Anxiety can make a person feel like Don Quixote in a modern day wind farm. I can imagine Donny Q. (that’s his street name), in the West Texas desert, with his jaw in the dirt staring at row after row of 200 foot tall turbines thinking: son of a bit@#, what have I gotten my self into?!
Let me start this by saying that we all have anxiety to some extent. Some anxiety is healthy. If we didn’t have it, we would walk off the end of piers and topple over cliffs. We would be prone to ask folks that are way out of our league on dates and live with constant rejection. We would let our kids have pet snakes because the rattle sounds cool. Anxiety is necessary for survival, but some times it can get out of hand. The out of hand anxiety is what I want to talk about.
I hear people talk about their anxiety frequently. Some of them take meds for their anxiety. It seems that they are rarely in therapy, however, even though research shows therapy in conjunction with meds is the most effective solution. These folks know that I am a therapist, so I wonder if their thought is one of either/or. I can get therapy or take a pill… I am taking a pill, crisis averted. When people tell me that they take meds for anxiety, they usually do it in one of two ways.
Way 1.) Usually delivered with an undertone that indicates a reverence for the seriousness of the matter: “I don’t take it unless I really need it,” they will say.
Way 2.) Looser and involves a tongue-in-cheek reference to not getting through some days without it: “I need mamma’s little helper and a glass of wine after the day I had,” they might say.
For the record, I am not a fan of either scenario. If the prescribing doctor understands mental health and provides a referral for therapy too, I am all good. When people take meds to take the edge off, without therapeutic intervention, it scares me. Help me off the soapbox, and we’ll get going…
Questions for the ages
a.) Are anxious folks predestined to be so genetically?
b.) Has anxiety been learned in the environment?
I have a pretty strong opinion on this, but who cares. Taming the anxiety is the point, not identifying the duck that sat on it until it hatched.
I am about to rip off the band-aid. For some of you this might be our first date. I am going to flash you my award winning smile and lean in close. I’m using my best Ron Burgundy voice; I hope that you trust me with this until we know each other a little better.
Here goes: anxiety is not a disease, an affliction or predestined condition. It is a bad mental habit.
There, I said it. I feel better.
You may be super irritated with me now. “You don’t understand!” you might be screaming at your interweb-googling machine, “My panic attacks come out of the blue and derail me. How could that be a habit?!” Don’t dismiss me as a kook just yet, please keep reading.
I think there are a couple of things that make anxiety feel like a monster.
1. It seems as if it isn’t directly correlated to anything specific. If you stub your toe, it hurts and you know why. In many cases, anxiety seems to come on suddenly and unprovoked.
2. It can be inexplicably present, at a low level, that comes in and out of our awareness. It’s like a squeaky ceiling fan. The noise is always there, but we only notice it intermittently. When we do notice it we can’t seem to un-notice it.
In low grade anxiety, we might have a sense of dread that can’t be overridden. On the other end of the spectrum, panic attacks sneak up with the subtly of a sledge hammer to the back of the head. Without tricks, gimmicks or smoke and mirrors, it can be done; both can be controlled.
Anxiety is annoying, uncomfortable and in some cases, terrifying. I have seen a parent trying to force their child out of a car because they were so anxious about school they refused to go (for weeks on end). I have had clients go to the emergency room multiple times fearing a heart attack during panic attacks. One of them was 18 years old; he had to go to the ER twice. I have created treatment plans for clients in which the primary goal of counseling was to get the client to go outside their house one time a week. I am not immune myself from time to time. I know anxiety. I really do. It is very real, but also very misunderstood.
I have been a life long Oakland Raider fan. They have been so terrible for the last decade and a half that my friends and I coined the term Raidering. Raidering encompasses all manner of activity in which an individual or entity shoots themselves in the foot. Raidering is the innate skill to consistently go from bad to worse. It is the act of grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. If life gives you lemons, Raidering gives you paper cuts on your hands. Anxiety is your mind, Raidering itself.
Have you ever heard a balloon pop and had it scare the ever-loving-sh#* out of you? The feeling in that nanosecond of chaos is the body’s reaction to a sudden, unexpected stimulus. Our hearts jumps into the roof of our mouths and beat double time. Our muscles tighten and our palms gush sweat. We go from zero to agitation in the blink of an eye. If you’re like me, you probably squeal an obscenity that sounds like a cat being stepped on. My friend John Younger stepped on this girl Loah’s cat once. It wan’t pretty. I also usually take a roundhouse swing at the person closest to me as a reflex. Somebody has to pay for the terrible feeling I have in that split second!
This reaction is called the fight or flight response. I think we are all familiar with fight or flight; our bodies adapting in an instant to defend or retreat. Adrenaline is the chemical agent in charge of the process. It surges and gets us ready for action. Whether we are dealing with an army of ninjas back-flipping towards us off of the Ikea ottoman or with a loud balloon pop, once the crisis is over, everything settles back down.
Now a story, if you will indulge me
If you were to hear a click, click, click sound coming down the hall and looked to see the silhouette of a mountain lion, how do you think you would react? Poorly, I am sure. Faced with a serious threat that could cause you immediate bodily harm, you would have every right to freak the eff out. Suppose that it saw you, turned around and went back down the hall, allowing you to escape. You would likely leave a hole in your wall shaped like your silhouette, ala a frightened Scooby Doo as you hauled ass towards the nearest fortified enclosure. Once you were a comfortable distance, you could gather your senses. As soon as your adrenaline loaded body allowed you to unpucker your butt long enough to get your phone out of your pocket, you would call animal control. It would probably take a while, but you would eventually settle back down.
