Monday, August 11, 2008

Anxiety is So Damn Tiring

In an average month, roughly 4 million people Google the word "anxiety." Last month, that number was up to about 5 million. That's a lot of us. And some of us who tend to be tense have never even done a search on the word.

I bring this up because I'm prone to freefloating anxiety myself, which expresses itself, for example, in the fear I made some ghastly error which I'll soon find out about or left a door unlocked or a burner on. Weird intangible stuff like that.

When I have real things to worry about or to be upset about, my perverse reflexive strategy is to feel anxious about something unrelated.

For example, I'm currently feeling the effects of a distant relative dying Saturday (a blow for a bunch of people who are close to me), another family member having tests for worrisome symptoms (a long drawn-out process), and yet another one who is sick and refusing treatment that could solve the problem.

My response: to worry about my work, to fear (quite irrationally) that I won't get projects finished fast enough, to be a bit twitchy, and feel my immune system going on vacation. This is all just as crazy as driving back to the office at night to be sure I locked the door. To deal with this, I'm advised to:

1. meditate
2. exercise
3. be sad
4. and then just go about my business.

But these are the times that it's difficult to get myself to meditate and get exercise, to stick to the usual disciplines.

Instead, I would like to simply stop being anxious, without having to do all that. Conversely, I could simply decide that anxious is how I am just now and ignore it.

The main thing is: it's tiring. It takes energy I could use in better ways.

And based on Google figures, I'm not the only person like this. So what shall we do about this? Meditate and exercise? Surely there's an easier way.

Let's invent one. (Note: when it gets pathological, drugs help a lot, but aren't the whole answer.) (Additional note: overeating while feeling nothing is not a good strategy at all.)

Imagine how the world might improve if four million people a month were doing something more interesting than Googling "anxiety."

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Mojo said...

My dad -- a clinical psychologist and counselor for his entire career -- had a lot to say on this topic. I got to hear most of it multiple times. I'll spare you the extraneous technical details, but the Cliff Notes go something like this:
There are only four basic emotions, sort of like there are only three primary colors. Fear, Anger, Joy, Sorrow. That's it. Every other emotion is a combination of two or more of the four basic ones.

You can't put a value judgment on a feeling. It isn't good, it isn't bad, it simply "is". And it will be for as long as it needs to be. Trying to suppress it or deny it... that way leads to madness. Which brings me to...

You can't "control" feelings -- at least not in the way we typically define "control". They're going to happen when they need to in response to whatever triggers them. What we can control is our response to the feeling. Which begins with recognizing it for what it is, and then deciding how much attention we're going to invest in it. What's important to remember is that the feeling itself isn't going to go away.

So you're still going to feel that anxiety. So when you suddenly find yourself wondering if you've left the door unlocked you have a couple of options. You can (a) go and check the door or (b) decide you probably did and let it go. Exercising option (b) is a toughie sometimes -- especially if you're given to thinking "I'm sure I locked it... but what if I didn't?" (There's an old joke among submariners that goes "I know I'm being paranoid, but am I being paranoid enough?") At those times, I usually weigh "what's the worst that can happen?" against "is the worst that can happen bad enough for me to invest the time to check it out?"

Of course, your threshold for "bad enough" is probably vastly different from mine, so as always... YMMV.

mamie said...

One thing that works for me when I'm angry or sad or anxious is to try to remove all the "stuff" that surrounds the emotion and just dwell on how it feels to be angry, sad, anxious. Notice all the bodily sensations--mostly in the abdominal/chest region for me--and get totally into it. Many times, the whole thing just dissipates.

And I have to say, for me meditation is very important for removing stress. I wish exercise were more important, but when I exercise I am calmer.

I have often wondered where the line between excessively conscientious and OCD lies. Some of my behavior is on the very thin line between them.

Peggy Payne said...

So what is YMMV, Mojo?

About a third of the times that I go back and check the door, it's unlocked. Which is probably part of how I got this way.

I know you're right about not changing the feeling. However I haven't given up the hope for a magic bullet. They're so efficient when you find them.

Mamie, I think that when someone is over the line to OCD they don't see it as being close to overly conscientious. It's one of those things that you KNOW.

Although I once said to a therapist colleague of my husband's that I have a touch of OCD. He said, "You and everybody else with good sense."

I just read a wonderful memoir by a woman with a much worse case than me, at least it was when she was younger. The Devil in the Details by Jennifer Traeg. She makes a miserable situation LOL funny.

GutsyWriter said...

I can't remember where I read this, but I have it on a yellow post-it on the side of my computer screen and it
soothes me.


Peggy Payne said...

Wherever it came from, that seems to me to be one of those mysterious koans that we have to figure out on the way to enlightenment.

I haven't figured it out, but I like it.

Thanks, GutsyWriter.

Peggy Payne said...

GutsyWriter, I just went to your profile, and what a fascinating story you have. I took special note that you went to school at U. of East Anglia. Decades ago, I had a boyfriend who lived just down the road in Needham Market. The mention brings back all kinds of memories.

Mojo said...

YMMV = "Your Mileage May Vary". Sorry, most internet shorthand annoys me, but for some reason that one doesn't.

Peggy Payne said...

I too like that one. Hadn't heard it before. Mine certainly varies from day to day.