supported by wonky brain chemistry, memories of past negative experiences, and the deeply-held belief that life isn’t safe. (I saw a quote on Facebook recently that said when you’re anxious, it’s because you don’t believe the universe will take care of you. No kidding. Look around!)
I think part of the answer is getting to the root of the anxiety: finding a way to treat those wonky chemicals and clear out the negative memories. But when it comes to day-to-day worries, the most important thing I’m doing is… nothing. Not getting into an inner debate in the first place; not letting myself go into a tailspin.
For real-life example, when I’m scared that the restaurant I’ve booked online won’t have kept my reservation, the answer isn’t to ask my mum if she thinks it will have gone through OK, Google whether anyone’s had a similar situation to the one I fear, or call the restaurant to double-check. The answer is to acknowledge that my anxiety is flaring up and then not throw petrol onto the fire. Instead of trying to reason with it or talk myself out of it I can just sit with it. Or I can meditate, do a yogic stretch, distract myself, or yell “I DON’T WANNA.”
You might be like “Duh, that’s because it doesn’t really matter,” but the principle is the same no matter what I’m thinking (and thinking and thinking) about. I’m always on top of things in my mind, narrating my actions and mentally preparing for possible scenarios as if that’s actually a productive way to spend my time rather than just an easy way to become exhausted.
It’s hard to let go, to not be filling my mind with “urgent” thoughts. It feels dangerous, as if not preparing for every eventuality by worrying about them in advance will lead to disaster. But I’ve thought (and thought and thought) that way for 34 years and it hasn’t worked out that well, so it’s probably time to try something new.
Image: GE Healthcare on Flickr.