Listen to this Blog Post
I have debated whether to write this blog post for quite some time now, and my hesitation in doing so has been largely attributable to two things: First, as some of you may know, I create content quite regularly, and didn’t want a blog post as personal as this one to be viewed as a routinized attempt at simply filling an opening within my bi-weekly publishing cadence. Second, because topics related to mental health tend to generate more engagement than other more commercially-oriented content, I didn’t want this post to be interpreted as being hollow or self-promotional in any way, to the extent that it generates higher-than-normal clicks or page views for me.
As I write this, I’m still not entirely sure of how I might convince the skeptical reader that neither of these things are true, so I suppose you’ll just have to take my word for the fact that this post is coming from a very genuine place (the irony of me being anxious about publishing a blog post on anxiety is not lost on me).
In spite of these hesitations, two things ultimately compelled me to finally publish this: First, I wanted to simply discuss the topic of anxiety publicly, in hopes that my doing so will play some small role in helping others feel comfortable doing the same. Second, my hope is that some subset of readers will respond to some subset of the points below with a nod of their heads, and a sentiment of “Yes, I’ve felt something similar myself”. If this post accomplishes one or both of these things, then the time I spent writing it will have been time well spent.
My Definition of Anxiety
I suppose the simplest definition of anxiety is fear about the future, and more specifically the things that can go wrong in the future. My particular experience with anxiety however might be better described as a “floating” sense of worry that is constantly looking for something to latch onto. Naturally, at times, there are obvious things for this floating sense of worry to befriend (common candidates include my professional life, health, and the like). However, at other times, there are no such obvious candidates, and during these times, I’ve found it both particularly interesting and particularly frustrating to notice that my mind essentially creates something to worry about. These things almost always seem to be entirely worthy of worry at the time, but in retrospect almost always seem much less so.
I’m reminded of the quote from Morgan Housel when he said: “A lot of people seem to have a necessary level of stress, and when their life is going well, they make up imaginary problems to fill the void”. I can’t say this for certain, but it’s probably not a huge stretch to suggest that our tendency to regularly revert back to a state of vigilance is, at least in part, a product of evolution that prevents us from entirely letting our guards down, thus bolstering our genetically encoded goals of survival and reproduction.
Though anxiety may be entirely understandable for this reason, no definition of anxiety would be complete without also discussing what a royal pain in the ass it is. More specifically:
- Anxiety is Illogical: If anxiety compels us to be fearful of what could go wrong in the future, then it would logically follow that we should spend an equal amount of time contemplating what could go right in the future. Logical as this may sound, very few people do this (myself included). Not only is this due to anxiety’s evolutionary role discussed above, but it is likely also due to the well-documented reality that our fear of possible loss almost always drastically exceeds our anticipation of possible gains.
- Anxiety is Self-Reinforcing: Though feelings of anxiety are sometimes due to a real underlying stressor, in an equal number of circumstances we often feel anxious about the fact that we’re feeling anxious. This is why anxiety can feel so insidious at times: Because it creates this circular, self-reinforcing logic that is often very difficult to break.
- Anxiety is Irrational: As ridiculous as this may sound, during prolonged periods in which anxiety has been largely absent from my life, I’ve sometimes spent an irrational and unnecessary amount of time pondering why I feel better: More than once I’ve wondered whether periods of progress have been solely attributable to my medication (and not the other tools in my toolkit), and if so, whether my feelings of peace and equanimity are “fake” in a sense, or somehow less deserving of the sense of “real” progress and relief that may come from non-pharmaceutical interventions.
- Anxiety is Exhausting: As any anxious person can tell you, being anxious commands an incredible share of mental resources, and can quickly grow to become exhausting as a result. To make matters worse, being constantly exhausted is, itself, quite exhausting.
The Two Different “Types” of Anxiety
Despite these misgivings, anxiety isn’t all bad. In fact, despite its consistently negative connotation, anxiety is both a very necessary and, at times, a very useful emotion. In a way, anxiety is akin to pain, in that while a life free from pain may sound good in theory, it would be anything but in practice (after all, we want our body to feel pain when we touch a hot stove, else we would have no impetus to move it). Anxiety is no different: Though at times it can be irrational and unpleasant, at other times it compels us to act in highly useful and constructive ways. Anxiety is both a virtue and a vice.
For me, this gives rise to the trickiest thing about anxiety: That is, when to listen to it versus when to ignore it. I’ll refer to Type 1 anxiety (the “good” kind) as a constructive, evolutionary sense that an issue may require attention or resolution, and Type 2 anxiety (the “bad” kind) as an unconstructive state of hyper-vigilance based on fears that often exist more in our own minds than in reality. One characteristic of Type 2 anxiety can be borrowed from Alcoholics Anonymous and their use of the acronym F.E.A.R, which stands for False Evidence Appearing Real.
