Known and Unknown

“Feelings don’t try to kill you, even the painful ones. Anxiety is a feeling grown too large. A feeling grown aggressive and dangerous. You’re responsible for its consequences, you’re responsible for treating it. But…you’re not responsible for causing it. You’re not morally at fault for it. No more than you would be for a tumor.”

~Patrick Ness, The Rest of Us Just Live Here

When Pixar created the character Fear in Inside Out, I felt an immediate connection. The heightened awareness of everything going on around him. The jittery nerves (with or without coffee – though they clearly made him a caffeine addict). And the mile-high reports on every conceivable outcome for the situations being presented. Even the disbelieving stares of those around him at the more “outlandish” possibilities he listed in the reports. It was anxiety personified, but given a label of “fear” to appeal to every age group.

A little unfair, but not far off the mark.

Fear resides in the heart of anxiety. The tightening spirals we spin down develop out of fears. Ironically, the deeper we get into our whirlpools, the greater those fears become. We start on the fringe with “rational” concerns for every situation we encounter. Then we start to branch out into those possibilities the people around us start laughing at. The kind of things everyone assumes impossible and irrational. (Of course, the way 2020’s been going, I’m not sure how many people are still laughing at us)

It’s hard to interrupt those spirals. People with anxiety are always aware of them. We know when we’re generating our tornadoes. But stopping the process, putting on the brakes and forcing ourselves to breathe…it’s damn near impossible. Trying to do so is like – well, it’s like trying to stop a tornado. What if we overlook something? What if we forget to plan for an eventuality?

Pulses spike, our lungs take in less air, the brain clamps down in the skull, and our body starts shrieking a warning. (We forget to include that possibility. Ironic, right?) Now we’re lying on the floor with people standing over us, staring in shock. And the odds are the situation was minor.

One more time when the spiral won.

I panic over EVERYTHING. I have a 100% satisfaction rating and constant five-star ratings for my writing. Yet each time I turn in an assignment for a new client, I freak out until they respond. And if it’s more than a day, my brain twists in my skull. This is the time my words failed me. The assignment flopped. This client will hate my work and break my streak. I had an off day. I missed an edit that killed the entire article. I’m a complete hack. I’m an utter failure who can’t string one sentence together. It goes on and on until drinking water makes me nauseous. Suddenly, they’re reaching out to my other clients questioning why they’ve hired me.

And then they tell me it’s wonderful, and they’re pleased with my work.

And I repeat the spiral with the next new client. My track record means nothing to my anxiety-fueled brain. Hell, I conjure fifty horrible possibilites for why someone rings the doorbell in the space of walking from my desk to the front door! (It’s usually the postman) And don’t get me started on the phone ringing. I know the gut-check reaction isn’t rational, but trying to stop the flow of concocted possibilites is almost impossible.

While I’m aware elevated cortisol levels aren’t doing my body any favors, I’m pretty sure my system’s adapted to them by now. Let them drop, and I think I’ll crash. (See? The spiral really never stops) However, that cursed way of thinking comes in handy now and then. Thinking of everything means I PLAN for everything. I have a contingency for the bulk of my concerns. (I have no plans for aliens – not yet, anyway) Most people with anxiety work the same way, once they learn their thought patterns. It’s a pseudo-coping method that works with their brain chemistry.

“Okay, we’re going to overreact, but we’re also going to over-respond.”

I rationalize through the fear. It calms the racing pulse, and it keeps my brain from spasming. And it makes me a valuable person to bounce ideas off of. Maybe I come up with situations that aren’t always rational (odds are computers won’t gain awareness and seize control of your company), but most of the contingencies WILL. I can play Devil’s Advocate with the best of them, forcing you to think through things you normally won’t when you’re riding high on a dream. It’s one of the reasons I honestly believe I’ve been so successful in MY dream.

I sat down and wrote through every pitfall. (And at least a dozen that weren’t very likely) With them staring me in the face, I had a chance to think around them. It made stepping off the cliff’s edge easier. It also lessened the tension in my shoulders, around my skull. The practice drives my fiance’ crazy at times, but it gets him thinking. And it’s even made him pause a time or two when I’ve voiced a (real) possibility he didn’t consider. It’s a secret superpower those of us with anxiety have tucked away.

Yes, we’re frustrating. When we tell you we’re concerned about getting mauled by a bear on the subway, we drive you up the wall. But if you take a second to breathe and ask us to think through that statement (and what we can do to avoid it), you’ll steer us AWAY from a deepening spiral. We know the idea’s absurd (we honestly do). We just need help switching tracks in our brain. Figuring out a solution helps. And USING our gift of seeing possible problems when you need to plan – that makes us feel useful.

The spirals are always there. They don’t go away. We see them EVERYWHERE. We just need people to understand them.

Fear the Spiral

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

~Frank Herbert, DUNE

We’ve all been there: ambling along, happy as can be, everything going our way, when out of nowhere we find ourselves standing on the edge of a cliff unable to see the other side. Is there an other side? Is the path on the other side as nice as the one we’re currently standing on? What’s at the bottom of the cliff, just in case we can’t make that jump? Will something terrible come up behind us if we don’t jump? We start up a spiral of fear that plants us firmly on our spot, paralyzing our brain’s ability to function properly.

Why do we do that?

Right up to that cliff, we were intelligent, rational, thinking human beings. We could problem-solve with the best of them, and we found solutions for the issues that cropped up in front of us. Now, though, doubt and fear are worming their way into our minds, and we’re stuck. It’s amazing the power fear, especially fear of the unknown, can exert over us.

What if we make the wrong choice? Fear of failure is crippling for a lot of people. There are people you’ll disappoint (real or imagined…and, let’s face it, for most of us, it’s more imagined than real – we just don’t want to admit that). The mind conjures up this giant, flashing red “F” that you’re positive the entire world is going to be able to see. Except…well, we know that isn’t real, on some plane of our rational thinking. People fail all the time; it’s how you learn and grow, and, sometimes, it’s how you go on to succeed. The fear is still there, though, grinding you into the ground and convincing you that making that jump could be the worst mistake of your life. If you miss the jump and fall – there are no save points and restarts in the real world. Your mind tells you that you have to get it right the first try; you can’t screw up – and you believe it.

What if something worse is coming? Things were going great, so Murphy’s Law dictates that there’s an end to that waiting somewhere. Maybe if you just hunker down and close your eyes, the monster won’t see you. It always worked when you were a kid, right? Except you’re not a kid anymore, and you’ve watched too many horror movies now, so you know that monster is going to see you out there in the open on that cliff. That horrible thing is going to come right for you, and all you can do is sit there, staring at it, and waiting for it to tear you apart. You’ll never outsmart it, you’ll never outrun it, and you can’t defeat it, so what can you do? You honestly believe that this horrible thing is going to happen, and you wait for it; you let it consume your entire life. You forget to go on with everything else, you stop trying to figure out a way to the other side of the cliff (just in case you can make it), and you let your mind convince yourself the end is coming.

And we lose every time we do this.

Our minds are so amazing, so strong, but they can turn against us in a heartbeat. We give them a drop of fear, and they turn that drop into a tsunami. I’m not saying fear isn’t healthy – it is. Fear gives us something to fight against; it’s the enemy we conquer when no one else is looking. We get stronger when we face our fears, as absolutely terrifying as it is to close our eyes and make that jump. The problem is when we let the fear get the best of us. If we never take a step forward, we’re forever stuck in that same place: waiting for the worst, clutching our precious “F” to our chests.