Yearly Archives: 2011
Well, my neurotic friends, it’s that time of the week again … Anxiety Jukebox Friday! Today’s song is “High Anxiety,” by the Detroit punk band The Suicide Machines. (Not to be confused with the Mel Brooks song from the movie of the same name.) The song is off the band’s 2003 album “A Match and Some Gasoline.” Here’s a snippet from the lyrics:
This time I feel like I’m gonna die
cold sweat the fear is paralyzing
you know I wish that this was over and done
heart pounds I can feel it escalating
From the Washington Post, a Q&A with the psychiatrist Daniel Pine about children and fear. Here’s a snippet:
Q. Are there certain types of situations that tend to inspire fear in children and adolescents more readily than they do in adults? If so, why?
Pine: There is a very strong relationship between age and the types of fears that people report in many different cultures. This tells us that there is something fundamental about the development, as it relates to fear. This begins early in life with fears of strangers, followed by fear of separation. Next, fears of very particular objects and scenarios arise, typically around the school age years. This includes things like fears of animals, thunderstorms, and the dark. Next, in adolescence, fears of various types of social experiences take on prominence — fear of meeting new kids, particularly of the opposite gender. Finally, in early adulthood, fear focus on more abstract constructs, such as fear [of] not measuring up to one’s ideals, as a human.
Periodically on this blog we will be posting short videos from people who have experience with anxiety and have something to say about it. I call this series “Tales from the Amygdala” — the amygdalae being the almond-shaped structures that are thought to be the seat of fear in the human brain.
But another good name for the series is the It Might Not Get Better Project.
First up is a video from the wonderful comedian, writer, and human being Benari Poulten, a.k.a. G.I. Jew. Benari is an Army Reservist posted in sunny Kandahar, Afghanistan, which is where he recorded this video. The video is titled “Snakes, Death, and Pinecones.” Come home safe, Benari!
It is difficult to keep one’s focus after a day, let alone a week or month or lifetime, of anxiety. Being anxious is like being saddled with another mind — a second brain. Your first brain, your regular brain, is engaged in the tasks of the moment: making breakfast, taking a shower, answering emails, etc. Your second brain, meanwhile, is engaged in worrying — about everything. It is picking apart memory and sensation and interaction for things that suggest risk. It is monitoring the world. It is watching, vigilantly, for traps and pitfalls. So there you go, just another person on just another day, but you have two sets of controls that you must operate, two nervous systems operating simultaneously, like parallel processors. (I actually don’t know what a parallel processor is or does, but you get the point.) This can get very tiring very quickly. By lunchtime, anxious people tend to get detached and foggy. By dinnertime, they are yearning for unconsciousness.
(Disclaimer: this blog will propose many metaphors for anxiety over the ensuing months. Not all of them will work very well.)
This helps explain, I think, a certain distractible quality in the clinically anxious. As a class, we aren’t reliable. We tend to forget appointments and important occasions like anniversaries and birthdays, and we tend not to return phone calls on time.
And we tend to lose things.
This drives our spouses insane. Which makes us more anxious. Which makes us lose things more frequently. Which drives our spouse insane. And so on and so forth until the marriage counselor finds a way to break the cycle.
What I’m trying to say is: I lost my iPhone. I’d spent the day at the Central Park Zoo with my four-year-old daughter, which sounds nice but in fact would be a trial for even the sturdiest of constitutions. First there is the difficulty of entertaining a preschooler during a 30 minute subway ride. Then there is the difficulty of carrying the preschooler five blocks to the zoo because “her legs are tired.” Then there is the difficulty of navigating the Sunday zoo-and-park crowd, which is uncommonly German on this fine October morning. Then there is the difficulty of the depressed polar bear — the only attraction she likes — refusing to swim or walk or even lift its head, and the whining this engenders, and the refusal to eat lunch despite an clear case of low blood sugar, and the tears and the stamping of the feet and the going totally physically limp a la Vietnam War protestors being arrested and carried off to jail ca. 1968, and finally the total meltdown in the middle of a pathway stained with bird shit and hot-dog mustard.
And remember: there is a second, anxious brain going on all the while Brain #1 is dealing with the practical demands of parenthood.
