It’s become increasingly clear that my life is not … okay. I’m not okay. And it’s been a long time since I’ve been okay.
The why is a question I obsess over, analyze, organize, and attempt to resolve. My pursuit of financial freedom, my education, and much more are all aimed – to one degree or another – at making things better. But do they? Simply put, they don’t. These minor course corrections don’t and haven’t helped except in minor ways.
But there have been times in my life when I’ve been very happy. In fact, right at the core, I’m an amazingly happy, generous, creative, caring person. Something interferes with that. Life breaks me.
The times in my life when I’ve been very happy have been the times in my life when I’ve suffered real tragedy. The immense pain of having something I care about deeply being lost to me has been sufficient to break down my assumptions, my behaviors, my beliefs, and even my concerns. The process of rebuilding – making radical shifts in my life – has made me feel more healthy and whole. I’ve described myself as an orchid; I thrive in the rain.
Perhaps my anachronistic soul was simply not meant for a life in the modern world. Certainly, each radical shift has decayed in the face of “grown-up worries,” and my reversion to more status quo resolutions results in the status quo effect for my life.
That status quo is comprised of a lot of things that sound melodramatic on paper. Pain, misery, self-loathing, lethargy, anxiety, deep depression – these are the things we put in bad poetry and rough drafts, not in confessions and self-summaries. But there it is, and I don’t know what to do about it.
It’s clear that I need a radical shift in my life. Looking at my self-destructive behavior, I wonder if that’s what it’s all aimed at: breaking my life enough that I’m forced to make fundamental shifts and re-evaluations. Well, I think I may be there now. I hurt, deeply, and it’s killing my career, my personal relationships, and any chance at happiness. So it’s time for a change.
I choose a radical shift. I choose impossible things that will be unsustainable. I choose a temporary vision of myself as someone worthwhile. I’ll figure out balance later – but this sort of emotional, lifestyle moderation just isn’t in my skillset. I’m good at abstaining or binging, but I seem to fail at anything between. And if that’s the case, I might as well go to the extreme that makes me happiest.
I wanted to take a moment to discuss anxiety and some of my recent thoughts on the topic.
The Components of Anxiety
The first component of anxiety from a survivalist point of view is the ability to foresee potential consequences of action, inaction, and our more general circumstances. This, in fact, is the key reason our human intelligence works to our benefit. We can see patterns, predict changes, and foresee – and thus prepare for – danger. A person who has an above average intelligence and imagination will be able to generate, inside their minds, a series of possibilities (however unlikely) that are logically sound.
Doing the wrong thing tonight could lead, in an extreme case, to imminent death. Far more likely, however, in the mind of a person with anxiety, is the idea of loss. Not working on homework right now could mean failing out of college, never getting the right career, never finding the right spouse, being seen as a failure by friends and loved ones, having no financial resources to handle basic life issues, and not being able to pursue and accomplish personal dreams. That’s a lot of weight for a single school assignment.
But that in and of itself is not enough to cause a real issue. In fact, the ability to predict this as a potential danger serves to our benefit. We have an incentive to behave in safe, rational ways. The problem is a second survivalist trait.
“Fight, flee, or freeze.” Those are our options when we’re faced with danger, and when “danger” was tigers and opposing tribespeople and so on, these made sense. In a modern, industrialized world, however, these instincts are often ineffective. Even in cases where our system tells us to “fight” – giving us the adrenal kick to push through a project despite difficulties – we are prevented from working optimally and with a clear head.
For those who have anxiety, though, the instinct is not “fight.” It is either to flee or to freeze. When the cause of anxiety is a task to be done, however, these responses make the original problem worse – and continue a cycle of anxiety.
The Industrialized Era
In the “civilized” world of industrialization, we no longer work in conjunction with organic units; we are not farmers, hunters, or anything else our intuition is most suited for. We are told instead to repeat the same tasks over and over again, even when they exhaust minute sub-sections of our abilities quickly, deprive us of a sense of balance, and isolate us from the rest of the world.
