Starting with the hard things: Anxiety

I. Sometimes it’s easiest to start with the hardest things

A few days ago, a friend and I decided to start a blog. I personally had been planning to start for some time, but given the busy nature of my work and minimal level of free time, I figured that I would do it “later on,” and hadn’t planned for something so quickly. However, after speaking last week and given current events (i.e., COVID-19 quarantine), it felt like we both actually had a lot that we wanted to say – both in terms of our own lives, but also in terms of our thoughts and reflections of what was going on and the impacts that we were seeing. In asking ourselves what we could do, we decided that if nothing else, at least we could share our thoughts and experiences.

We decided to start this weekend. We each agreed to write one article, which I thought would be easy, considering that I have many thoughts, and also that I already spend so much time writing down my thoughts privately for myself. However, it wasn’t. Every time I sat down to write this week, I felt somewhat blocked. I started thinking, “What should I write? What would people care about reading? What tone should I write it in? How open or private should I be?” And I would start writing, talking about topics that I thought people might want to hear about, in a somewhat more “distant” tone that wasn’t my own that I thought would be more “professional.” And it didn’t work. The posts made even me bored.

Today, the deadline that I set for myself to write this, I still hadn’t written anything that I was satisfied with, and I decided to just go to the very core of some things on my mind. I’ve always believed that when you are truly open and share what you really have to share, your fear dissipates, because you have nothing to hide, because you’ve already said that which you’re afraid of saying. You have even said it out loud (or at least written it publicly) – so there’s nothing worse that can happen.

On top of that, I guess the good thing about a blog is that it is not really a one-shot thing. You can have many efforts and attempts over the course of time, and every single time, you improve and it feels that you’re slowly beginning to open up to say the things that you’ve always needed to say.

I decided to start with something that I don’t share with many people, but is a very real part of my life.

II. High energy + perfectionism can sometimes lead to anxiety

I’m highly perfectionist and determined, and I’ve always had a lot of energy, but with high amounts of positive energy can also come high amounts of the opposite – negative, debilitating, destructive energy. For me, that comes in the form of stress, impatience, and worry. However, sometimes no matter how hard I try, things just don’t go the way that I want them to go. In the high desire that I have for control, for things to go the way I want them to go, and with the high level of energy that I do put in to make them happen that way, that can sometimes make me really stressed out.

When that happens, sometimes that energy turns inward. Instead of being used to do the things that I want and need to do, it turns, instead, to make me think and overthink and wonder what I could have done, what I could still do, what I should do, whether I should do it, whether it makes sense, whether it’s the right decision, what the other options are, and on and on, running circles inside my mind. And instead of taking action, I get stuck wondering, thinking, replaying in my mind over and over. Usually I can control it, but in particularly bad moments, I’m sometimes unable to sleep and even unable to eat because I’m so busy thinking about that which is bothering me and what I can do about it. I sometimes get stuck in anxiety loops.

III. My recent experience with anxiety

A few weeks ago, that is exactly what happened. A confluence of unexpected events took place that led me to feel out of control. I won’t get too much into the specifics here, but I’ll just say that in the span of a week, I felt like I lost two close friends — one with whom I had previously been romantically involved (a long time ago) – I’ll call him Friend 1 – and the other, who was one of my closest and longest-standing friends from when we were much younger — I’ll call her Friend 2. I introduced them to each other in the context of them being my two close friends, but somehow it quickly turned into more than that between them. As much as I didn’t want it to bother me and wanted to be happy for them, it did bother me, and it actually bothered me a lot.

In the span of several days, I went from feeling okay, to beginning to wonder what was happening, what I had done by introducing them, and why I had ever thought that had been a good idea. I was open about it – I told them that it bothered me, but although they both said that I shouldn’t feel that way, neither did anything about it. For Friend 1, I kind of accepted that, because it hadn’t worked out between us and he had a right to see whomever he wanted, but I guess Friend 2’s reaction was the one that bothered me the most. Despite being clear with her that this really bothered me (once I’d had a couple of days to think about what was happening and how I felt about it), she essentially said “I don’t mean to hurt you, but given that you’re not with him any longer and I got along with him…well…I think I’ll explore it further, even though I’m aware it bothers you.” Coming from someone I had considered my best friend, it really upset me, even though I could also see her perspective.

That conversation happened on a Friday night, kicking off a weekend of stress. As much as I tried to be calm, I couldn’t help but wonder – “what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be happy for them?” But those gave way to other thoughts – “Why is this happening? Why had I been stupid enough to introduce them in the first place? Why hadn’t I made sure to be there when they met? Why? What should I do about it now? Should I continue talking to them and wait to feel okay? Or stop talking to them? How should I distract myself?” And instead of being calm, I felt like the stress and anxiety were eating me alive. I couldn’t sleep that night, or the next night, or the night after. When I lay down and closed my eyes, countless horrible thoughts and questions continued running through my mind for hours. When I finally did drift into sleep, as soon as I opened my eyes a few hours later, the reality set in and the racing thoughts immediately started once again. I felt like my mind couldn’t rest and I couldn’t escape, no matter what I did.

I tried to focus elsewhere – reading books, going to the gym, talking to friends, but no matter what I did, it was a temporary distraction that soon gave way to the same horrible, racing thoughts. I couldn’t seem to get away from them.

