The Anxious Rabbit

Self Improvement 150One of the reasons I believe Rabbit is such a helpful totem for me is that fear is such a strong emotion within me. I’m afraid all the time, of various things real and imagined, and that fear drives a great deal of my behavior. One of the lessons Rabbit teaches is how to move through that fear to engage with a broader, brighter world where danger lurks unseen just in the peripheries of your vision. You have to eat, you have to sleep, and you have to enjoy yourself sometime. There are moments of grace, quiet and contentment to be had in a scary and sometimes hostile world.

Over the summer I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder in conjunction with ADHD. That diagnosis was a bit of a surprise to me, especially since over the past several months I had been feeling more frustrated than frightened; I was unable to make headway on most of the projects I’d been working on and I was moving into a new position at work that I know I would have trouble with if I couldn’t get my concentration issues under control.

Part of the treatment for the diagnosis is a group therapy class given by Kaiser Permanente every Thursday where we learn what Anxiety Disorder is, how it manifests in people, and what’s going inside your brain to cause this behavior. It’s been illuminating — both in my own tendencies and how paralyzing anxiety can be for people. I’ve met so many people in class who have trouble with dealing with work, or keeping good relationships, or even leaving their houses due to their anxiety. Just coming to the group is a major victory for them, but they can’t see it because they just want to be fixed, want to be normal.

From what I understand, Anxiety Disorder is kind of like an emotional allergic reaction. With allergies, your body has mechanisms to protect you from foreign bodies that go haywire on things that it should be desensitized to — like pollen, or dust, or certain foods. And the best way to deal with that is to either avoid the trigger or take an antihistamine to block the effects.

With Anxiety Disorder, your mind is set up to deal with threats in a certain way. It releases hormones that prepare you to flee the threat or fight it, and those hormones do all kinds of stuff from elevating your heart rate to making you breathe faster to take in more oxygen, to hyper-focusing your brain to deal with what’s in front of you. Only instead of the bear that’s charging towards you or the really important test you have to study for, it’s imagined scenarios about a presentation at work, or the story you’re writing, or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person. Most of the time we cannot avoid the triggers that cause this reaction, and most drugs that would lower our reaction have side effects that make us unable to do anything else — so we have to find a new way to deal with it.

For me, my anxiety is wrapped up in any activity where I have to show a decent level of competence, requires sustained concentration and involve other people being affected by what I do. Writing stories is all I’ve wanted to do for my entire life, but I just can’t bring myself to finish a story and put it out there. I’m so afraid of the process of writing — knowing that I won’t be able to provide the focus that the story deserves really stresses me out. Knowing that I’m not where I want to be with my writing prowess yet is so discouraging, because I’m 35 already and so many people write great novels in their 20s. Knowing that I would have to present my work to a world that is scary and sometimes hostile fills me with dread — what if it’s simply not good enough? What if people rip it to pieces? What if it’s deeply offensive in a way that I hadn’t anticipated? Or worst of all, what if something that means so much time and effort to me is just met with a gigantic figurative shrug and no one cares? It’s better not to do anything than to risk all of the fears I have about myself proven right.

I work in Silicon Valley on a very technical and complicated suite of software. I was brought on in an administrative capacity, but for my career to advance there I’ll need to move into a position with significantly more technical work. That terrifies me. I’m not tech-illiterate, but the amount of know-how that the job requires, the attention to detail and the ability to navigate thorny issues with angry customers is just paralyzing for me. My brain doesn’t work that way; as much as I would like it to, I just can’t remember a host of considerations to be effective with troubleshooting, and confrontation drains my social batteries almost immediately. The job would require me to learn a lot through doing in real-time, making mistakes and recovering from them, all while under pressure to perform at a level expected of world-class support. I’d be moving from dealing with mostly people (which, while draining, I’m more comfortable with) to dealing mostly with tech (where the consequences for a mistake can be catastrophic).

In these, two of the most important aspects of my life, my Anxiety Disorder has pushed me into a spiral I didn’t even see but kept me from moving forward. The situation causes an anxious thought, which triggers an outsized emotional reaction, which triggers a *physical* reaction that triggers another anxious thought, which sustains and solidifies that emotional reaction, which ratchets up the physical reaction, which…you get the idea.