These repetitive and inorganic acts generally lack that initial sense of challenge that we drives us as people. Moreover, when no longer facing a new problem, our minds are free to wander off to potential distant consequences. Those who have the imagination to foresee the worst possible chain of events may trigger fear largely because of this open mental space.
Is is possible to live an organic existence in an industrialized world? If so, the path to doing so isn’t clear. And sadly, the modern solutions we’re presented with when we have anxiety follow the industrial mode of thinking: Approach the person by assuming the problem is theirs, and give them a “quick fix” that will normalize them to the system. Medications are the popular way to do so today.
The Unhelpful Solutions
Whenever I bring up my difficulties with buckling down on a project, at least one of the people giving input will repeat this phrase: Just do it!
Every time I hear that phrase, I want to murder kittens. And I normally love kittens. The problem with that idea, the “just will through it” concept, is that it assumes we all have infinite willpower which we can use via our conscious minds. Lovely in concept, the idea of infinite willpower ends up being counterproductive in the real world; we gain an additional source of anxiety as we try to solve the problem of why our willpower isn’t effective in the way others tell us it should be. In the end, all “Just do it” really means is that the person giving us advice doesn’t understand the fears and responses that we struggle with.
Another response I get, often from my loving mother, is the prompt to “take a break,” “recharge,” and “sharpen the saw.” If I were actually able to relax, I would be glad to do so. Perhaps the freed up mental and emotional resources would allow me to overcome the initial anxiety barrier. However, any time I feel I “should” be working but I am not is time where I’m becoming more stressed, not less. “Fleeing” creates an even greater anxiety barrier rather than helping to reduce it.
This same problem takes place for many self-imposed solutions: Superficially, we may watch TV, read a book, go for a walk, play a game, or visit Facebook 18 times, but we’re actually working. Our faculties are focused on the problem, and potential problems, presented by the work we’re not doing – and thus that are looming closer with each passing moment.
Differentiating Between Procrastination and Anxiety
Much of what I’m discussing here is a description of procrastination, which is the behavior my anxiety most frequently manifests through. To be clear, they are certainly not the same thing. Anxiety as a broad response simply describes the fear we feel due to future events, while an anxiety disorder is the name given to anxiety – and any accompanying behaviors – that interfere with healthy functioning in today’s world.
So procrastination, yes, is a product of anxiety. Other behaviors are certainly present for me, including intense nervousness about big decisions, deep fears of my body falling apart or my mind deteriorating, and even panic episodes. Anxiety can, as the key emotion, encompass all these behaviors. But anxiety is not the “cause.” It is the response. Our current situation, past experience, and genetics are the “cause.”
Breaking the Anxiety Cycle
When I’m on top of everything in my life, I don’t feel anxious. The freedom from the perpetual adrenal pushes that tell me to run or stand rigid actually make my non-anxious life seem very boring. There are, as studies have found out, addictive properties to the adrenaline we get from anxious behaviors. And when I’m on top of everything, it’s much easier to stay on top of everything.
As with Jenga, however, a single block being pulled out of place can easily topple the entire thing. One item going wrong can lead to an anxious state that causes a great many additional problems. The cycle continues until I either get on top of things or something falls away – the test is done, the client fires me (it’ll happen eventually!), or I (with immense apologies) return work that I simply can’t do any more.
Getting on top of things is not easy, however, since the very need to do so means that those of us with anxiety have greatly diminished resources. We’re not just working on the problem of 4 hours of work or a big paper or painting the garage. We’re working on the 4,000 possible outcomes in the future which we feel we must prepare for – and which are deeply threatening to our life, sense of identity, or dreams.
So how do we actually get on top of things? Well, while I don’t pretend to be especially good at any of this, I have learned a lot. Here are some suggestions:
- Complete the smallest possible particle. Look at the task and evaluate where your anxiety barrier starts. Ask yourself, “Can I write this 5 page paper?” No, you probably can’t. “Can I write the first page?” Maybe not. What about the first paragraph? The title? Can you read a research source? Can you do a Google search to find an additional source? Can you decide what phrase you would type into Google to find that additional resource?