Type 1 anxiety serves us in some way. Type 2 does not. Type 1 is when anxiety happens for us, and Type 2 is when anxiety happens to us. Though I do not have a single solution for how and when to differentiate between the two (doing so remains a constant struggle for me), I’ve found the following to be at least somewhat helpful:
- Try simply explaining to somebody else what is making you anxious: The usefulness of this exercise is twofold: First, it extracts thoughts from the fog of our own minds and into the written or spoken form, which itself tends to be a highly clarifying exercise. Second, others tend to identify illogical or irrational sources of F.E.A.R. in us far better than we are able to identify it in ourselves.
- At least in my experience, Type 1 anxiety tends to be more situational or episodic, whereas Type 2 tends to be more chronic
Related to the yin and yang of anxiety is the reality that it also tends to be positively correlated with otherwise desirable character traits and circumstances, like an achievement orientation, a strong work ethic, or a career characterized by high pay or leadership over others. This is probably why it is often said, somewhat jokingly, that “most successful people are just walking anxiety disorders harnessed for productivity”. In this way, anxiety can be thought of as a necessary “tax” of sorts, that one sometimes has to pay in return for the benefits that an anxious personality can sometimes yield.
My Own Experience with Anxiety
For a while, perhaps in a subconscious attempt to comfort myself, I was convinced that my current state of anxiety was a “scar” or “residue” of sorts resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic that began in March of 2020, and persisted for nearly two years thereafter. After all, it would be entirely forgivable for one to experience heightened levels of anxiety after having lived through such an experience. However, upon further reflection, it became clear to me that anxiety is actually something that has always been there for me: I’ve just experienced it in varying degrees, and in response to different circumstances.
Though I don’t know how anxiety presents itself for others, below is an account of how anxiety tends to manifest for me.
First, I find that my anxious feelings usually have fear at their root, and more specifically a fear of loss of some kind. Fellow type-A overachievers may relate to this concept, as the downside of success is that once you get what you want, it often creates a sense of anxiety around losing what you have. It’s hard to articulate this more eloquently than the stoic philosopher Seneca when he said: “All the greatest blessings are a source of anxiety, and at no time is fortune less wisely trusted than when it is best. (. . . ) In behalf of the prayers that have turned out well, we must make still other prayers. For everything that comes to us from chance is unstable, and the higher it rises, the more liable it is to fall. Very wretched, therefore, (. . . ) must the life of those who work hard to gain what they must work harder to keep. By great toil they attain what they wish, and with anxiety hold what they have attained. (. . . ) New engrossments take the place of the old, hope leads to new hope, ambition to new ambition. They do not seek an end to their wretchedness, but change the cause”.
Second, I’ve noticed that anxious states are particularly common for me during prolonged breaks (Christmas holidays, extra-long weekends, and so on) where I lack structure, routine, a goal orientation, or some sort of intellectual stimulation. Said more simply: I find prolonged periods of stillness to be uncomfortable, and I think many other anxious people do too. Philosopher Blaise Pascal captured this idea well when he suggested that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”
Third, I find certain sources of anxiety easier to deal with than others. For example, I often find anxiety in my professional life to be easiest to deal with, as I often attempt to combat it (sometimes subconsciously) through sheer will and “brute force” (that is, long hours, doing much more analysis than the situation requires, and so on). In some ways this has worked for me, at least on a temporary basis, though it’s worth noting that this won’t be the healthiest nor the most sustainable tool in your toolkit. I suspect I find these types of stressors easiest to deal with because I feel like there is some degree of control that I can exercise over the thing that is causing the anxious feelings. Unfortunately, however, the inverse is also true: That is, I tend to be particularly anxious in situations where this isn’t an obvious “brute force” solution, and/or the underlying stressor in question is largely outside of my control (for example: the COVID-19 pandemic, macroeconomic headwinds, and the like).
Fourth: Having experienced a particularly acute period of anxiety in 2020, I often find myself worrying about going back to a similar state (I know people who have suffered from acute episodes of depression who live in a constant state of below-the-surface fear of ever returning back to such a place). Because of this, what would otherwise be an entirely ordinary bad day for others can sometimes present me with a somewhat irrational fear that I may be on the early stages of a path that ultimately leads me back to a period of heightened and prolonged anxiety. This fear often significantly magnifies for me what would otherwise be a completely ordinary anxious day for others.
Fifth, I find that anxiety often manifests in the body, not just in the mind. In my case, periods of very high anxiety often present themselves as an unmistakable feeling in the pit of my stomach. More prolonged periods of below-the-surface anxiety often present themselves in other more chronic physical forms, ranging from backpain to headaches to a heightened propensity to catch the common cold or flu bug.
The Tendency to “Over-Solution”
My most notable anxious tendency however is my tendency to throw every conceivable solution at the underlying stressor as quickly as possible. Though at times this can be helpful, in an equal number of circumstances it can represent an over-reaction of sorts, that itself can produce anxious feelings.
In their seminal book, Mind Over Mood (one of the founding texts of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“CBT”), and one that I would highly recommend for those dealing with anxiety), Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky refer to these types of behaviors as “safety behaviors”. According to them: “Safety behaviors are things that we do to reduce our sense of risk or keep from being hurt in situations that make us anxious. While these purposes sound like good things, safety behaviors actually often make our anxiety worse, because they increase our perception that the situation is much more dangerous than it may actually be.”
