On any given day, there are a number of things that I feel lots of anxiety about. I know that if I just do them, I will feel better, and yet doing them is not so straightforward for me. These things range from daily activities like replying to emails or writing a protocol for a new experiment in lab, to bigger picture tasks like making an appointment with a new doctor or confronting (seemingly endless) bureaucratic systems that still have the wrong name/gender listed for me.
I know that often (almost always) the anxiety I feel about these things everyday far outweighs the trouble it would take to do them. When I got my first credit card in college, I waited 9 months to activate it, feeling lots of anxiety about using it incorrectly or missing a bill, and then further anxiety that I had waited too long to activate it. When I finally got up the nerve to call to activate it so I could start building credit, it was a 2 minute phone call with a robot. I felt so relieved, and then also frustrated that I had spent 9 months feeling anxious about doing this thing that took 2 minutes and didn’t even involve talking to another human.
What ultimately drove me to finally activate my first credit card was that my anxiety about not having any credit started to outweigh my anxiety about activating my credit card. It wasn’t any kind of sudden realization about just doing it – this rarely drives me.
For any of these tasks, I rarely can just do them already. On top of that, I carry a lot of shame about having not done them. I couldn’t even talk about my not-activated credit card at the time. It’s incredibly isolating.
I have internalized the idea that putting things off or procrastinating is irresponsible, lazy, and somehow morally wrong. I believe that I am broken and unlovable for not being able to eliminate procrastination and anxiety from my life. Frustratingly, these beliefs only make my anxiety worse, and make it harder to do things.
When someone suggests that I should quit worrying and just do it already, it’s kind of like telling me that I should just reach out and touch a hot stove and ignore my brain’s instincts that this is a bad idea. It also sends me a message reinforcing the idea that something is wrong with me and that I am a failure, which actually makes it even harder for me to do the thing in question.
You see, my anxiety is a survival mechanism that’s stuck on a higher-than-necessary setting.
Almost every task is coded as a threat. If I try to do this thing, I might fail, and then I will surely die. It is not rational, and it is certainly not conscious. Trying to apply conscious, rational solutions is futile and aggravating. (This drives me up a wall as a scientist who prefers reasoned, rational steps forward.)
Almost every new task comes with an anxiety wall of some sort that requires extra energy to climb over. No task is exempt.
For example, the other day I received a lovely, supportive message from a friend that asked nothing of me. This is possibly the most non-threatening kind of thing to respond to. Immediately in my head I knew what I wanted to say in reply, and I very nearly just replied right then and there, but for some reason I decided to do it later. The ‘later’ I imagined was a time in the near future when I had spent more time seasoning my brief message and mentally bracing myself for any unexpected anxieties that might accompany my response. Even I am frustrated when I do this, and yet I can’t just stop. This was an entirely positive, benign message to have received, and yet even this came with an anxiety barrier to conquer.
So I procrastinate. My brain is trying to protect me from potential threats by avoiding exposure in the first place, or by giving me a false sense of control. I have control, I think. Look at how I get to choose when I do this thing. But do I actually get to choose? Procrastination gives me the illusion of control when it is really anything but. It is a reflex, like pulling away from a hot stove, except with significantly less understanding from everyone around me, including from myself.
Things That Help
1 – Deadlines. As frightening as deadlines can be for me, they provide impetus for me to conquer my anxiety wall by a predetermined time rather than put things off forever. While some things come with built-in deadlines, lots of other things don’t.
For example, I could put off making a first appointment with a new primary care doctor for a long time. Right now, there’s a high chance that I will actually make an appointment in the coming month because I told some friends that I would make progress on this by our next meeting, which will be in November sometime. (Incidentally, we were supposed to meet in October, but I put off setting a date, probably on account of my self-assigned homework. Anxiety is clever sometimes.)
An important note: Do not ever try to set a deadline for me on my behalf without asking if this is what I need. If you think a deadline might be what I need, ask me first: “Would it help to set a deadline for this task?” Some things may need to be broken down into steps, which brings me to the next point.
2 – Plans. If you’re a friend of mine and I’m venting about feeling anxious about something, a really great way to help sometimes can be to help me put together a plan – but, as always, make sure you ask me first if this is what I feel like I need. Sometimes I just need to vent. If there is a specific task that needs to be accomplished, make sure this plan has a clear timeline, and then gently hold me to it by checking in. Be sure to avoid guilt or shame, because those are 100% counterproductive and drive me deeper into anxiety and farther away from action.
I sometimes also make plans just for myself. If I am procrastinating in lab, for example, sometimes I can pull myself out of it by making very detailed lists of what I’m going to do first, second, etc., that include things like putting music on and going to the bathroom. Breaking a pile of things down into discrete tasks interspersed with relief steps (like music) can make a day seem way less daunting. I then make sure not to worry too much about sticking with the exact plan – the point is to find a way to start.
3 – Listen and validate. If I’m venting about something I am struggling to do, even if it seems like a super easy, benign thing, don’t remind me about how easy it would be to just do it. Often what I need is to find a way to feel less ashamed and afraid. If I can find a way to reduce my anxiety about a particular task, it will become much easier to do it. Reducing my anxiety takes time and effort on my part, and can involve anything from mentally preparing to do something for several days, to venting about it to 5 separate people who all validate my frustration.
In fact, venting is a huge part of my coping strategy. Sometimes I just need to write out stream-of-consciousness emails to clear my head and break the isolation and shame. I highly recommend this as a strategy.
4 – Patience. Sometimes my anxiety makes it hard for me to do things in a way that impacts folks around me. Please understand that I am doing my best, and that my best usually still involves unavoidable procrastinating.
Also, though, I also really struggle to be patient with myself. If you’re frustrated with me for procrastinating something, know that my frustration with myself is higher. Anxiety is a real barrier, but when we are unable to acknowledge it, it feels like running into a wall that no one else sees, and having no explanation for not being able to go through it.
5 – Structure. Related to a couple points above, I need a certain amount of structure every day to get things done. If I am given a vague-seeming project with no clear guidelines or measures of success, I am being set up to fail. I will put an enormous amount of pressure on myself and end up avoiding all tasks as if they are a spitting fire that I’m supposed to go stand in, and everything will slowly spiral. I have learned this the hard way.
In science, especially science grad school, self-motivation is valued extremely highly. Folks will sometimes brag about how little guidance they were given in grad school (or about how miserable they were), as if it’s some kind of right of passage (or hazing). For someone living with survival-mode anxiety, this is a nightmare. I am fortunate that my PhD experience has involved a number of significant shifts (including my advisor switching institutions entirely) that brought me from minimal guidance to a full on support structure, and I am doing so, so much better. Having learned this, I can keep it in mind when looking for my next position.
Just because a particular way of functioning is socially valued in a particular context does not mean that it’s going to work for everyone, and our ability to conform does not determine our value. At least, I am working on believing this more.
I do want to clarify that I am able to do a great many things mostly on my own. Just the past year alone has come with a long list of things that I have been able to achieve or put together, even if it has also come with countless hours of decompressing with Netflix. There are lots of tasks for which the energy balance works out, and I know I will gain more energy from doing them than it will take to do them, such as writing these blog posts. But I don’t get to choose which tasks are going to be harder.
Bottom Line: Anxiety is exhausting and irrational, and requires a lot of extra energy every day. Anxiety, for me, is a survival mechanism on hyperdrive that I cannot just turn off (so please don’t try to ask me to). For me, anxiety results in lots of invisible barriers that don’t make sense and that are hard to overcome.
Anxiety and its invisible barriers are real, and even if no one else can see them, you are still ok and a good person. I am working on believing this about myself, but it’s true for everyone, too.