Find the first thing, no matter how minuscule, you can do. By the time you’re done, you may be surprised by how many ideas you have for the upcoming steps.
- Commit to play. Niel Fiore, in his books The Now Habit and The Now Habit for Work, spends a lot of time talking about “guilt-free play” or “guilt-free leisure.” The idea is that we must stop our brains from continuing to try to work if we are going to relax.
When it comes to anxiety, working is a great solution. If you can’t work, however, you should play. And you should commit to doing so. Say, “I am playing for the next hour,” or “I am watching this TV show,” and integrate this decision as part of generating resources that allow you to complete your project. You wouldn’t be able to build a house without materials, and the same goes for mental construction projects.
- Set time limits. Related to the two solutions above, I strongly suggest setting specific times for your work. My initial time freelancing created an all-permeating anxiety that made my life a living hell. By segregating a specific “work time” and “non-work time,” I was able to focus more completely on both.
On a smaller level, it’s also beneficial to set a 10, 15, 20, or 30 minute timer and “see what work you can get done.” This makes your job, rather than being to solve all the potential problems of a task, doing whatever feels possible in that time window.
- Finish the fears. You may fear what not accomplishing a project would do. Rather than leaving those fears unaddressed, try acknowledging them and coming up with basic solutions. Walk down the entire chain of effects. “What if I don’t do this?” “I could lose my job.” “What would I do if I lost my job?” “I would try to find another.” “What if I couldn’t find another?” “I would keep looking and live with relatives.”
The further you follow the chain of thinking, the more you’ll realize that you are a capable, intelligent person who will be able to take life’s problems so long as they’re in the present tense. That’s the big thing about anxiety, though. We have these strong fears, but – no matter how smart or creative we are (and we are, because we came up with the fears) – we can’t access solutions because all of our resources exist in this same inaccessible future.
- Tell those impacted about your anxiety. I have been very lucky to have highly empathetic professors, clients, employers, and friends. I try to make it my job, when I am in a situation where my anxiety is causing problems, to explain to those who are affected exactly what my anxiety means. You may be surprised how much support you get just by being honest.
- Take a swim / cold shower. This one’s physiological. Our bodies respond to certain environmental factors, including cold water, by releasing brain chemicals that keep us calm and focused. Again, it’s a survival instinct. Assuming your anxiety is manageable enough that you can get yourself to the pool or shower, this solution can really help overcoming those initial barriers.
And one last solution, one I’m still working on: a complete change in our perception of future problems. I don’t know if this is even possible, but it’s certainly worth exploring.
Leaving the Future Be
“Some of your hurts you have cured,
And the sharpest you still have survived,
But what torments of grief you endured
from the evil which never arrived.”
~Ralph Waldo Emerson
Great thinkers throughout history have addressed this strange dilemma of human worry (which, in its extreme form, is anxiety). Buddhism’s mindful awareness discusses the topic at length, and even Christ had a few words (my favorite in the Bible) to say about it: “Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
The end point here is that the majority of what you’re suffering for in anxiety is a potential future that hasn’t arrived and that you’ll still be able to respond to if it ever does. Rather than taking on the weight of every potential negative future, of your complete identity, with any project that’s tied to things you care about, you can – hypothetically – just worry about the problems presented by the project in front of you.
Life happens in the medium of moments, not of a giant glob of time. Each moment allows us to solve individual problems unique to that moment. So, when faced with a challenge that we can’t address in the actual now, we can follow along with Ted’s eloquent phrasing from the show How I Met Your Mother: “This sounds like a problem for future Ted.” We really can leave the problems of the future to the version of ourself that will actually be there. For one, that version of ourself is the only one that will actually have access to the concrete problem and its potential solutions. Take time to plan and create general guidelines, but realize that everything’s likely to change anyway. You’ll roll with the punches as they come, but they’re not here yet.
It’s not as easy as saying “I’m re-wired now and will only work on the problems of the moment.” But, as I said previously, there are three real things that can accurately be seen as sources of our anxiety: our circumstances, our genetic heritage, and our past experiences. Our circumstances can only be changed so much in the modern world, and for many with real anxiety problems, a revolutionary change of circumstances just isn’t viable. Our genetics are even more locked in.