And so, by the time we were on our way home—in a cab because she had fallen asleep in my lap on the subway back to Brooklyn—I had already progressed to the desire-for-a-coma stage of the anxiety sufferer’s day, and was no longer fit to be responsible for my own property. It took only 15 minutes for me to realize that I’d left the phone in the backseat of the cab. My wife called the car service later in the day, but so far no luck. No one’s returned the thing.
Someday some economist should calculate how much property loss per annum is attributable to people being too anxious to operate their own lives.
Half of the class brought up our anxiety to him, separately, myself included. Wallace himself hadn’t noticed the “ambient anxiety”; he praised our “esprit de corps.” He wondered whether there was something terrible on his face and invisible to him (this was a real, deep fear of his, he assured us: his acute social-anxiety disorder had been clinically diagnosed). “Dave,” I asked in his office, “how do you deal with anxiety?” He laughed, a little bemused. He told me not to keep all my problems in my head as he had in his youth. Yoga, he suggested. Meditation. He said he really wasn’t the person to ask.
Fridays are Anxiety Jukebox days here at the Chronicles. This means that every Friday, so long as I’m not paralyzed with self-hatred or indolence, I will bring you a song about, invoking, or (sometimes) intended to soothe anxiety.
First up is a lovely little ditty by Jeffrey Lewis called “Anxiety Attack.”
I’m an idiot. It’s a source of constant amazement how big of an idiot I insist on being.
I’ve been struggling with acute anxiety since I was 16 years old. During that time I’ve learned a number of things about how to keep my anxiety in check. Basically, it’s all about mental discipline. Anxiety floods your mind with unpleasant and unproductive thoughts: Things are ruined, Things are not now ruined but will soon be ruined, You yourself are the source of all manner of inevitable ruination, etc. etc. So it follows that what an anxious person needs to do is to find a way to stop those thoughts from coming, or, if that isn’t possible, to stop them from sticking around or talking so loudly once they do come.
I’ve discovered two very effective ways to accomplish this. The first is cognitive therapy, a type of psychotherapy that teaches you to attend to your automatic anxious thoughts and subject them to scrutiny. It’s like being a scientist observing your own neuroses, and it takes vigilance. You feel a flush of anxiety, you look at what you said to yourself just prior to that flush of anxiety, and then you ask yourself pointed questions about what you said. Did you have the thought, “My wife doesn’t love me anymore?” Well, what evidence do you have for this? Is it true? How can you be sure? If it does turn out to be true, what will be the results? Will you survive? Engaging in this exercise can be hard — at first it’s very hard — but it’s remarkably effective, for it treats anxious thoughts not as conclusions but as insidious propositions. And all propositions should be examined for accuracy.
The second method that helps mitigate my anxiety is meditation — specifically, Zen meditation. Like cognitive therapy, meditation is a discipline, but instead of capturing and scrutinizing thoughts as if they were butterflies to be pinned down meditation teaches you not to cling to your anxious thoughts. But “just sitting” — which is the creed of the Zen tradition I have practiced — you learn not to assign so much weight to the thoughts that come into your head. You learn to think of your brain as a sort of gland, a gland whose nature it is to secrete thoughts. These secretions won’t kill you. They aren’t true or absolute or permanent. They are fleeting things, and you do not need to hold onto them or covet them. Your job, in fact, is to let them come and go, so that you can remain in the present moment.
These two disciplines — cognitive therapy and Zen meditation — have, at various times in my life, helped me immensely. And yet I am an idiot because although I know damned well that they help me immensely, I refuse to do them. It’s so dumb. Time and time again, I rediscover the lesson that my anxiety is not a fait accompli. There are things I can do to help myself, if I would only spend 10 minutes a day — just 10 minutes, that’s all it takes! — doing them. So I do those things. I scrutinize my thoughts, or I sit on a folded pillow and count my breaths. And I feel better.
Then, feeling better, I stop doing those things. I become complacent. Worse, I fall back into behaviors that are self-defeating and anxiety-provoking. For example: drinking coffee. A person like me should not be drinking coffee. Giving me coffee is like giving a squirrel crystal meth. Yet I keep drinking coffee!
Also: drinking to excess. If I go out and have several drinks, I will feel very good in the moment. But when the drunkenness wears off, I will inevitably start obsessing about the things I may or may not have said while I was drunk. I will wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, and lose sleep, and the next day will be ruined. Yet I keep drinking to excess!
