Untangling Anxiety: The First Step

Tangled wires, Freegeek, Portland, Orego by gruntzooki, on Flickr
Untangle THIS!

Photo © Cory Doctorow, gruntzooki on Flickr
CC Attribution-SA 2.0 Generic License

The first thing I had to do after admitting that I had anxiety was to decide to actually do something towards being less anxious.

Well, I say the “first” thing. But this decision actually took me several years.

In fairness, I was busy! You can’t just drop everything and go ‘deal with anxiety’, can you?

Plus, if I left it alone maybe it would just get better? Maybe if I started messing with it, it would only get worse… Not to mention that it sounds difficult and unpleasant. Let’s just forget it and watch a film, or something. Please?

These – plus many other excuses – kept me from action for a long, long time. It wasn’t until everything became completely intolerable that I finally chose to do whatever it took to stop being anxious.

But to make that decision I had to believe I could be less anxious.

If I never believed it was possible, why would I ever decide to start? Looking back, this was probably the single biggest reason for my inaction: I thought I was doomed to be anxious forever.

I had been told it was possible to stop, but I didn’t believe it. In fact, I laughed in the face of the person who told me.

Inner critic: Oh, how kind of you! Don’t you think it undermines whatever alleged “authority” you have in writing this rubbish if you reveal how rude and skeptical you are in real life?

Well, we can’t all be as helpful and kind as you, inner critic…

But, sarcasm aside, I think I’m okay with being human, thanks, with all the occasional rudeness and skepticism that may imply.

As I was saying, I didn’t believe I could do anything about my anxiety. But enough people claimed otherwise for me to finally push myself into action.*

* I’ve been told a fact about changing beliefs: that in order for them to change, you have to be told a new belief six times. But this is obviously complete nonsense, as I believed this fact about changing beliefs after hearing it the first time. Unfortunately, my instant belief in this fact immediately proved the fact wrong, and the universe imploded due to the logical inconsistency.

I finally decided to see for myself if it was true that there was an alternative to anxiety, and I was immediately confronted by a complete mess.

Inner critic: Looked in a mirror, did you?

Well, yes, actually. Metaphorically speaking. I took a closer look at myself and immediately found a thousand reasons why I might be anxious:

  • Overthinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Repressed grief
  • Health anxiety
  • Self-criticism (Inner critic: I really don’t see what’s wrong with this one…)
  • What if Manchester United actually keep on winning after Ferguson retires?! (this was a few years ago, and anyone who cares already knows how this turned out…)
  • Crisis of meaning
  • Global catastrophe
  • Fear of making the wrong choices
  • Those utterly terrifying children’s tv shows they make nowadays
  • Shia LaBeouf
  • Getting trapped somewhere I can’t escape
  • And many, many more…

What are you supposed to do when confronted with so many possible problems at once?

I did try to just get stuck in. I seriously considered that maybe I hadn’t properly dealt with the death of my father some years before, and perhaps if I just handled that then everything else would fall into place.

But while I was attempting to unrepress some grief (whatever that means in reality), I got into a serious bout of health anxiety. While I tried to fix that, I fell into a crisis of meaning.

Everything was too mixed up: as soon as I tried to fix one problem, all the others reared up and I became convinced some other problem must be the deeper issue.

I needed to find the fundamentals, and put everything into some kind of order, or I’d never untangle this mess.

When physically working on such a tangled knot, you can’t just follow one strand. Nor can you attempt to unpick every strand at once. You need to go far enough along each one, in the right order, and that way you’ll eventually reach the end.

The first step in anxiety management, then, is barely a step at all. It’s acknowledging that getting to the bottom of your own personal tangle is a hard task, and so it’s okay if you don’t immediately sort everything out. And you have to continue believing that it is possible to untangle this knot.

Inner critic: That’s two steps. I mean, I wouldn’t normally say anything, but I feel I ought to point out that you apparently can’t count, so maybe the readers should really rethink their decisions to read this post. Just saying.

