Navigating Anxiety

Right now, I am sitting at my kitchen table, feeling a vague sense of dread. There is no one particular thing on the horizon causing this, it’s just constant. In fact, dread is only part of it. I think of all the things that I need to do – sort out travel logistics for rapidly upcoming trips, find a new primary care doctor, add the last two utility bills to splitwise, plan events that are part of upcoming travels, science (data analysis, more brainstorming), dishes I need to wash, the clutter I’ve left in my room and common spaces, emails and wedding invitations I need to respond to, and on and on – so many things that I should have been doing all along, or should have done long ago. They all sit in the back of my mind, pressing on me, demanding attention, and rather than set about doing them one by one, my brain shuts down, and I do everything I can to shut them out for just a little longer.

This is anxiety.

Or part of it, anyway. I feel so easily overwhelmed by a list of totally do-able tasks not because there are so many things I need to do, but because each item left undone feels like part of a grand indictment of my failure as a human being. Rather than seeing each item as a task to be completed, each is a referendum on my ability to control my life and be perfect – and I am haunted by the belief that if I am not perfect, I do not deserve love or connection.

Probably the worst thing you could tell me right now is that I am being overdramatic.

Anxiety does not respond to logic. For me, anxiety is a sense that I should be able to control things that are beyond my control, and my inability to control these actually uncontrollable things means I don’t deserve love. I can sit here and know intellectually that this does not make any sense, but my emotions, my fight/flight/freeze response system, do not respond to intellectual arguments or rationality.

Something else that doesn’t help? Suggesting that I just do the things already! If it were that easy, trust me, I would have done them by now. Below is a great comic that illustrates this:

(Click the image for the source and a larger version.)

It takes a long time, sometimes, for me to realize that I am responding from an anxious place, semi-frantically avoiding as many things as possible. I am so accustomed to this vague sense of dread, a subtle feeling that deserved doom is lurking around every corner, that I don’t always notice it.

And besides, it’s not just a to do list for me. It’s a fog of negative thoughts about myself: My undone dishes and clutter represent my inability to be a responsible adult who is doomed to be lonely forever because how could anyone truly appreciate and love me if I’m a slob? Yet-to-be-made travel plans, dealing with utility bills – again, I must be irresponsible and therefore worthy only of rejection and disconnection. Science: why haven’t I made more progress? How will I ever succeed and be lovable if I can’t accomplish anything significant or control people’s impressions of me as a competent scientist? How can I ever  possibly measure up to the brilliant people around me? If I don’t respond to emails in a timely fashion, then I’m disappointing people, and how will I ever be lovable if I’m a constant disappointment. Finding a doctor – how can I find a doctor and completely avoid hearing anything invalidating about my gender or body from anyone in the medical profession that will only further confirm all the awful things I’ve internalized about myself from mainstream society and am already constantly fighting against?

What if I can’t do all of the things perfectly – what if it’s too late to do any of them perfectly? The more emotional baggage attached, the harder it is to bring myself to do it.

I usually don’t even realize I am feeling this way. Instead, I experience tension in my shoulders, clenching of my stomach, I hold my breath, and part of my brain says NO NO NO SHUT IT OUT and before I can even ask myself ‘Shut what out?’ I turn to Netflix, a podcast, music, endless internet surfing, anything, anything to avoid this awful sense of my constant failing. I can put it off for another episode, another night, another day, another week – and then another, and then another, and each time, it gets harder.

All of this, even the procrastinating, takes energy – a lot of energy – and I only have so much energy at a time. All of this, too, feels incredibly isolating. I feel alone with my seemingly-reasonable-looking to do list of terrors. Anyone else would have done this better – OR, even if they hadn’t done it better, they would just still be lovable simply because they’re someone else, and it’s ok for other people to be imperfect. Just not for me.

I should mention that it’s not just to do lists. That thing I said the other day – or ten years ago – that was probably an awful thing to have said (but maybe not) and I can’t let it go. I failed to read someone’s mind about something and did or said the wrong thing – or I am currently doing something upsetting but no one has told me yet because it should be obvious. I don’t talk to my friends enough, or I am trying to talk to them too much. That thing someone said or did recently – what did it mean? They could have done it for [X] reason, or [Y] reason, and what do either of those possible reasons say about whether or not I deserve to be cared about? I live with a never ending parade of hypothetical scenarios about mostly bad things that might happen in the near future that I would deserve because I am clearly unlovable.

Ok, before anyone starts to worry about me too much, let me say a few things:

1 – I know that I am a lovable, worthy human being. I just don’t always believe it.

2 – I have gotten way, way better at navigating my anxiety over the years. None of this is new. I am not in crisis.

