Sunday, June 24, 2018

Anxiety, Part 2

Some time ago I said I would write a series of posts on stress and anxiety. Then I wrote one thing and didn’t finish any others. There’s an irony here, which is that the post I did write tried to express this constant worry of not being good enough. About my mind being able to generate endless possible ways in which I might be better, or do something better, or do something different, and thus overload myself via paralysis of analysis.

Well, guess what happened to the other posts on anxiety?

One of the reasons that I was able to stick to a constant upload schedule some time ago was because, I think, I made the update schedule more important than writing good blog posts. Just get something out, two times a week, and I stuck to it for--I think--at least a year. That was pretty good for me! Even though I read back on some posts and think “meh” or even “oh jeez that was dumb,” I don’t do that for as many as I’d expect.

But I get this way, where each time I do something well, I quickly update my expectation of how I’m going to do in the future, and I detest backsliding. “Do better every day.” If I write a post that some people seem to like, then I feel the pressure to follow it up with something even better. If I can’t think of something amazing, or I start writing it and it turns out blah, then I don’t write anything. I’m the kind of person who would rather get a zero on a homework assignment because I just don’t turn it in than get a 40% on an assignment I only partly completed. Somewhere, right now, my GPA is glaring at me.

There are times where that’s a useful attitude, and times where it isn’t. We know some people who just clock in, do their thing, and punch out, and they never seem to do anything better or do anything differently, and wonder why things aren't improving. You don't want to be that person, stuck on a grind like that. But neither you don’t want to be the person so obsessed with doing things perfectly that you don’t do anything at all. These ideas--be consistent even if it’s crappy, versus quality over quantity--are neither automatically good nor bad, but they do exert a balancing force on one another.

I think a key here is to figure out which one you tend to be, and correct in the other direction. Since you’re going to lean automatically one way, you want to use your conscious mind to overemphasize the one that you’re bad at, and let those automatic tendencies balance it out. One person can be overconfident and arrogant and another can have low-self esteem, and the advice for the two must be different if they are to end up in that sweet-spot of “trust yourself and stand up for yourself, but also listen to other people just in case you’re wrong.”

In my case, I’m obsessive over quality. I want to be at 100% all the time, and I want the meaning of that 100% to get better each time too. But is that possible? Experience has shown me it’s not, and I need to remember that this obsession with perfect output and constant improvement just shoots itself in the foot. In fact, it's proven to reduce my output and rate of improvement. The bright side here is that if I focus more on emphasizing consistency, then my automatic tendencies to stress about perfection kick in anyhow, and I'm rarely left with something that I honestly think sucks.

So I just sat down to write today with the determination that I would make this the next post in the anxiety series, whether I like it or not, and here we are.


Big tangent incoming, but don’t worry, it comes back around. defines anxiety as “a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.”

In talking about psychology, it’s important to remember that few things in and of themselves count as disorders, or even problems. It’s always about context. The question is whether an emotion, perception, or state of mind is pathological. Is it chronic? Is it disproportionate to the situation? Does it dominate your mind? Does something self-damaging act as your default state? Does it cause more problems than it actually solves?

The world itself contains threats and challenges. You try to remember the ones in the past so you can deal with the ones in the present, and prepare for ones in the future. Anxiety, worry, fear, stress, these are reasonable and useful responses! But only to an extent. Specifically, the extent that they are reasonable and useful.

Yes, that is a circular description, and not a very helpful one. Unfortunately, we get our understanding of what that extent is through experience and feedback, and that experience and feedback is filtered through our state of mind, which may currently be feeling things like anxiety, worry, fear, and stress. This biases you a bit, and it’s hard to escape that bias because it doesn’t feel like bias, it feels like reality. Challenging that reality feels foolish and insane from the inside, but if you could somehow see it from the outside, you might know it for what it is.

You know that situation in a story--TV show, book, comic, movie, whatever--where the one character comes into a screwed up situation from the outside, and sees how screwed up it is, and tries to tell another character that it’s all screwed up? But for that other character, the situation is consistent with their own worldview, and nothing appears contradictory? It takes some kind of dissonance, some contradiction, some little experience or evidence that just doesn’t sit right. Then there’s a crack in the facade, and then the character tries to figure out what is causing the crack, which leads to more cracks, and eventually the whole thing breaks apart. Or they refuse to pursue that little contradiction, and they deny it, and they stay locked in, and if you like that character, you sit in the audience like “COME ONNNNNNNNNN.”

I have this vague memory from a long time ago of seeing that trope and asking myself a question that was, more or less, “how would I persuade somebody that they were in a cult?” And then I thought a little bit, and realized a much harder question was “how would I know if I was in one?” Very normal-seeming people can end up in cults and do some really weird stuff while their brain tells them that everything is normal and correct! Everything has its neat little explanation, nothing is off, everything is fine. If you were in that position, you would have to use your mind to figure things out, but your mind is biased towards believing itself! My answer at the time was “question yourself constantly” and in retrospect, this line of thinking may have contributed to a long history of self-doubt and paranoia. I’ve become biased towards assuming that I’m always wrong, so I don’t know if it’s actually that healthy to question yourself as often as became my habit.