Now imagine as the animal control guy was leaving with your snarling puma in a cage on his truck, he remarked how strange this all was. You might agree and remark that you will never leave the back door open again.
“That’s not what’s strange,” he would say, “It’s strange because the one in the truck is a juvenile and juveniles never go too far from their mothers.”
“Probably nothing to worry about,” he might whisper through the small slit in his barely rolled down window as he screeched out of your driveway.
“Well, hellfire, what do I do now, you would say to yourself.” I will tell you what you would do; you would start to worry about what might happen. Thoughts like, the momma lion might pounce from out of a tree and cling to me like I am an untamed stallion wearing a pork chop necklace, for instance.
Your mind would replay an endless loop of what-if’s. There are no good what-if’s in relation to a mad momma mountain lion. The rumination on the possibilities will take a physical toll on the body. The brain doesn’t fully distinguish the difference between real and imagined threat. The same reaction to a real mountain lion or that loud and unexpected balloon pop is happening internally, without the mountain lion or balloon pop. Anxiety is fear internalized. You are having a fight or flight reaction, but you aren’t fighting and you aren’t flighting. You have a problem.
The mountain lion description is a ridiculous example, but that’s okay, I am a ridiculous man. I think it illustrates my point(s) however.
- Anxiety is based on fear of what might happen
- Anxiety is rooted in negative possibilities and imagined outcomes
- Anxiety is a product of how we are conditioned to think
- Anxiety isn’t tied to a tangible, immediate threat
Uber-anxious folks have a symphony of worries playing counter melodies on top of each other. It is like an assembly of spinning plates, each one a bigger imagined disaster than the previous one. It takes great mental effort to keep them all going. What thoughts race for you at night making it hard to fall asleep? Fill in the blank for yourself; what are your what if’s?
Do you need a list that goes higher than three? Twenty? Fifty? If this is ringing true, you probably do. In the movie Twister, a cow spins by the viewer after being sucked up into a tornado. I internalize the idea of anxiety that way sometimes. There are a bunch of negative thoughts spinning and building on each other in a frenzy. Occasionally something comes into focus for a second like that cow, but mostly it is just a swirling blur.
I don’t want tall tales of mountain lions and cows to minimize the horrible relationship that some people have with anxiety and the scariness of the symptoms. I don’t want the reader to think that I can’t appreciate the level of difficulty it provides in one’s life. I know that it may be easy to buy into what I am saying intellectually, but not so easy when in the middle of a surprise panic attack. I do want the reader to know that however severe their issue might be, it can be dealt with. It can be attacked on its home court – your mind.
After a lifetime of conditioning to be anxious, your brain is going to want to maintain the status quo. In the action movie Ironman, the viewer is sometimes given the point of view from inside the Tony Stark’s helmet. Some sort of fast acting radar-brain-computer scans the horizon, zeros in on an object of interest and immediately analyzes it. A little target surrounds it and to the tune of random beeps, text appears identifying the object as friend or foe. When it is conditioned for anxiety, the brain scans the horizon for things to be anxious about in the same way. It finds them in just about everything. Maybe it is an upcoming meeting, a big game under the Friday night lights or a presentation at work. If there aren’t legit things to fret over, it will improvise. It might go like this in your head: I’m not smart enough, I’m not good enough, I’m not pretty enough. In addition, we tend filter out positive possibilities. The what-if’s come flooding in, but thoughts like: what if I shine are crushed under the heel of the more familiar: what if I fall, what if I fail, what if I fart in a meeting?
This radar can also apply to physical sensations. An insidious element of anxiety is that the brain will interpret physical sensations as part of a response to a threat and send a person into an attack. Often times, people that are severely anxious will have a panic attack induced by exercise. The reason for this is the heart rate being elevated. The radar brain gets that familiar signal of an elevated heart rate, interprets a threat and goes into fight or flight. The poor person doesn’t know what hit them and has no idea that running on a treadmill triggered an attack.
Anxious people have a tendency to be negative thinkers. There is a term for this in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy called automatic negative thoughts, or ANT’s. The automatic part is the killer. Because the thoughts just happen, they seem legitimate. Because they just happen and seem legitimate, there is no perceived need to challenge them. This way of thinking has been described as stinkin’ thinkin’. If the anxiety radar brain is constantly scanning the horizon using stinkin’ thinkin’, problems are sure to follow.
When I was a kid I loved the story of Don Quixote. It was written several hundred years ago about a fictional Spaniard that was losing touch with reality. Don Quixote’s stinkin’ thinkin’ led him to believe that windmills were giants that needed to be attacked and slain. The anxiety sufferer’s radar brain is similar. It can make a person feel like Don Quixote in a modern day wind farm. I can imagine Donny Q. (that’s his street name), in the West Texas desert, with his jaw in the dirt staring at row after row of 200 foot tall turbines thinking: son of a bit@#, what have I gotten my self into?! It can be similar in our heads. Every anxious blip on our radar can equate to the silhouette of a dangerous giant.
If you tune in next time, I will tell you all about CD’s and how they are hurting your fight against anxiety. For the record, I don’t mean cross-dressers. If cross dressers are involved in your life and they are giving you anxiety, give me a call. That might be better handled in a one on one convo. CD’s are cognitive distortions. If you are suffering with anxiety, CD’s are heavily involved.
I love you.