What we can change is our experiences today, and thus the “past experiences” of tomorrow. It’s not easy. It’s a lot like working out, in fact; it can be exhausting, it can take forever to make progress, and it’s easy to lose motivation and focus. But by continually re-processing the idea of “future concerns belonging to the future,” we can develop stronger anxiety-coping muscles.
My first strong memories of anxiety come from 7th grade. My first experience with anxiety truly damaging my life was in high school. Since then, anxiety has hurt my personal and professional life in many ways. I’ve tried medications, and nothing has worked. I’ve considered every sort of extreme solution, but not one is sustainable and effective.
But what I can say at this point, despite being so far from perfect, is that progress is possible. In fact, it’s nearly inevitable. As we continue to work on specific problems, we get better. That too is human nature. Additionally, this modern age, despite all it does to break us, also gives us many resources. Information from the world of the web, modern science, psychology, and philosophy all speak to this issue.
On that note, I’d love to open the floor to anyone who’s had issues with anxiety and get your input on what’s helped you in the past.
Dragon Age Origins: Awakening was not good. It was okay. The script was far more poorly written, and the plot was constructed with less finesse. Characters were compartmentalized into stereotypes and comedic roles. It lacked originality, timing, and flare. This is especially disappointing considering the game was the sequel to a game that made it to my Top 10 Games list.
So why, one might ask, did I spend the last fourteen hours playing this poorly made sequel? We can make justifications. I wanted to finish up some loose ends in the original first, and I wanted to get all the achievements in both games (which I’ve now accomplished), and so on, and so forth. Nevertheless, the end conclusions is that I spent 14 hours doing something I didn’t find to be particularly enthralling.
This was done with the help of energy drinks. I made a compromise and had drinks that were sugar free, evading the high fructose corn syrup that is so omnipresent in most hyper-caffeinated beverages. I am trying to be healthy, but I sometimes feel the need for a burst of energy to get to work. Of course, I didn’t work.
Staying up all night, as well as the excessive energy drinks and binge eating, have been a part of self-destructive acts that have become the major playing force in my life over the last week and a half. On one end, these self-destructive acts are calculated. They are designed as an escape from stress that will allow self-correction. On the other hand, the amount of good they can do is severely limited, especially if they do not quickly serve their intended purpose.
The major issue here is anxiety. Anxiety carves ditches throughout my existence, and it seems that something needs to fill those ditches before I can navigate correctly. The anxiety has been about many things, recently, with a spike hitting recently. Multiple emotionally draining interactions (at least three) over the course of a five-day period is certainly enough to throw me off. Not having work done only compounds this issue.
Self-destruction, such as with energy drinks and staying up all night, escapes this anxiety. It provides a safe place for me, if only temporarily.
I look back to the Summer of 2005. This was the year that I can plainly state I was “happiest.” I was excessively busy, but had an active social life, meaningful work, recognition for my accomplishments, a sense of balance, and a feeling of progress with all my important endeavors. I did all this on very little sleep, and absolutely no caffeine. One particular week where I had twelve hours of sleep in total comes to mind. Most weeks had about triple that, but I was nonetheless running on empty.
I wonder if that may actually be the more advantageous state for me. I feel no anxiety (there simply isn’t room for anxiety!), I feel more emotionally calm, and I am surprisingly functional. I make no claim that this blog entry is perfect, but it was written by someone completely exhausted; someone who hasn’t slept in about twenty-four hours.
That sleepless summer was so exemplary to me. I would like to get back to something like that. Something where I do meaningful work, have a social life, am not overly worried about finances, feel like I’m making progress, and where I do yoga twice a friggin’ day. But it’s also not the right path for my life right now.
I am not going to stop the self-destruction just yet, although I am pulling back. I certainly won’t be playing video games for a bit! And as for my other preferred methods of damaging myself, I will do what I can to make sure the damage isn’t lasting.