Saturday, December 01, 2007

Anxiety advice

[Note: I posted a slightly different version in the Postsecret chat forum.]

When wrongness, pointlessness, hopelessness, despair, and helplessness saturate your mind, how can you rely upon your infected mind to fix itself?

My best advice is that there is no magic solution. You need to develop techniques, tactics, procedures, and a strategy to fight and win against your anxiety every time it attacks you. It will continue to do so, because your anxiety is a hardwired part of you.

Accept that it's possible you'll never conquer your anxiety in a movie-like final showdown. Like any disorder that's hardwired into your mind, eg, addictions or schizophrenia (I just re-watched Beautiful Mind on TV), you can win battles, but you'll never win the war. The best you can do is to assess the battle correctly every time you fight it. You'll have to fight the battle against your anxiety over and over and over again. The alternative is to relax, surrender to it, and accept your life being driven into a cave by your anxiety.

Keys:

1. Breed confidence in your abilities and potential. Anxiety is linked to fear of failure, harm, and humiliation. Therefore, it's important to attempt challenges to prove to yourself that your abilities and potential are good enough - not necessarily the best, but good enough. Once you conquer some challenges, you will own tested bulwarks to use as rational weapons against your anxiety when it wells up irrationally from inside your mind to swamp you. For example, I enlisted in the Army specifically because I believed the military was the last thing in the world I could do. By serving well and honorably, I proved to myself I could succeed at something I fully believed I would fail. After I served, I earned my degree at an Ivy League university in order to gain more tangible proof of my worth.

Unfortunately, a good track record isn't a magic solution. It's merely a good weapon to use in the never-ending war against your anxiety. Talented, intelligent anxiety sufferers often live with an odd mix of disembodied confidence in their own abilities, while simultaneously, their confidence in self is sabotaged by their anxiety. People on the outside, who only see the quality but not the anxiety, don't understand why anxiety sufferers seemingly irrationally undermine themselves for no apparent reason.

2. Learn that regret is worse than failure. Is it worse to try your best and spectacularly fail, or to quietly give up and forever wonder "what if"? For me, I learned the hard way that "what if" is worse than real-life failure, and it's a lot harder to make up for those regrets later in life. It's best to avoid regrets, if possible. Convince yourself that regret is worse than failure. If your anxiety is successful using the fear of failure against you, then co-opt the proven power of fear - make your fear of regret stronger than your fear of failure. Use your fear of regret to push you forward into the hot light of the arena, even while your fear of failure tries to pull you back into the tempting cool shadows of the cave.

Failure is a part of the struggle of life. It sucks for everyone, and even talented people who aren't anxiety sufferers fail. In fact, most iconic role models will tell you that their eventual breakthrough success grew out of a mixed history of failure and success. The key is they used failure to their tactical advantage and did not give in to their fears.

3. Demystify failure and use it to your tactical advantage. Overcoming your anxiety to challenge yourself is a victory in and of itself, but it doesn't mean you will automatically win at the challenge. That was another hard lesson for me to learn. In real life, the scrappy underdog doesn't always get the girl. You may even do your best and work as hard as you can, and still lose. Failure hurts, but you will find that real failure can be constructive, whereas anxiety is empty and only destructive. Real failure teaches you valuable lessons about yourself, other people, and the world around you. Failure allows you to make informed evaluations about your true limits, rather than your anxiety-perceived limits, and helps you decide whether you can improve and do better or you're better off investing your life into something else.

Real failure reveals and teaches, real failure helps you grow and mature. Failure empowers. Fight against your anxiety's attempt to use fear of failure to cheat you from the benefits of real failure.

4. Difficult: identify the healthy fears and separate them from the anxiety fears. It seems to me that living fearlessly isn't altogether healthy, either. Healthy fear is a protective tool of the mind. The problem is that for anxiety sufferers, fear has become malignant, like when someone's immunity system goes haywire and attacks healthy cells. Challenging yourself and embracing failure is one thing. However, recklessly thrusting yourself into bad situations and hurting yourself, and maybe even others, is something else altogether. Unfortunately, it's very hard for anxiety sufferers to trust their distorted judgement to tell the difference between healthy fears and anxiety fears. Sorry I can't give better advice here, because I haven't figured it out yet.

5. As much as we'd like to, we aren't strong enough to battle our inner demons 24/7/365 forever. The struggle against yourself is exhausting. Giving in does lead to relief. It's why addicts "fall off the wagon" even after years of successful sobriety. Compromise, develop pressure releases. Learn who you are. Recognize that relief is with cost and only temporary, so what ground are you willing to concede to your anxiety in order to gain ground in other areas of your life? Where can you pick your spots to rest and relax, so you can rejuvenate for the more important battles, without weakening yourself? That said, don't sell yourself short. Err on the side of strength rather than weakness. Be careful of the slippery slope that easily turns a temporary tactical concession into a larger destructive surrender to your anxiety.

6. Don't alienate trusted loved ones. Easier said than done when your anxiety pulls you into the lonely comfort of the cave, but it's critical to keep trusted loved ones involved in your life. "Trusted" is critical, because you need your loved ones to be a source of strength for you even when they don't understand what's happening to you. My mom has never understood, but still supported me as best she could. When you're battling something that's part of you, you may not even notice the warning signs that you're slipping. If you're lucky, a trusted love one who wants what's best for you, has a sense of your anxiety problem, and can spot the signs may be able to save you even before you've admitted you need help. Your loves ones can help pick you up again after you've lost a battle to your anxiety, too. Bottom-line: resist the urge to isolate yourself; you need the help and support of your trusted loved ones.

