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I wanted to take a moment to discuss anxiety and some of my recent thoughts on the topic.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Some of your hurts you have cured,And the sharpest you still have survived,But what torments of grief you enduredfrom 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.
Today’s hour-long lunch was spent crafting an epicurean delight that now rests safely in my satisfied stomach. The meal focuses on “devil-spiced vegan riblets,” with a wonderfully green salad, carrot juice, and Belgian dark chocolate.
What you’re seeing on the plate is:
This year has been intensely productive. What it has not been, however, is happy. I’ve been miserable – almost insurmountably so – at least since January. Days and moments of happiness have most certainly been present, and I’ve felt a sense of satisfaction with my accomplishments, but no, I haven’t been happy.
Coming to terms with that simple reality is difficult for me for two reasons. First, acknowledging that I am deeply depressed brings to mind all the struggle I’ve had with depression, and the general sense of helplessness I feel there. Second, complaining about my own happiness seems superficial to me. It feel as though my pursuits are aimed at meaning – acquiring resources that will allow me to help others – and that “meaning” is really what I should be aimed for.
Happiness vs MeaningThat’s the question, at the end of the day: Meaning or happiness? The two, so often interwoven, do serve different ends, take different paths, and result in a different priority set – and thus lifestyle. My training in life has split my motives. I have been told that I am not good enough as a person; this means I must prove, through meaning, that my life has a purpose. I have been told that joy is the meaning of life; this means that happiness is really what I should be pursuing. I have been told countless things, all contradictory.
In the end, it comes back to me. What do I want? And is what I want healthy? If I want a life of meaning that requires me to sacrifice my own happiness, is my motive self-destruction – or just a freedom from overwhelming guilt and pain brought in by other sources? Have I given up on happiness as an end to itself because I see it, so often, as unobtainable?
But I have been happy before. Beyond “small bursts” of happiness in my life, I have had long stretches where I felt – for the most part – free from depression. I know it’s possible. But is it my top priority? This first entry of mine is an attempt to convince myself that happiness is worthwhile.
Happiness as a Worthy AimI will define happiness here in the simplest possible terms: A state of being that creates emotional, psychological, and physical sensations that we as humans recognize to be “positive” – with positive being a highly personal term.
Happiness is not limited to the physical state of happiness. A bliss-causing pill that debilitated me would cause great unhappiness. Even if I was experiencing the chemical sensations of happiness, there would be a psychological and emotional sense of something lacking. So we are talking about a broader sense of fulfillment, with all its ties to – and at times necessary sacrifices of – happiness.
It is easy for me to say that I don’t deserve happiness (and, on my darker days, even feel that I deserve unhappiness). The reality of humankind is that we don’t deserve much of anything. If we are the products of a deity, we certainly don’t deserve happiness. If we are the products of chance, life is still not our fault. We are effects, not causes – at least to start. It seems that we are born in debt.
Religions have said that debt is owed to a creator being, but for the life of me I can’t figure out which deity that should be. Shiva or Rama or Thor or Zeus or God? Buddha or nature? Myriad Gods or just one? And the concept of being in debt varies from faith to faith has well.
I’m getting side-tracked. The point is, no one deserves to be happy in this really pragmatic, cause-and-effect sort of way. Yet the most common aim for humankind is, indeed, to be happy. I’m not going to worry about causes and conditions here. We just want to be happy, at least for the most part. But does that happiness interfere with something more?
Yet how can there be something more if what we want, as a collective, is happiness? What would “more” be oriented toward? If there was a choice to be made that made everyone unhappy, but for some greater “purpose,” what could that purpose possibly be? It seems that the only circumstances in which happiness can and should be traded is when a greater happiness – such as happiness or continued life for more people – is on the line.
To this end, with happiness as the universal value (with acknowledged exceptions and, most certainly, varied definitions of happiness), there are several potent arguments to make on behalf of pursuing ones own happiness as the ideal.
6 Arguments for Happiness1) Happiness is its own value.
If we assume that happiness is the ideal state for humankind, then pursuing one’s own happiness is good simply because it increases the overall happiness present in the world.
2) Providing an example of happiness as a core value.
Many in today’s world make themselves miserable on behalf of some other aim (profits, worthiness, etc.). However, these attempts are often misguided pursuits of happiness itself. By prioritizing happiness as its own aim, you create an example of that priority structure for those you care about – and most notably you create habits that will be an example for your children.
3) Happy people make others more happy.
If you are more happy, you’re naturally more resilient and able to help others through issues, distract them in a positive yet fulfilling way, and otherwise assist in their happiness.
4) Happy people, statistically, produce more.
While it’s important to see happiness as its own pursuit, those concerned with productivity and meaningful work should be assured that those who are happy statistically produce more; they are capable of maintaining focus, energy, and vision for longer, and resisting a sense of being overwhelmed or helpless, in ways that the unhappy can’t.
5) Happiness allows for greater clarity.
There’s a great body of research, not to mention an impressive array of philosophy, that agrees that humans are wired to pursue happiness. Many of our great problems are maladaptive attempts to find happiness – or resolve blocks to it. By seeking happiness, we can overcome these maladaptive traits, poor habits, and pathologies that would otherwise fog our vision.