IV. My examination of the situation

At some point, I decided to just accept the situation and learn more about what was happening. I looked up “anxiety,” “anxiety loops,” “panic attack,” and other variants, coming upon and reading a variety of articles. It was comforting to see that there was so much written on the topic, because it reminded me that others had felt the same way and had gone through the same things, making me feel slightly less like I was going through this alone.

In particular, I focused on learning about what was actually happening biologically and why. As humans, we are wired to have a level of worry and alertness, because it is what protects us from physical danger. As ancient people living in nature, we needed to experience stress and anxiety, which took the form of our fight or flight response (through adrenaline rushes), because they are what protected us from wild animals and other forms of danger.

Today, we still have the same brain wiring and instincts, but we actually do not face nearly the same level or type of danger that we did back then. Instead, we still feel stress and anxiety – but now, the causes of that stress are things that cannot actually physically harm us – work and emails, notification overloads, people being rude, getting bad feedback at work or school, and in my case, an emotional issue with two close friends. Although all of these things are unpleasant, they cannot actually physically hurt us, which is what our fight or flight response was actually programmed to help us do – avoid physical danger.

In my particular situation, although there was something psychological bothering me, that is all it was – psychological. It was in my head. As much as it stressed me out and caused me to feel bad, there was nothing to truly feel anxious about. What made me feel better was this reminder that there was nothing wrong – rather, it was that everything was right – it’s just that my biological and physiological reactions to danger were acting up in a situation where there actually wasn’t any physical danger.

According to the articles that I read, the best way to let yourself get over these situations was to really understand how you felt and make your mind tired of thinking about it. Examine the situation, think about the worst case scenario, and play that in your mind, asking yourself “what is actually so bad about that? And if it were to happen, what would I do?” At first it’ll be stressful to think about, but soon, you’ll realize that the worst case scenario that you’re so stressed out about is actually not that bad. Your brain will get tired of thinking about it and playing it over and over in your head, slowly the anxiety will dissipate, and you’ll begin to be able to eat and get more sleep at night, and eventually move on.

In my situation, that is, indeed, what happened. Although the initial shock and stress took away my appetite and led to trouble sleeping, I soon started to feel better. I tried to ensure that I stuck to routines I had in place, continued talking to other friends about how I was feeling, and in moments when I felt like my thoughts were going out of control, I just asked myself “what is really the the worst that can happen?” I wrote it down, thought about it, and when I worried, I went back and re-read it. I also tried to remind myself to focus on the present moment, and in those particularly stressful moments, I took deep breaths, forced myself to look around, focus on each individual element in my surroundings one by one, and remind myself that there was no real danger – it was all in my head, and it was something that would go away. As much as I never thought it would happen, within a few days, I started feeling better, and was back to normal within 1-2 weeks.

V. What worked for me

I’m sharing this because while going through this, I really felt like the world was falling apart. Although of course other people had gone through similar things, I still know that this is something that most people don’t share – even though it’s a very normal human state of being that most of us have been in, at some point or another. I wanted to write down how I felt and what worked for me, both as a record for myself, and so as to potentially be helpful to others, if relevant.

As a re-cap, what worked for me was:

  1. Allowing myself to accept and understand how I felt: Reminding myself that the way I was feeling is okay, normal, and natural allowed me to accept how I was feeling without questioning what was wrong with me or trying to tell myself to just “be okay.” Understanding the biological and evolutionary reasons underlying this made me feel more grounded in the fact that this was a normal human reaction to a perceived danger, even though there was no real danger in my case.
  2. Being open with my honest reflection of the situation: Taking time to reflect on the actual root cause of the stress, writing it down, and analyzing why it made me feel the way it did felt very cathartic – like letting go of a weight that I had been holding on to. I also let myself be open about it with close friends, which made made me feel support and made it feel like it was no longer my own burden to bear all alone.
  3. Worst-case scenario acceptance: I asked myself “what is really the worst thing that can happen? What am I really afraid of?” and answered the questions. I wrote these answers down as well, and re-read them when I was feeling particularly down, slowly getting used to this “worst case scenario” and reminding myself that the worst wasn’t really that bad, thus tiring my mind of thinking about this topic and eventually letting it move on.
  4. Living in the physical moment: In particularly bad moments, I found it helpful to ground myself by looking around at my surroundings and examine each object one-by-one in detail, thus slowing down my racing thoughts and reminding myself that I am okay and in a safe place.
  5. Continuing routines: Both at the beginning and as I started to feel better, I found it helpful to force myself to continue my normal routines because it grounded me and reminded me that despite what was happening, things were still normal, and my life would continue.
  6. Experiencing laughter: As part of continuing my routines and letting life go on, I made sure to continue talking to and seeing friends. As much as I felt like staying in and hiding in my apartment at times, I found that seeing someone (or even talking on the phone), made me feel much better and brought about much-needed moments of laughter, which worked remarkably well in dissipating my feelings of anxiety, even if temporarily.

I think the key point here is that many people, at times, experience stress and anxiety, however much it sometimes feels like we are the only ones. We are wired that way – we all have the biological fight or flight response built into us, which sometimes gets triggered and, if we aren’t careful, can bring us into a mental state of prolonged anxiety and stress. I know that I definitely experience it sometimes, but it is important to remember that when it does happen, it’s normal and natural, and we can get out of it. It is just about giving yourself the space to feel that way for a little bit, allowing yourself to fully reflect and think through what is actually scaring you, and slowly, once you truly work through it for yourself, your mind will grow tired of the perceived threat, and time will bring you back to your normal steady-state.

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