Matthew Rozsa shares his secret for not worrying about the end of world and everything else that makes him anxious.
Every morning I wake up with a sinking feeling in my gut.
If the day goes well, I sweat jittery bullets at the unshakable fear that the good will somehow be taken away from me and replaced with devastating disappointments and failures.
That sense of ongoing dread evolves throughout the course of the day depending on the events which subsequently transpire: If the day goes well, I sweat jittery bullets at the unshakable fear that the good will somehow be taken away from me and replaced with devastating disappointments and failures; if it is marked by hardships and setbacks, an exhaustion will overwhelm me as the sheer burden of my suffering takes its toll on my muscles and glands as well as my nerves; and if nothing of particular importance occurs, I simply meander through my daily responsibilities before retreating into those outlets for escapism—movies and TV shows, books and music, junk food and sleep—in the hope that these visceral indulgences will muffle my neuroses just enough that I can actually be happy for a little while (if in doing this I accidentally pressed down too hard and smothered that dread, killing it off entirely, I wouldn’t be unhappy in the least).
Needless to say, I don’t sleep well either.
Since I’m talking about a classic symptom of an anxiety disorder, my suggestion for those who relate to the above description is that they check out this website, which delves into the clinical condition with remarkable detail and offers solutions that may help sufferers lead healthier and happier lives. For a more personal look at the experience of living with anxiety, I would also recommend a piece I wrote for The Good Men Project last October with Liskula Cohen, How We Navigate with Anxiety.
This essay strives to do something a little different from its predecessors. Because the medical community generally agrees that severe anxiety can never be cured but only “treated” (another way of saying that the persistent dread will always linger but can be sufficiently subdued to be rendered manageable), I felt it was time for an article that did two things: (1) Explain severe anxiety in a way that laymen and non-sufferers can easily understand, and (2) Offer a somewhat novel philosophical approach for those who have it, accept that they can never fully purge it from their system, and yet want to live their lives to the fullest—which is to say, they want to subdue their dread and make it work for them instead of against them.
I must stress at this point that all of these ideas are speculative. Although I’ve pulled them from my own experiences, and genuinely believe that they can work for people like myself, I am not a medical professional and cannot be certain that any of this will prove effective. To quote H. L. Mencken:
In the sciences hypothesis always precedes law, which is to say, there is always a lot of tall guessing before a new fact is established. The guessers are often quite as important as the fact-finders; in truth, it would not be difficult to argue that they are more important. New facts are seldom plucked from the clear sky; they have to be approached and smelled out by a process of trial and error, in which bold and shrewd guessing is an integral part.
Here is my first guess: To understand someone with anxiety, you must first picture that person’s life as an epic novel. With few exceptions, all of us imagine ourselves as the protagonists of these tales, and while some are perfectly happy to let their stories write themselves, people with anxiety are perpetually fixated on seeing to it that the main character (themselves) and the plot (both the sweeping narrative arc of their lives and the smaller adventures that they know make it interesting) are exactly to their liking. Because someone with anxiety is almost certainly going to be a perfectionist, part of the problem is that they will never be fully satisfied with who they are right now, what they have done and/or what has happened to them in the past, and what they foresee for themselves in the future. As a result, anxious people wildly fluctuate between feelings of intense nervousness, depression, despair, and (on those rare, glorious occasions when the stars seem to actually align in their favor) unbridled, ecstatic joy. Many of them are bipolar, to be sure, but I suspect just as many (if not more) are simply reacting with the emotional intensity that seems fitting based on what they are seeing or experiencing in their own lives. Anyone who truly believes that his or her wildest dreams are about to come true will react with jubilation, just as anyone who senses that their deepest fears are about to be realized will respond with a feeling of dread, heartache, and depression.
The anxious cannot buy the Zen notion that we should simply abandon our fates to chance, accepting the good and coming to terms with the bad as we do so. This belief goes against the grain of their neural wiring.
Of course, for those who don’t entirely define themselves by the characters they are and the stories they have led and will continue to lead, these polarized emotional responses (the term “bi-polar” was coined for a reason) are mitigated by long stretches of more neutral feelings, with the positive and negative never becoming so intense as to be insurmountable. When these individuals hear about the plight of the anxious, they generally recommend a laid-back attitude (if they’re more philosophically well-informed, they’ll usually root it in various Eastern tropes). This is usually a mistake; the anxious cannot buy the Zen notion that we should simply abandon our fates to chance, accepting the good and coming to terms with the bad as we do so. This belief goes against the grain of their neural wiring, of how they are programmed to perceive themselves, the rest of the world, and the complex cluster of interactions between the former and the latter. To urge this course upon someone with anxiety is akin to suggesting that a depressed person simply “cheer up and see the bright side of life” or that a PTSD victim merely “get over the past and live in the now.”