7. Psychotropic drugs. I can't say much about them, except they scare me. Some people swear by them, others say meds hurt them without helping. I believe there are physiological roots to the condition so I don't discount drugs, but don't treat them like a magic solution, either.

8. Counseling. I believe a good counselor can help a lot, but my sense is that there are many bad counselors out there, and even with a good counselor, it's not a magic solution. First of all, it's expensive and time consuming. Therapy can take years and it's not a passive process. A counselor can serve as a guide, informed outside perspective, and honest evaluator only, not a repairman. Therapy still requires that you do the heavy lifting. It doesn't solve the problem, only helps train you to better fight your battles.

Final thought. Anxiety is undoubtedly a handicap and a burden. It slows you down, it's relentless, and it can drive you to your knees when you relax. But you know what? Life's not fair. Realize you're not the only person with a handicap and burden. Folks with bad breaks in life do succeed, and you can, too. Deal with it. Fight. Win. Fail. Get up. Fight again.

PS 31May11: Be aware that an anxious and depressed state of mind will color and alter your entire perspective and how you think. So when you are in a "low mood", it is best to be very cautious about decision-making.

PPS 06Dec11: Bwog comment about Columbia student Tian (Tina) Bu's suicide. Tina fought her illness in a similar way to my advice. The choices are fight or flight. I wonder whether her apparent inability to fight anymore and her refusal to give in to her illness left her only one choice. My advice should be tempered with a realistic assessment of one's own resilience and brittleness. If one cannot fight anymore, then the better choice is to give up and run away rather than commit suicide.

Eric

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4 Comments:

Blogger Kathy said...

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1/06/2010 11:56 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anxiety is crippling.

6/06/2010 11:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suffer from anxiety and depression. I've had suicidal thoughts. I suffered them at Columbia. I suffered them before Columbia. I suffer them now. My life has been degraded in a profound way by my illness. During my episodes, I become a different person. Inside an episode, my entire perspective and the way I think changes. It's like my whole mind become rewired. In the course of my life, I have accumulated many years of doing nothing because it's safer to withdraw/hide from life and not make decisions I'll regret with my rewired mind. When I'm out of an episode and back to my 'normal' mind, I can hardly identify with my anxious depressed self. It's like trying to remember a dream. I become disgusted with the time I've wasted. Every time, I resolve to try harder to live more productively, and I manage to do it for a while, until it happens again. It's a hard-wired chronic illness. It can be managed, perhaps, but based on my experience, I don't believe it can be cured. I've read multiple comments saying Tina sought professional help and was exceptionally open with her friends about her struggle. I'm very impressed by that. Her efforts to fight the enemy inside her seem extraordinary to me. The added shame, fear, pressure, vulnerability, and stress of putting myself out there to others ... I couldn't do it. As a result, I have lost all my friends by totally withdrawing during my episodes. It appears Tina was committed to fighting the enemy inside her. She was even a psych major. It's frightening she took these extraordinary steps to defend herself and it didn't work; the enemy inside her still killed her. Is it fair to blame Columbia for Tina's suicide? Well it's true that stressful environmental factors such as social and academic judgements, the need to earn grades with long-term implications, and high expectations do interact with the illness to trigger anxiety and depressive episodes. But at the same time, that's the nature of Columbia or any elite university. If we blame the Columbia environment for triggering Tina's suicidal ideation, then we can also blame Tina for knowingly placing herself at risk by exposing her illness to the Columbia environment. If that sounds harsh, know that I say it from a place of empathy - I placed myself at Columbia, too, and the same applies to me. For people like Tina and me, our abilities and expectations for ourselves are a double-edged sword. Like our high-achieving peers, we feel driven to realize our potential, succeed, and realize our ambitions. Our abilities are high enough that we successful achieve goals like acceptance into Columbia. However, it doesn't get easier. Each commencement to a higher level takes us into increasingly stressful environments, with higher expectations, more competition, higher stakes. We can't back down because our own abilities, expectations, and unwillingness to sell our lives short drive us forward. The double-edged sword is that the more we drive forward, the greater the risk of triggering our illness, and triggering it in a more serious way. Just extrapolating from my experience with suicidal thoughts, the only thing that may have been able to save Tina was for her to leave Columbia and confine herself to a low-stress environment, such as going home and being the stereotypical depressed person who stays in bed for months. Given Tina's abilities and high achievement, though, I doubt that abandoning her ambitions and disappointing her own expectations by giving up was an acceptable option. I emphasize that removing herself from Columbia wouldn't have been a cure, only that it may have kept her alive. But, if she dropped out of Columbia and ran home, then what would she have done with her life?

12/05/2012 4:08 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Continued:

From comments, Tina was fighting her illness hard to pursue her ambitions; I don't think she was willing to give up on her ambitions in order to appease her illness. If she refused to run, and she couldn't fight her illness anymore, then maybe that left her only one option. How do you convince someone like Tina that, for the sake of her illness, she must give up the life that she could achieve with her abilities?

12/05/2012 4:09 PM  

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