Okay, fair enough, it’s technically two steps. Let’s just imagine it’s a free extra step when you get your first.

Inner critic: … which was also free…

Sigh. Fine. Two steps, both for free. Whatever.

The important thing is that it’s NOT doing what I did: throwing yourself into every possible cause as it comes to your attention, wondering if this will be the One Solution to Fix Them All.

Once we’re resolved to patiently untie the knot, strand by strand, we will eventually succeed.

Next time: how the concept of novelty helps us to identify the first strands to pull on.*
* Probably. I can’t promise I won’t get distracted and write another story about a talking cake, or something equally nonsensical.

Check out the Book for Anxious Humans, which explores all these ideas in much more detail.

Or like us on Facebook, because Mark Zuckerberg put in all that effort building a social network, and you wouldn’t want that to go to waste, would you?!

5 thoughts on “Untangling Anxiety: The First Step

  1. You are making me happy. So thankful a friend suggested you to me via Facebook.

  2. I am quite familiar with “overthinking”, “perfectionism”, and “health anxiety.” I’m dealing with the third right now. I’m just coming off my anti-depressants. It seemed like a good time to do it. It was going pretty well, but then I had to have a tooth pulled. So, now I’ve got the process of healing the gum to go through. It’s no fun. It’s painful. I keep worrying that I’ll dislodge the blood clot and get dry socket (which is even more painful, and which I had years ago when I had my wisdom teeth removed), that the healing process will take a really long time, that I won’t be able to eat normally for a long time, and it all just leads me to crying. Like I’m struggling not to do as I write this.

    Two and a half years ago (or something like that) I directed my health anxiety toward creating a multi-month long stomach pain, diarrhea, insomnia, and panic attacks. That’s when I finally saw a psychologist and got on the meds. Life felt a lot better on them. It’s only been a few weeks that I’ve been off of them, and I really want to give life without them a good try. But, this tooth thing just happened so at the wrong time. It’s like a test of how well I really can cope. I don’t feel like I’m doing a spectacular job.

    I do have a wonderful partner who is really trying to support me. I fear going back on the meds sometimes because I think I’ll disappoint him. But, he says that’s not true, and that I won’t disappoint him. He said that if I need them, then I need them.

    Oh boy, I’ve probably written far too much here. You don’t want to know it all. But, I’m going to post it anyway instead of deleting it. Sorry.

  3. Not at all, Amanda, you’re very welcome to post! Thanks for sharing your story, I’m glad you didn’t delete it 🙂

    I know the feeling, though… my anxiety always tends to root itself in health fears. And, like you, I had stomach pains for a long time due to being overanxious.

    Similarly, I had a bout of anxiety after getting my wisdom teeth out. Despite the fact I knew it was irrational, I felt like it might never heal, and that that would somehow be catastrophic – even though even at the time I could eat, talk and live perfectly okay. It was some unspecified future worsening that I really feared.

    I’m definitely going to write a series on health anxiety specifically sometime in the next few months after the madness of the book launch is over, so I hope you stick around and find something useful here.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing though – I hope you listen to your partner and trust that you won’t disappoint him by doing what you need to do. Sometimes we need to let people support us!

  4. Hi

    Really interesting articles on anxiety, thanks so much for sharing them.

    As I read them, my head gets torn between the optimistic “hey there is hope after all” and “oh my god, I need to face up to these fears and stop hiding”. I guess you can probably tell which one is shouting the loudest.

    Anxiety can be so cruel, no wonder I feel so crushed.


  5. I know the feeling, Mike. I spent years repressing or ignoring the roots of the problems, and it was definitely hard work going through it once I finally ignored the fear-of-fear for long enough to try.

    But it was 100% worth it. I’m not entirely without anxiety now, of course, but it’s so so much better, and I have some idea of what to do as new problems arise and I work through them.

    I hope you do hold onto hope – I think we can always increase our ability to handle things, though it can need baby steps at first. Good luck, and stay in touch 🙂

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