In other words: The notion is idiotic at face value and insulting to those it presumably wishes to help.
So what advice would I give to the anxious of the world? It contains three parts:
1. Figure out, in point-by-point detail, exactly what you want your story to be.
Perhaps the worst aspect of living with anxiety is the constant uncertainty of not knowing who you are, what the events of your past really mean, and how you can reconcile those two into a plan for your future that you find satisfying. Fortunately, your anxiety gives you one tool for dealing with this: Because you have spent so much time obsessing over your past, dreaming about your future (both how it could go right and how it could go wrong), and analyzing your own mind and soul, you have a wealth of information that you can study. The two or three hours required to write everything down on a few sheets of notebook paper are well worth it; even if you get distracted, very often your distractions will take the form of some sort of escapism that can, in turn, shed light on some dimension of how you view yourself, the world, and your ambitions toward it.
The first step is getting all of the information about yourself onto paper. Even though it may seem like there is too much material to put down, you’ll be surprised at how quickly you start repeating yourself. Besides, even if you only jot down half of what is really stewing inside of you, that will still be more than enough to make enormous progress in the future.
2. Organize your notes into two sections: Character Study and Past Events.
Neither of these sections will be easy to write, but the Character Study is by far the toughest. To do this well, you need to avoid two pitfalls: (1) Allowing your delusions to give you an unrealistic sense of your own abilities (think of the humiliated contestants on “American Idol”) and (2) Allowing the cruel words and actions of those who wished to put you down to dictate how you perceive yourself. If you fall into the former trap, you will set yourself up for embarrassment and failure; if you fall into the latter, you’ll sell yourself short. Instead you should base your self-assessment on the positive things that people have said about you when they would have had no ulterior motive for doing so, the negative things that you sense are true not because someone else said but because you can see objective proof in your own life, and your own inner yearnings—i.e., who you want to be, and who you don’t want to be, regardless of what anyone else says or what you may yourself think to be true.
Never assume that if your past partners all had certain bad traits that this reflects on their entire gender; without exception, it is because you subconsciously picked partners with those bad traits.
Once you have done this, the next step is to organize every major event from your past according to some pattern that makes sense to you. While it helps to start by doing this chronologically, eventually you should start identifying major themes: Activities that you enjoy doing which could realistically turn into full-time job options for you; romantic and/or sexual relationships that turned out well or badly (or never happened at all) because of specific things that you did or consistently saw in your partners (never assume that if your past partners all had certain bad traits that this reflects on their entire gender; without exception, it is because you subconsciously picked partners with those bad traits); family relationships and friendships that, likewise, turned out well or badly because of recurring trends in how the people with whom you surrounded yourself behaved, and perhaps more importantly, how you behaved around them; hobbies that may not earn you money but which, if only indulged in limited quantities (e.g., one hour a day for six days of the week, then whole hog on the seventh), could provide you with the escape that you need in a manner that won’t hold you back in other areas of life.
3. Use your Character Study and Past Events notes to write up a plan for your future.
By the time you’ve finished with the Character Study and Past Events lists, you should have a pretty good idea of what kind of future would (a) make you happy and (b) be realistic. No matter what, do not allow even one detail of your future plans to deviate from the goals of making you happy and being realistically attainable. For the former, make sure that the day-to-day life you would lead if your goals were realized is one that you know from personal experience would make you happy; for the latter, make sure to write down every step that you would need to take (without exception) in order to get from where you are in the present to where you wish to be in the future. If even one step is unrealistic, the whole plan will be fatally compromised. Similarly, if you don’t include enough contingent plans and “worst case scenario” alternate possibilities with each step, you run the risk that a single detail going wrong will undermine your entire life’s plan. The steps must be flexible enough that they can accommodate unforeseeable bad news, but at the same time strong enough that they can take you to where you wish to be regardless of possible misfortune. If nothing else, try whenever possible to avoid including steps that depend too largely on variables (other people’s whims or opinions, winning a contest, etc.) that you can’t control. This won’t always be possible, but it should be minimized.
Instead of riling you up and weighing you down, you can harness your demons as if they were wild stallions and use their energy and focus to drive you forward.
After that, all you have to do is follow your notes. Even though you already knew everything that they contained before you started writing them down—after all, the entire writing process depended entirely on your own memory, so it would have literally been impossible for you to have not already known all of these things—the demon dread that once darted in and out of the shadows is now forced to stand in the clear light of day. What’s more, now that you have recorded and analyzed the demons’ whispers instead of pushing them out of your head, you can use them for your own purposes. Instead of riling you up and weighing you down, you can harness your demons as if they were wild stallions and use their energy and focus to drive you forward. Instead of simply needing to live with them, hoping that their damage to your life can be minimized, you can forge an uneasy alliance. You should never trust them, but you can at least force them to do some good.