“Becomes less anxious by not caring so much about your anxious thoughts and feelings (let them be and don’t fight them).”
The above tip is from Stephen Guise‘s book, How to Be an Imperfectionist. I did a full review for the book here.
(Just let me say that if you’ve ever struggled in life by being a perfectionist – not starting something because the conditions weren’t right, being so worried about making mistakes that you won’t talk to that person at the store, not finishing x project because it’s not just….right… – but also secretly thought being a perfectionist was like the perfect weakness…please read it.)
He has a lot of great tips, but one thing he mentioned was how being a perfectionist can lead to or be caused by depression or anxiety. As that’s something I’m really struggling with these days, this tip immediately caught my eye.*
It seems trite. Just don’t care. Huh. Right. Like telling an angry person, “calm down.” Fan the flames, why don’t you?
But it’s good advice. It’s the same advice I get in my meditation practice. I start feeling anxious and then get more anxious because I’m worried about the anxiety. And Guise himself has struggled, so he’s not coming from an outsider’s perspective on this.
Getting caught up in the negative spiral of anxiety or depression is part of why it’s so damned hard to get rid of it.
So let it go. Here’s my thought process; I feel bad. Okay, who cares? Keep working on this project. I feel sick. Okay, don’t care about that. Go lie down and sleep. Crap, I can’t sleep, my mind’s all worked up. Okay, that’s fine, your body could use the lie-down and if you don’t sleep, that’s okay. I keep waking up in the middle of the night. Okay, don’t care about that, just try to sleep again tomorrow. I’m having a panic attack. Okay, don’t care about that. You know what those are like. Just let it pass. No, this time I’m really dying, because x is happening. Okay, no you’re not. Don’t worry. You know this drill. It’s your brain. Let it pass. Don’t care about it.
In other words, don’t worry about the fact that you worry. As I said, this is the same advice as I get in meditation. I’m doing the anxiety pack on Headspace, and it says that the point of the exercise is not to get rid of anxiety. That’s impossible. Everyone will feel anxious in some situations. The point is to change our relationship to the anxiety. See it come, note it, let it go. Or, as Guise says, don’t care.
The first day I read it, I was having a good day. It was easy to pump my fist and say YES. The first test came the next day.
Since I came back from Korea – maybe jetlag, maybe not – around 2 or 3 in the afternoon, I get in a low mood. Not necessarily sad or emotional or angry or depressed, just low. No energy, no desire to do anything. And not really sleepy, but wanting to sleep.
It wasn’t fun. I moped around for a few minutes, reading back over the note I’d made on the tip to not care. I tried a power pose. That helped a bit. Got me in the mindset. Then I decided to ignore the mildly unpleasant feelings (not mild enough to operate normally, but not catastrophic enough to actually merit me stopping what I was doing), and read. I read for about an hour, and when I reached a good stopping point, was sufficiently distracted from my feelings to get back to the art project I was working on.
I think of it like craving displacement. When you’re dieting, one thing that’s hard to overcome is the craving for treats. If you can wait fifteen minutes and distract yourself with something else (like really distract, not do something all the while thinking of the thing), then most of the time the craving fades (I heard about this in Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before – another great book).
Cut to two hours after I first started feeling bad and I was fine again. I had successfully not cared and ignored the bad feelings, continuing to operate through them, and had come out feeling good again.
Now, in comparison, the previous week, I’d felt the same way two days in a row, and had opted for a nap both days. The naps resulted in no sleep, but tossing and turning in frustration over the anxiety, worry over the low mood, and anger that I had to deal with it at all. A vicious cycle.
Overall I think my first trial was pretty successful. It was a small exercise in it, but I hope to make it so habitual I can work through even worse situations.
I haven’t been going many places for fear of having more attacks (thanks, agoraphobia, you SUCK), but when I do, this attitude (not worry about the worry, or the anxiety, or the vague unpleasant feelings) has helped.
Since I first started writing this post, the day I read the tip, I’ve had a few more times to test it. I got through a six hour D&D session just fine. I had some moments where I felt the fatigue setting in – something I would normally worry over – and decided not to care about it and keep being in the room and paying attention.
I had another panic attack (and possibly a second) this past week, and though it’s always painful and irritating, I felt those feelings and let them go, just lying down until they had passed, not worrying about the fact that I was having one. It helped me sleep better afterwards.
I’m calling it a success so far. I still need practice, but I’m going to hang on to this idea for all it’s worth.
What’s your favorite at-home method for dealing with anxiety?
*This is not medical or psychiatric advice. This tip, meditation, and other forms of self-care do NOT replace medical help or medication. I’m still seeing doctors, on medication, and going to therapy. At-home tips help, but they should never be used as a fail-proof, cure-all method. Every person will have a different reason and different struggle with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, so make sure to see a doctor or psychiatrist!