And so the neurotic pendulum swings back and forth: self-discipline, stupidity, self-discipline, stupidity, self-discipline, stupidity. Right now I’m in a stupid upswing. May the pendulum swing back soon.
Via the inimitable Mike Daisey — whose really remarkable show “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” is opening at the Public Theater next week (if you live in New York, do yourself a favor and go see it) — comes this bit of wisdom from Steve Jobs: “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked.”
Jobs made this remark during a commencement address he delivered at Stanford in 2005. A year earlier — as the world knows — he’d been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and given 3-to-6 months to live. The doctors soon revised the prognosis, and of course he held on for another seven years, but for a little while there he had to sit with the knowledge that it was soon going to be over. That’s it. Poof: The End is Nigh. And the point Jobs makes in his Stanford speech is that those hours of having to face his mortality, I mean really face it, merely made concrete the creed by which he had always lived his life — the creed that Daisey posted just minutes after Jobs died.
Now: what Jobs said to those Stanford seniors wasn’t very original. “Live every day as if it were your last” is one of the hoariest commencement clichés in the book, and actually a kind of oppressive thing to say to twenty-one-year-olds who are about to go off and get desperately drunk. (I always find it a little shitty and mean when commencement speakers beat kids over the head with impossible goals and Polonius-like ideals. Where’s the commencement speaker who will admit to spending four days in his underwear eating Costco-brand cashews and Diet Dr. Pepper? Call me, Princeton!) But the very amazing and awe-inspiring and scary thing about Steve Jobs meting out this advice is … he actually appears to mean it.
That is, he actually appears to have woken up most days of his life and taken the broadest possible existential perspective. He actually appears to have been one of those rare people who kept his own death — and the death of everything, the passing of everything — firmly in mind, so that he could move from morning to night without fear.
I’m pretty sure he didn’t do this everyday. He even implies, in his Stanford speech, that he didn’t do it everyday. But he did it a lot, and from this — what to call it? this apocalyptic nerve, this acute awareness that we’re only going around once so you might as well make it count — from this came … everything. All his accomplishments. All the innovations, all the creativity, all the success. Everything he packed into his 56 years.
This is incredible to me. It’s stunning. To me, Jobs represents a photographic negative of the anxious life, since anxiety is essentially a condition in which the sort of global perspective he upheld is totally, horrifyingly eclipsed by whatever cloud of petty concerns happens to be hovering around your head that day. To me, Jobs will always be a kind of anti-anxious god.
To all the nervous and the neurotic; to the obsessive and the compulsive and the obsessive-compulsive; to the traumatized, the walking wounded, the brooders and the worriers, the nail-biters and the chronic sweaters; to the oversensitive and the high-strung; to the agitated and the easily excited; to the tense, the restless, the timid, the shy, the fearful, the overwhelmed, the apprehensive, the hysterical, the sleepless, the stressed out … to all of you I say: Welcome, comrades, to the Monkey Mind Chronicles!
Here you will find, as the description above states, stories, advice, and information about living with anxiety, from one who knows. Oh, I know, friends. I know! I know what it’s like to feel that knot in your stomach, that cold ache in your chest. I know what it’s like to feel your thoughts spinning out of control and your worries taking over. I know what it’s like when your logical mind packs its suitcase and leaves town and you feel for all the world as if you were going crazy or about to die, even though everything is the same as it’s always been and everyone around you is acting as if catastrophe were not about to crash down on your shoulders, the idiots. I know what it’s like to sit in a therapist’s office and wail for the shrink to help you — now, immediately, this very moment, before the nervous energy gets so bad that your hair catches on fire and you go running into the street. I know what it’s like to walk around town with a container of Xanax rattling in your pocket and Band-Aids on your chewed-up fingertips.
I know what it’s like to believe that this is a work not of Expressionism but rather of the most concrete and meticulous realism:
I know these things, I have known them for a long time, and I would like to share with you what I know about anxiety. And, in return, I would like you to share with me what you know about living with anxiety.
Why? Because together we might learn a few things about what anxiety is, and what it means, and how to combat it. And because there are a lot of us — more than fifty million and counting, just in the U.S. — and we might as well talk. We might as well gather and trade notes. Who knows? It might just help.