6) Happiness extends lifespan.
Presuming that life is power, and that the ability to change this world effectively ends at death, than continued impact is diminished by unhappiness. Happiness typically leads to better fitness, lower rates of heart attack, fewer self-destructive habits, etc. Again, the math simply makes happiness a more pragmatic choice.
My Happiness JournalIn my personal pursuit of happiness, I’ve made many discoveries and had plenty of setbacks. I still don’t know how to juggle them all. As I start to make concrete efforts in my life to improve my personal happiness, I will keep a journal. Any tips, suggestions, or thoughts are welcome.
I am a chronic procrastinator. Today, while I was at the store across the street (yes, putting off work), I ran across a shirt that said “I put the pro in procrastinator” and I almost bought it flat out. I have years and years of experience in putting off work and feeling anxious, guilty, and unproductive. By that same token, however, I have spent years trying to understand, work with, and cope with procrastination.
I’m not going to give a long lecture about why I procrastinate. Suffice it to say that habits, genetics, and less than superhuman willpower lead me to put work off well later than I should. Nevertheless, I currently get about 40 productive hours in per week – and give myself time off on the weekend and evenings. That’s far better than I was doing last year at this time, and it’s largely to blame on my improved perception of time.
The LockdownYou have a project to do. It’s two pages, it needs to be thoroughly researched, and it’s for a very important client. How are you feeling? Well, if you’re me, that really depends on the time of day and what else you have on your plate, but a project like this is certainly enough to go into lockdown.
My shoulders tense. My breathing gets shallow; sometimes I even notice I’m holding my breath. My heart rate goes up. I start thinking of doing something, anything else besides this project – which seems to be causing both emotional and physical pain. My inner dialogue starts something like this:
Me: You have to do this, Rob! It’s important!I: AAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!Me: It will only take you a half hour! You can do it! Just work for a half hour!I: AAAAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!Me: Rob, just a half hour!
Okay, here’s what I’ve figured out for me (individual results may vary): This doesn’t work because what I’m hearing is this:Me: Rob, you absolutely have to do this strenuous, difficult thing that you’re not going to enjoy! And you have to do it within a half hour! If you don’t accomplish this, terrible things will happen, including continued anxiety, pain, and fear! Bwahahahahaha.
In this, and most other, cases, I’m viewing time as a limitation. A “half-hour project” means that I must, right here right now, cope with all the knowledge, difficulty, and barriers of a 30 minute ordeal. I also have to keep doing this, in pain, for the half hour. For the processing portion of my brain, it’s just too much.
This peculiar conception of time that makes me so anxious involves setting an imaginary barrier at the 30 minute mark. I must leap from right now (6:55pm) to that time (7:25pm) instantly. But that’s not how time or my brain work. Here’s the rewrite of the concept: I don’t need to do a 30 minute project right now. Beyond the fact that I don’t need to do it at all (I don’t need any client, nor do I need to be a freelancer if it doesn’t work for me), I don’t need to get to the completed project. I don’t have to do 30 minutes of work. I have 30 minutes, or more if I need it, to complete the work. Time is on my side, not working against me.
Let’s try the internal dialogue again:
Me: I have this project to do. It’s two pages, and it needs to be thoroughly researched.I: Aaahh .. aahh .. ah?Me: Well, I have a half hour to do this to fit it conveniently in my schedule, and I can expand that.I: Oh, okay.Me: So, what’s the first place that I should start on this? What’s the first hurdle to overcome?I: Well, research, obviously. If it needs to be well researched, we’ll need to start there.Me: Do I have sources?I: A couple. Let’s start there.
By switching the focus to needing to have a finished project that will take me 30 minutes, I can view the 30 minutes as a tool that can come down on the project itself. That 30 minutes is a resource to be distributed amongst the various steps, including research, drafting, and editing. It’s also not a set barrier of its own. If I need more time, I can get it – especially now that I peg my project completion schedule long before the actual deadlines.
I’ll be writing a lot more about procrastination in the coming months. I encourage you to figure out what internal dialogue you can use to get yourself on course, and to examine whether you’re currently using time as a barrier or a gateway to your projects.
I am a lifelong victim of grace.
I look at my world and, in every beautiful tremor of this place, can’t help but recognize that this is not my doing. Beyond having little responsibility in the creation of my flesh, breath, blood, bones, mind, and matter, the series of events (“my life”) has not belonged to me.
I was born by grace, and by grace born here and now, in a world of opportunity, in a family that valued education and free thought, in a place where material and psychological resources abounded. I devoted my high school career to being sub-par, to failing – but thanks to forgiveness and effort from my father, the school district, the administration of the class packets program, and more, I was able to graduate.
My job is in similar territory. Despite so often being a royal screw-up, I continue to get good work from clients. I can pay the bills and set some extra away. Looking at my track record, my list of “to do” items, how much more time I spend being anxious about work than actually working, I can’t help but think: “I didn’t earn this.”
