Dealing with Anxiety

Anxiety is an interesting topic for me as I think it is something I understand very differently to most people. Due to the way I process emotions, I tend to have thinking habits which would trigger anxiety in a person who is prone to it and that occasionally present in unusual ways.

For me, I tend to treat life challenges as puzzles which need to be solved. As such, I will hyperfixate on a situation in my life which isn’t going the way I want it to or events from my past which had a negative outcome. Whether that’s an event where things I said in a public forum resulted in my admission to the ER with severe facial trauma requiring reconstructive surgery or a messy break up, I’m likely to analyze every tiny element of a situation to better understand the mistakes I made and what life lessons I can pull from those events to better equip me for handling similar situations in the future. This kind of thinking is well documented as contributing to anxiety but for me it is about as emotionally distressing as working out a sudoku… albeit a little more complicated.

I’ve found that the major difference in how I approach these puzzles is the kind of solution I am prepared to accept as a correct answer. For me, it isn’t about finding a “good” outcome, but rather an “optimal” outcome. I think people get stuck in anxiety inducing thought spirals because they are looking for an answer that doesn’t exist. Whether they are worrying about the future or ruminating over the past, the focus seems to be on what went wrong or how the unpleasantness could have been entirely avoided. The subtle difference is that my approach is searching for viable and practical answers. I want to know what the warning signs are so I can identify when I am in a similar situation. Not to avoid it, but to handle it correctly and in a way that will minimize harm and maximize gain. The distinction is that when searching for an “optimal” solution, a “less bad” result is an acceptable answer.

For somebody who frequently finds themselves spiraling into this kind of intrusive thought, a common piece of advice is to find distractions and think about something else, avoiding anything that may trigger unpleasant emotional states. A weakness of this approach is that the question is left hanging and the mind will inevitably come back to it. My unconventional suggestion is to instead redirect this compulsive thinking toward a clear goal of identifying a useful life lesson which can be practically applied in future situations. The unpleasant emotions associated with the event will still come, but rather than trying to avoid them instead guide your mind through those thoughts toward a resolution of a question which can be answered. This subtle change doesn’t stop your mind from slipping into this state, but it does provide a path to eventually exit the spiral. By adapting the automatic response to this kind of thinking to be about finding an optimal solution, it sets up a point some time in the future where the answer to this question is known and entering into this line of thinking will automatically result in a rapid journey to the finish line and the triggers that one would have caused an anxiety spiral instead take the mind on a linear path to a pre-calculated conclusion and that particular trigger is no longer a hazard but simply a reminder of life lessons learned.

There have been times when I’ve been using this approach where I have discovered my body doing unusual things. I’ll be sweating, shivering, my heart racing and my chest feeling tight. These are all physical symptoms of a panic attack, yet the emotional experience is off in some part of my brain which my conscious mind doesn’t have direct access to. When I find myself in this kind of state it is generally an inconvenience since it is distracting me from a puzzle right at the most interesting point, but I choose to respect that my body is struggling and is rebelling against the thought process. Rather than choosing a new topic to think about in these situations, I’ve learned to use this information as a prompt to reassess the kinds of solution I am prepared to accept. If I’m calculating how to preserve a romantic relationship which is falling apart this might take the form of instead attempting to preserve the people involved and facilitate an amicable break up rather than fighting a losing battle to hold together a relationship which has passed the point of being salvageable in its current form. In an employment context it might mean a shift in thinking from trying not to get fired to instead try to negotiate four weeks notice and leave without pay in lieu of termination effective immediately (for the benefit of applying for jobs while technically “employed”), or maybe even trying to get the manager to say something on record that can be used against them later. Shifting from a puzzle with no clear solution to one which can be solved to a satisfactory level in a relatively short space of time can allow the body to experience the euphoria which comes with a resolution even while in the midst of an evolving situation.

For a neurotypical person to apply this technique it would require a somewhat foundational shift in values. One would need to shift from a system of pain and risk avoidance to a system of pleasure and value seeking as a primary motivator. If you can learn to perceive pain as simply something that your experience on the path toward valuable things rather than something that needs to be avoided at any cost then sensations like anxiety cease to hold the power to control you. Sure, you’ll experience negative emotions sometimes and might even get pulled into the kind of thinking that triggers anxiety, but that doesn’t need to be viewed as a bad thing and can instead simply be a part of the process of preparing yourself for success. For somebody who is able to brave the worst of what their brain can throw at them and come out the other side stronger, there is a certain power and sense of accomplishment which can be found that is beyond the experience of both a person who flees emotional pain or who fails to perceive it at all.

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