I suspect that, at a subconscious level, my tendency to “over-solution” is an attempt to escape the unpleasant feelings, and more specifically to stop feeling them as soon as possible. It may also be the result of my professional DNA, where I’ve become so accustomed to quickly and thoroughly attempting to address problems as soon as they arise. However, what I’ve come to learn is that what works in a professional domain doesn’t necessarily work in a personal one.
The good news, however, is that my tendency to “over-solution” has taught me a few important lessons that you may also find useful:
- Periods of acute or high anxiety are no time to make major decisions. As best as possible, try to defer large decisions until you’re closer to a state of equanimity
- For any given decision, ask yourself: Did I make this decision with clarity of thought, or did anxiety make this decision for me?
I’m reminded of a quote by actor Tom Hanks, when responding to the question of what advice he would give to his younger self if given the opportunity to do so. He said: “I wish I had known that ‘this too shall pass’. You feel bad right now? You feel pissed off? You feel angry? This too shall pass. You feel great? You feel like you know all of the answers? You feel like everybody finally gets you? This too shall pass. Time is your ally. And, if nothing else, just wait. Just wait it out”.
Though anxiety is an inevitable part of all of our lives, below are some tools, practices and strategies that I’ve found to be particularly helpful when experiencing acute instances of it:
- Take 10 minutes to write down (not just think about) how you would advise a loved one (say, your spouse or a child) if they found themselves in the exact same situation under identical circumstances. Based on my own experience doing this, it is a virtual certainty that you would be much more understanding and empathetic with that person than you would be with yourself. This begs the question: If it’s so logical and intuitive to treat others with empathy, compassion and understanding, why isn’t it equally logical and intuitive to treat ourselves in this same way? If you use your child as the subject in this thought exercise, another clarifying question might be: How much better would our internal and external worlds be if we all simply followed the very same advice that we regularly give to our own children?
- Explicitly acknowledge periods during which you’re not feeling anxious. Even if you consider yourself to be a chronic worrier, you’d likely be surprised by how often you’re not feeling anxious if you pay sufficiently close attention. Like all other emotions, you’ll find that anxiety tends to come and go, however we never give these two states equal weighting: We always acknowledge when we are anxious, but almost never acknowledge when we’re not. This very human tendency likely creates a highly distorted sense of how frequently we think we experience anxiety.
- Write down how you will feel about the current stressor in 1 year, 5 years, and 10 years. You’d be surprised how fleeting most of our stressors tend to be.
- I’ve found the “Thought Record”, a tool introduced and explained within Mind Over Mood, to be an incredibly helpful and simple resource. While you may need start this exercise on paper, you will soon be able to go through it entirely in your head. This single tool is worth the price of the entire book, in my opinion.
- Begin addressing the source of anxiety through taking action (to the extent that the source of your anxiety is actually within your control, either in whole or in part). Though most people think that action follows mood, I’ve found the opposite: That mood follows action. Jeff Bezos put it particularly well when he said the following: “Stress primarily comes from not taking action over something that you can have some control over. So, I find that if some particular thing is causing me to have stress, that is a warning flag for me. What it means is that there is something that I haven’t completely identified yet, perhaps in my conscious mind, that is bothering me and I haven’t yet taken any action on it. I find that as soon as I identify it, and make the first phone call or send off the first email message, or whatever it is that we’re going to do to start to address that situation, even if it’s not solved, the mere fact that we’re addressing it dramatically reduces any stress that might come from it.”
- Be aware of your specific triggers: Different people tend to have different things that tend to trigger periods of high anxiety for them. As mentioned above, in my case, I tend to be triggered by prolonged periods of no routine, structure or goal-orientation. Though it’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, I also find that I’m sometimes triggered by certain weather patterns. When you become more aware of your own specific triggers, you’re likely to become less worried or troubled when anxious feelings arise, as knowing exactly why and from where they arose tends to make the feelings less unpleasant, or at least easier to understand.
- During most of the times in which I’ve experienced “Type 2” anxiety, I’ve found that there tends to be an underlying emotion that I have not yet fully acknowledged or processed, and that unacknowledged emotion often manifests in anxious feelings. So the next time that you experience “Type 2” anxiety, it may help to ask yourself: Is there a related emotion that I’ve been ignoring? If the current source of my anxiety is a symptom, what might be at its root?
- Other useful tools and practices can be found within another one of my blog posts: Tools in Managing my Own Psychology
In Sum: My Most Important Conclusion
To gather the content necessary to write this post, I reviewed almost 3 years of my own journal entries in an effort to remind myself of the various lessons that I’ve learned about my anxiety over the years. As I bring this post to a conclusion, I want to leave you with the most important lesson that I extracted from this entire exercise. That is:
Almost nothing that I spent time worrying about over the past three years actually happened.
I often say that anxiety is best described as suffering in advance. Yet, with the clarity that only hindsight seems to be able to provide, the majority of the things that we worry most about rarely ever come to pass.
As the stoic philosopher Seneca famously said: “We suffer more in imagination than we do in reality”
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