And college. On at least three occasions now I have received a higher grade than I earned. Teachers forgive their normal policies, giving me an A or A- when what I should have is a B, B-, even a C.
Why? Why me? Why choose me? Why are there so many still trying to save me? I don’t understand the origin of this grace. What do these people see in me that they are willing to extend that extra effort, compensating for my failings, just so I have the opportunity to continue? I don’t deserve this, not any of it, not a drop.
It is the hallmark of my background, my wiring, that in response to these gifts I feel, not gratitude, but guilt. Despair. Anxiety. It’s unfair, how much I’ve been given. There are so many who deserve it more, who would handle it better, who would make more out of it. I’m trying, yes, I’m trying so hard, but look how often I crumble, needing that ever-present grace to redeem me yet again. It seems to be me against the universe: I am intent on failure, and the universe – in the form of friends, family, and countless others – wants to see me surviving, thriving.
I believe in grace. How can I not? It’s all around me, as ever-present and vital as oxygen. But what I don’t understand – what I have yet to learn – is how to truly accept it, with humility and gratitude, seeking to work alongside the universe for my own wellbeing. But I’m trying to. I’m trying to learn. I’m really, honestly trying.
No one likes a sob story post. And it’s not like I’m crying. It’s more like, when it comes to love – well, have you ever lost something really valuable to you? Like your keys, maybe, or a treasured photo or something else of the sort. Something that is not unique, perhaps, but far from easily replaced. And you look and look and look for it, spending so much time and energy, knowing it must have gone somewhere. And by damn, anywhere your stuff can go, you can go too! But you start to doubt that as the hours pass.
Eventually, it’s no longer worth it to keep looking. Chances are more slim, reason states, the more time has passed. You can hunt more, but that time would be better spent almost anywhere else; hunting for what is lost may well be fruitless, and the more you do it the more your emotions get invested in the unlikely odds.
It feels like a certain sort of hole when you give up, and continuing to search seems to be a way to fill that hole, however temporarily. And if you could find your valued item, then what a joy that would be. And maybe it will turn up at some point in the future, when you’re not looking. But it’s exhausting to continue the search.
It’s not a sob story. It’s just a story of unlikely things that may one day turn up when I’m not looking for them.
Move in date: February 22nd, 2010Move out date: May 15th, 2011
This marks the longest I’ve stayed in any place since I left my parent’s home at age 17 (in mid-2004). I look back at the path that’s taken me here, and see a life, not marked by great victories, but by learning experiences that have been both painful and costly. My list of accomplishments is long but entirely negligible. I have bought things which now weigh me down like a lead yoke. I have earned money but spent more. I have loved but have lost more. At the end of the day, all I have left is myself – perhaps the one resource that I have neglected most.
Each year I believe in less and less. I feel like I’ve been falling.
“The Summer of 2005.” I keep going back there in my mind because it’s the only time where I was consistently happy. Not perpetually. But enough. My bank account was empty, and my days were filled with friendship. I worked a job that paid me very little but gave a lot of meaning. I spent my free time in creative expression. I was getting in great shape, I liked who I was – what happened?
It’s far too easy to blame the rest on the relationship that took place directly after that summer. Yes, that relationship was toxic, but it neither started nor had to be that way. Steph was an impressive and good person, with no more to be forgiven for than I myself am. But I was selfish and insecure. I couldn’t handle the reality of that relationship. My fantasy version of the world was broken, as it had been before, and rather than fixing it (something I feel that, at age 19 and scarred as I was, I was not capable of yet) or walking away, I took the coward’s way out: I made a home in the rut, miserable myself and intent (at some level) at making her miserable too.
What I’m trying to do here is find the eye of the storm. I was there once. I can navigate back, can’t I? Eyes to the storm, then. To find that calm spot in the center of this world.
It’s why I’m here. Salt Lake was not the solution I hoped it would be, and all that’s happened since has been a slide backwards. Giving my cats to the humane society (for adoption) is one of the more difficult things I’ve done. Most of my possessions have been given away. Transferring away from the University of Utah means that some of my credits will become useless. The move itself cost more than its share. The anxiety and isolation of being a work-at-home professional without a social network prevented a lot of career progress. I gained weight.
What I’ve learned is to turn the difficulty down. I’m not a superman. I’m just a plain old person, ready to drink the koolaid and follow the pack of sheep, if only it didn’t seem so morally nauseating. Fifteen months and thousands of dollars is enough to learn that lesson. I must be someplace where I can grow; don’t expect orange trees to grow in Alaska, don’t expect evergreens in the jungle. While finding a culture I like more is admirable, doing so much at once (re-establishing a social circle, school, establishing myself in a new and challenging career, learning a new skillset for working at home, etc.) nearly killed me.
What I’ve learned is I don’t need to be perfect. I don’t need big victories. Just to keep moving forward, and to be happy. And I think for that I need to re-learn the belief in something: goodness, kindness, grace, love. Just something.
I’m here. I’m here for now. I’m here until it seems wise – authentically wise – to leave. I’m trying to navigate this little tempest of mine. I’m trying to believe in something.
Copyright © 2017 Rob Blair Writes