But if you ever do find yourself wondering, “hey, am I in a cult?” or “hey, do I hold a lot of highly inaccurate beliefs and live inside a mental bubble disconnected from the world?”, then the way you figure it out is “be annoying.” There’s a common rule that every cult has to keep its power, that every screwed up situation uses to keep you stuck inside, which is this: there are some things that you just don’t question. Those are the weak points in the whole system, and your willful ignorance is the armor that protects them. Ask too many inconvenient questions, and eventually you find the loose thread that unravels the whole thing. So if you ever get that little suspicion that something is off, be that annoying little kid that keeps asking “why” to everything. If people start to get unreasonably mad and they tell you to shut up and stop asking questions, the odds that something is fishy instantly go up.
Not always, mind you. There might be a good reason and they’re just crappy at explaining things, or the explanation is complicated and you won’t actually get it, or you just don’t accept it because you are the stubborn one. Sometimes you know something works, but you don’t know why; parents might not have PHDs in developmental biology and nutrition, but they do know that eating vegetables is generally good for you and you should do it and just please be quiet and eat your vegetables, it’s been a long day, why, because I said so. No, not a vegetable cult, nutrition is just complicated.

Where was I going with this? Right. Anxiety.

The thing about pathological fear and anxiety is that it just kind of hovers over you for no reason. You will have an automatic belief that situations are threatening and that you should be worried. This worry makes you interpret stuff as dangerous. After all, the world is full of ambiguity and noise and confusion, and we often have to make guesses about what things mean. So things don’t worry you because they’re scary, you see them as scary because you are always worried. In a different frame of mind, you might have brushed things off, but here and now, because you are worried, you put a filter over everything so that everything is worrisome. But some things are dangerous and some things are worth fearing. How do you get it right?

First answer, you don’t always. You just give it your best guess and sometimes you’re wrong, and you try to learn from things, and hopefully this means that when something turns out not so bad you worry a bit less, and when something does turn out bad, you trust a bit less. Hopefully, with experience, you get things wrong less often.

Second answer, you ask why. You chase the threads and you look for the cracks.

I have found that when I am in a default state of “things are scary, I’m worried, everything is a threat” that I don’t have very good answers to “wait, why am I worried about this?” I ask that question and then my initial answer is “because……. because!!!!!!” Just trust me, it will be awful. Of this I am certain, no more need be known. Stop asking questions and hit the fetal position.

If I’m not so stressed out that I notice this is kind of a crappy answer, then I ask “because what? What will be so terrible?” My brain, ready to provide but annoyed that I’m challenging its own terrified authority, might give me an answer. When I’m at my best, I ask why again. And again, and again, and look for more cracks in the armor. What’s interesting is that even if I end up with genuinely good answers, I notice myself also coming up with genuinely good actions to take care of them, and then I end up less afraid anyhow! Very cool.

The thing about pathological anxiety is that it starts as the default and uses its presence to prove itself. You start worried just because you always are, and then that worry makes things seem scary, and then you stay afraid because of all the scary things. It’s a seamless sleight of mind, an illusory masterwork, a suffocating tapestry of interlocked and self-corroborating assumptions. It’s a jerk, and an efficient jerk. What’s worse is that its whole goal is “keep you safe,” so it can cheat. It can say “see? If I hadn’t made you run, then who knows what would have happened to you?” It cites itself as its most credible source, and because you’re still panicked or worried, the story checks out, and grows stronger. You become both leader and follower in a cult of your own fear.

So ask why. You might have a good reason to be afraid, to be nervous, to feel stress, to worry, and so the answers will come, and that’s okay. It’s okay to be worried and afraid at times. It keeps you alive when there is danger.

But you might feel a voice, a panicked and angry voice inside of you that says “look I just AM okay!?” And so you keep asking. It might try to cough up reasons, and then you come up with a counterexample of why those reasons aren’t that great, to see if it can answer those, and it starts to stutter and stammer and flounder and dissipate. It will try to fall back on the weight of its own existence as its final authority. Don’t let it. Challenge it, and you may come to see that the fears are fog and mist, clouding your judgment but ultimately insubstantial. Hell, it might just ultimately admit “I don’t know.”

I’ve been there too. I’ve been worried and afraid and shaking and when I try to probe for an answer, I just don’t know, and even knowing that, I can’t shake that feeling. I take some deep breaths but I’m still on edge, I fidget to burn off the nervous energy and it doesn’t go away. This is the worst one to admit to, because it feels like quitting, like saying “I am afraid and quivering because deep down I’m like one of those tiny yipping dogs terrified by the unceasing pressure of existence all around me, can you just lay off?” Sometimes the questions just hit a dead end wall of panic that stubbornly refuses to vanish.

Still though. There is something about realizing that, knowing that the feeling is separate from the actual events of the world. If, in those moments, I can remember that I don’t always feel like that, and it will go away because it has in the past and will in the future, and that it’s not connected to something tangible around me… well, it doesn’t go away, but it loses some of the edge. I feel it disconnect, just a bit, and it frees me up to act, just a bit. I step outside of it a little, which can ease up the pressure and let me take a breath and slow down. Sometimes I hear my own panicked thoughts just thinking the phrase “I’m afraid,” and in the most comforting mental tone of voice I can muster, I respond with “I know man. I know.” When it just won’t go away, then sometimes you acknowledge--with a bit of compassion and comfort--that it’s there, and suddenly, in that moment, it becomes separate from you, and you can take a step forward.

Thanks for reading.