Without realizing it, my reaction to these stressors has been to flee; I’ll get to work, take stock of what I should be doing that day and get freaked out enough by my workload that I retreat to something easier — a mindless task that’s more comfortable, Twitter or something else. The moment a story gets difficult or starts to diverge from where I had expected it to go, I’ll bail on it. Or I’ll muddle through it in fits and starts, unable to keep the story disciplined so it fulfills my worst fears and justifies me never trying it in the first place.

I’ve learned a lot through the Anxiety class about being mindful with my worries, knowing what kinds of thoughts send me into a spiral, and all the ways people with Anxiety Disorder tend to magnify or distort issues in order to justify the emotional/physical response. Catastrophizing the outcome, “fortune telling” about what terrible thing will most certain happen, “mind-reading” the reactions of those around us or what people are truly thinking all happen in varying ways, to various degrees.

Last week I learned how the fight/flight response tends to work in those of us who have trouble with anxiety, and what we can do about it. The fight response tends to be obsessive worry with a particular problem — working through every possible angle and outcome until everything is accounted for, which is a problem. Sometimes, even after you’ve put an issue to bed with a solution that covers all your bases, your brain can be really good at chewing on the bones of it over and over again. The flight response most often manifests in procrastination, sometimes aggressively so. If I’m worried about a project, it often feels like there’s a block in my brain that physically prevents me from working on it.

I’ve been taught that with Anxiety Disorder, the best thing to do is often the exact opposite of your initial impulse. If you’re a compulsive worrier, it’s best to try and take your mind off the problem (I don’t know how that works, but I’ll assume we’ll learn about that next week); if you’re a procrastinator, it’s best to lean in with the issue and face the thing that’s worrying you.

For example, with my job I’m worried that I will not be able to perform up to the standards of my managers and will face months of disappointed superiors, warnings and eventual termination. As an exercise, we were encouraged to visualize the worst-case scenario of that fear three times; each time, we would deconstruct our imaginations with an eye towards learning how we catastrophize.

I was surprised by just how awful my story was: because one of my superiors is also a friend, I imagined that the situation deteriorated our friendship to the point of dissolution. Because I was desperate and afraid, I’d lash out at work, and THAT put a strain on the relationship between my husband and I, and my superior and his partner. That put this strain on our entire social circle, and because I was so emotionally devastated I just could not deal with it. My world got smaller and smaller until I couldn’t even get out of bed, and by association my husband’s world got smaller — between taking care of me and our strained relationship, he was becoming increasingly alienated. I couldn’t get it together enough to do anything; I was too fragile to shoulder any of his problems, but he had to deal with all of mine. Our marriage suffered…and I had to bail on the rest of it. It became too painful.

When I was back in the room, I noticed how tight my chest was, how fast my heart was beating, how dry my mouth felt. Then I answered the questions: Is this likely to happen? Will thinking about it make it happen? If it *did* happen, what could I do to cope? What aspects of the situation had I misinterpreted that makes it less likely to happen? After that, I felt better, and the next visualization felt embarrassing for how melodramatic it was. I came out of it, refined the answers to my questions, and visualized a third time — by then, it was boring and silly. I knew how impossible the worst-case scenario would be, and had a better appreciation of the strength of my relationships and the love of my husband.

The tools I’m developing to deal with my anxieties — after learning how to clearly identify and understand them — are allowing me to lean in towards the things that scare me the most. I was able to move through my discomfort talking about mental illness earlier, and I have a lot more patience with myself when it comes to my writing. The progress is steadier, faster than it’s been for a long time. I can actually imagine a life in which I am capable of learning new things, becoming more competent with the things I want to do, actually reaching the goals I set for myself. It’s so great to learn about myself and take those lessons into direct action.

I’m still afraid, of course, but now I have a much better time with that fear. It doesn’t paralyze me the way it used to. And I have professional help to thank for that.

I understand that not everyone with Anxiety Disorder has this experience; there are so many people in my group who are affected a lot more strongly than I am, and will probably need furthere help over a longer period of time to deal with it. My heart goes out to them. I know how much my relatively mild version of it has hampered my life; it must be terrible to deal with much stronger fear day in, day out. Once you see how fear manifests through a broad swath of people, you notice it driving so many other behaviors — especially the ones I’ve found antagonistic or particularly angering. That allows me to see myself in these people a lot better, which allows me to check my anger and better understand what they might be going through. Understanding myself helps me to connect better with others.

I’m curious if anyone else out there has issues with anxiety. What about it do you find particularly challenging? Are there ways you’ve learned to cope with it? Are there experiences you would like to share? I’m all ears!

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