3 – It’s all a matter of degrees – sometimes these feelings are really intense. Sometimes they’re background noise. I’m still a very functional human being and I actually do accomplish many things on a daily basis, whether or not I am always able to recognize that.

4 – The fact that I am sharing this at all is a good sign, if it means nothing else, because it is a step toward breaking the cycle of isolation.

What I also want to share here, because I do know that I am not alone with these kinds of feelings, are things that help me deal with anxiety once I’m able to identify that I am feeling anxious:

– Name it: I am feeling anxious. Anxiety is a feeling, like other feelings, and my fears are not actually true, even if I believe they are right now. It is ok that I am feeling anxious. I cannot change my feelings or what I believe about myself from moment to moment, but I can acknowledge that my negative thoughts are not true. Usually, doing this has a delayed effect – a few hours or days later, I feel better.

– Unqualified mantras: It is ok if I am imperfect. Repeat. It is ok if I am imperfect.

– Writing it out: Sometimes I write stream of consciousness emails to a good friend, both to gain some perspective, and to break the isolation a little.

-Bringing myself back to the present: There is not actually a bear in the room. These anxious feelings are part of fight/flight/freeze, which is usually a survival instinct in the face of mortal harm. Sometimes reminding myself of this, and that my life is not actually in immanent danger, helps me to calm down. Looking around the room I am in and identifying objects can help – I am sitting in a chair in the kitchen. There’s a water bottle on the table, the window is cracked open, the sun is starting to go down. I am here, now, and I am ok. I will be ok tomorrow, too, and the next day, and the next.

– Letting go: Sometimes, actively sorting out what I can and cannot actually, reasonably control can help. For example, I cannot read other people’s minds, nor can they read mine, and this means nothing about how much we care about each other. If I am worried that I might be doing something that is upsetting to someone else and they just haven’t told me yet (a common worry for me), I remind myself that it is their responsibility to tell me about their feelings, not my responsibility to guess, because it is impossible for me to guess.

Things that other people can do to help:

– Listen to me without judgement when I need to vent about all of the things I feel like I should be doing.

– Be clear and upfront about your feelings, particularly if I am doing something annoying or upsetting. I feel way, way better if I can trust that someone will tell me when something’s up, because it’ll be easier for me to stop overanalyzing everything and trying to guess.

– Remind me that it’s ok to be imperfect, particularly if you notice me trying to be perfect at something. Be patient when I am unable to hear you tell me this.

– Accept that my anxiety is illogical and don’t try to reason with me about it. Trust me.

I am interested in hearing about how others cope with anxiety. How do you get through? What helps? What doesn’t?

(Note: I am not asking for advice on how to deal with mine. Please do not try to give me any suggestions.)

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4 Responses to Navigating Anxiety

  1. jspinner2 says:

    WOW so timely as I’m in the middle of those terrors right now. I got mad and I’m not sure if either of us can deal with me mad. The world might stop or maybe she might not really care or maybe she will take it all too seriously and both of us are so fragile and the knocks of anger and frustration really are quite devastating. I keep telling myself I have time to breathe, there is time, it’s OK to cry but remember to breathe.

    Thank you.

  2. Jamie Ray says:

    My anxiety often manifests itself in procrastination, or some form of paralysis.

    What I have learned (and would be helpful if I could remember it and act on it) is that my anxiety is a place holder, a diversion, for other feelings that I keep pushing away. I can deal with anxiety, but I can’t deal with the feelings that the anxiety is substituting for. Mostly fear of rejection and of not being “good enough”.

    How I get through it is to have a list of things I procrastinate and ought to do, and to make sure that each day I do at least one of them – even if it is super easy it is ok as long as I was avoiding it – and even if I am still falling behind. It reminds me that I am not a total sloth. And I’m in therapy for the feeling part.

  3. Emily Neumann says:

    My original (pre-therapy) was food. But coping strategies I’ve learned are a) Journaling (SUPER effective right now, something about writing down what I’m worried about and then sometimes I ask myself to write down worst case scenario & ways to handle it because unknowns/worst case scenarios are a huge worry point for me), b) asking myself what is causing the anxiety and trying to be as honest with myself as possible on that, c) walks outside while listening to mental illness happy hour or another podcast (wait wait dont tell me is a good one), d) Shavasana/some kind of lying down meditation e) fiddle toys for when my anxiety makes me fidgety

    Anxiety (and depression) suck. Your post is super great, you are a beautiful human being that I am so grateful to be getting to know in my life. ❤

  4. kwixote says:

    Like anyone, I have worries and anxieties and things I procrastinate about. But I don’t have this kind of anxiety, nor do I think of every task I do (or don’t do) as a referendum on myself. It has never occurred to me that anyone might do this. As always, thank you so much for helping me better understand something outside my own range of experience!

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