Saturday, 26 July 2014

Handling anxiety

There's this illustration I saw online some time ago; something about what it would look like if people talked about say, heart attacks the way we sometimes discuss depression. So there's a scene where the wife is complaining to her friend like "He just collapsed in the morning and then lay around all day, and then I had to run all the errands myself." or something similar.

Then the other day I happened to find out what Trichotillomania is. It's this obsessive disorder where the person compulsively pulls out his/her own hair; usually off the head, eyebrows or eye-lashes.  

(Check out video below, it's the one that introduced me to the condition. I think it shares the first-person feel of it quite brilliantly)

Everyone worries.

Now depression and other mental health issues only get noticed once they get diagnosed but generally speaking I think it wouldn't be a stretch to say that everyone has some amount of shit to deal with. Considering that this sort of pain seems so central to being human, I think we could all use a slightly healthier way to think about dealing with it. Not just a mechanism to help people to cope better, but something to actively aid in recovery.

Now as far as society is concerned, there are always people who will misunderstand so there's not much to be done about them. (And then there are people who do understand and for those you should be truly grateful...) But when you find yourself going through crap, the way in which you choose to think about the experience can make a tremendous difference.

Anxiety is neither created nor destroyed...

What I've been thinking a lot about lately is something that could be called a "Law of Conservation of Anxiety". The laws that conserve energy or momentum have sound mathematical backing but here my proofs are slightly more empirical, if not completely anecdotal. Basically we seem to have a talent for accepting anxiety from situations or other people. Once accepted though, the anxiety doesn't go away until it's deliberately released through some form of expression; through either a creative or destructive impulse.

Now this would all be fine, but the unexpressed anxiety tends to sit around and fester and eventually leak out in other (seemingly unrelated) areas of life and cause mental-health symptoms. It's natural that this happens but the problem is that sometimes these symptoms are the only things that are tangible enough to discuss with anyone. That can then lead to people trying to help fix the symptom since only you (may) know the actual issue.

How nots to thinks


Why this is difficult to discuss meaningfully is because we're not talking about anything tangible here, it's all ultimately just a collection of thoughts. Thoughts in and thoughts out. Sometimes the inward-bound thoughts come accompanied by a situation but the anxiety is almost always a thought about the thing, not the thing itself. Similarly the outbound thought might be accompanied by poetry or art or whatever but... well you get the idea.

What's particularly tricky is if the thing causing worry and the area of life experiencing symptoms are externally connected because then it feeds back on itself. So for example, let's say you worry about your health. In fact you worry so much that you end up worsening your health. So then you worry that you're worried too much about your health. Which then leads to you worrying that you really shouldn't be worrying about your worry, you should be trying to worry less. Then eventually you're just worrying that you're worried that you're worried that you're... yea.

One helpful short-term thing might be to just arbitrarily limit your meta-worrying... (Bro, it's like Inception bro... wooaahhh) But basically at some point you have to just stop thinking or else, as Alan Watts said, you "won't have anything to think about but thoughts..."

How to thinks


So yea, all of this gets a little complicated but I don't think it necessarily has to be. Also, I don't think we need to re-invent the wheel in terms of how to think about non-physical pain. 

As such, we've all gotten cuts and bruises and various kinds of physical injury and we have an excellent and extensive vocabulary to deal with these situations. By and large if you fall down and scrape your knee all you have to do is clean it off, attend to it and then let it heal. The initial pain is an extremely useful thing in this scenario because it lets you know that you're hurt to begin with; without the pain you might just carry on what you were doing and not giving the injury whatever attention is necessary.

The big shift in thinking is really just realizing that emotional wounds are really not so different from physical wounds. That initial emotional pain doesn't mean that something's wrong with you - it's what's supposed to happen! Do whatever you can to tend to the wound and then just leave it alone, definitely don't spend any more time poking at it and worrying about it. Worrying that you might not be healing, or that you might not be healing fast enough is pretty pointless; sometimes things just need a certain amount of time to happen.

So yea, that was just my two cents on the subject. I'll leave you to extend the metaphor in whatever direction you find helpful. Depending on how badly you feel you've been hurt, it might totally make sense to just go get a professional to help you with the it.

Be well everyone. :)