Untying the Knot of Anxiety, One Strand at a Time

[this article was originally written for Puttylike]

When my anxiety was at its worst, my life appeared okay, even good. I had a great job, lots of friends, a fun social life. I was even doing stand-up comedy, which from outside may appear to be brave. (From inside it merely feels masochistic.)

But in reality, I was struggling to keep it together. I felt like everything was falling apart. I worried I was sick, dying, my brain was malfunctioning, perhaps I was losing my grip on reality, I couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t sleep, couldn’t concentrate, I was doomed to feel anxious forever. My mind was an endless whirlwind of doom, and my heart wouldn’t slow down.

I often compare this deep, complex anxiety to a knot made of all my thoughts and feelings. Any attempt to unpick any part of it seemed to pull on everything else.

A worry about my health—was I sick? Dying? Was something really wrong? Was it all in my head? If so, what would that mean?! Each worry would morph into painful self-criticism, which would in turn become fears about time-wasting, which would become terror of the future, which would make me think about death, which would transmute back into fears for my health… and the circle would be complete.

Anxiety was a knot I could never untie, because each attempt just took me round and round, and it was painful to pull on any one strand.

Some days the knot would be made of different strands. And each fear would have its own mini-loops. But attempting to unwind any loop would require unwinding every other loop first, and I’d feel overwhelmed and crushed by what seemed to be an insurmountable number of problems multiplying and squashing me all at once.

It took time and effort to gradually unwind each loop, straighten out each of the struggles, and untie the knot. 

This was a long and complex process, made harder because so much energy went into just surviving each day, which left very little for the difficult work of increasing coping skills, improving life circumstances, working through emotions, and learning to manage thoughts and feelings.

I can’t summarise the whole journey in a single post, but today I wanted to talk about just one strand of this knot.

“What am I doing with my life?”

For a long time, I believed my problems were external. I needed to have the perfect job (whatever that is!), the ideal relationship, a home I loved, the right car, furniture, entertainment, whatever…

Obviously, trying to form the entire universe into the perfect configuration turned out to be quite difficult.

While each part of this particular collection of external struggles was individually hard, I expended the most anxious energy on my career.

I worried about the past—I’ve studied the wrong things! I’ve got the wrong experience!

I worried about the present—anything I chose to do would—necessarily—restrict my future options, just as my past decisions were restricting me right now.

Even when I was happy, I worried about the future—what if I STOP being happy? What if I get bored, and want to move on? Is the fact I’m thinking this right now a sign that I’m already bored?! Then what should I do next?

For decades I’d jumped from passion to passion. I couldn’t imagine that ever changing, and this seemingly doomed me to a life of dissatisfaction. This knowledge sucked the joy even from everything that I was currently passionate about, leaving me empty and hopeless.

Worse, worrying about any individual aspect of my future/career/happiness brought the whole thing crashing down on me… which set off all the other worries in the rest of the knot… 

…I was very, very stuck.

Loosening one strand

It was impossible to figure this out in isolation. Like all my other anxieties, my fear about what I was doing with my life was deeply connected with my self-image, my self-criticism, my need for approval, my constant focus on the future, my imagining the worst more often than the best, my mental habits, my persistent inner critic, and many more things besides.

But, as part of bringing my anxiety down to a manageable level, I had to figure out how to untangle these specific fears about how I was spending my time on Earth. And somewhere along the way, I had a few revelations which helped:

  1. Safety First. Food, shelter, friends, love… these were the important things. I was worrying about abstract concepts and ignoring the fact I was lucky enough to be able to meet my basic needs.
  2. I only needed to impress myself. No day would come when I would face the judgement of all seven billion fellow humans, who would say “what have you done with your life?” It was only ME worrying about it. And if I decided to become a monk and ‘produce’ nothing but meditation, that would be a valid way to spend my life.
  3. It’s okay to be me. I had been viewing my many passions as a weakness, but perhaps they were a strength. Maybe the world would appreciate somebody who wants to write, code, and do comedy? Maybe those three things could even be combined in some way… (Some years later, I am doing exactly that, and more so every year.)
  4. It’s okay to get bored. Turning this idea on its head was helpful too. Maybe I would get bored of whatever I was doing… fine! I didn’t have to worry about it in advance. I’d just either handle the boredom, or do something else. (This sounds like a very obvious revelation, but learning to trust my future self to handle it was a big deal for me.)

These aren’t universal cures for these anxieties. They weren’t even immediate cures for my difficulties at the time.

But these realisations helped me to loosen this particular strand of the overall knot. They helped to reframe the way I thought and felt about my career, and to take actions that started to build a life I was comfortable with.

I used them as antidotes to each individual worry, helping me to stop getting overwhelmed by the whole knot of everything in the universe whenever an anxiety surfaced. Gradually, I was able to reduce the painful impact of each anxiety, and start untangling the overall mess.

Keeping it untied

I believe any such internal loop can be straightened out, and any knot untied.

But there’s no simple solution. Sometimes my anxiety was rooted in what was physically happening in my life, and I needed to change my circumstances—whether personal or societal. (This, too, requires a multi-pronged approach: part ‘changing the world’, part acknowledging my own limitations.)

Other times, it was about what was happening internally, and I needed to reframe my beliefs, process my emotions, and change my mental habits.

But wherever the anxiety came from, it required lots of energy and support. It wasn’t always obvious what to do, but eventually—through new perspectives, improved circumstances, better mental management, self-care, leaving my comfort zone, staying in my comfort zone, and more—the knot was unpicked.

Finding little antidotes to each individual strand took time and effort. But it paid off. Now I don’t fear anxiety itself anymore. Even when the old strands in my mind get wound up, I know how to straighten them out again.

I hope sharing this part of my story is helpful. I know the exact antidotes which helped me on this strand won’t be universal, and nor will the strand of anxiety itself. But I hope it helps to know that you CAN come through deep, awful anxious times and find peace on the other side. 

Well… relative peace, anyway. I still haven’t got the entire universe into the perfect configuration for me. But I’m working on it.


Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.

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