Anxiety is such a misunderstood concept in our modern world. Its the invisible epidemic that affects millions of people. People you respect and admire, people you abuse and people that you aren't even aware of.
I'm sitting in a coffee shop writing this post. Every now and then, I look up from my laptop to look at people. I mean really look at people. Not judge them on what they are wearing or how they are chewing their food, but to see if its possible to decipher what they are struggling with.
My conclusion: It’s not possible to know. That's such a dangerous conclusion. Any single person sitting around me could have the most horrific pain festering inside them. Abuse, misunderstanding, financial problems, miscarriages, bad life decisions, or maybe, maybe they are like me? Maybe they are concerned about everything; maybe they carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, the worries that “normal” people don't bother worrying about, the worst case scenarios and the impossible situations they feel like they need to solve.
I believe everyone experiences anxiety sooner or later in life. It may be once off, it may be once every few years, or it maybe every single day. In my case my anxiety is triggered by 4 categories:
Before I explain these triggers I feel like I should let you know that I am a high functioning, smart, not-so-bad-looking talented individual who builds complex web experiences for a living. I’ve travelled the world by myself, been in plenty of relationships and have loyal friends who I share incredibly fond memories with. The quintessential boy next door.
For all my perceived success and wonderful life, I carry a dark force with me. A demon if you will, that is relentless, a demon I do battle with every single day. Most people think that anxiety is a “modern-age” illness. Something that has developed out of our world constantly evolving, getting faster, better and noisier. However, some written texts about our so-called “modern-age” anxiety actually go back to Hippocrates time.
Hippocrates documented a man named Nicanor who had a phobia of musicians playing the flute. As soon as air was blown through the instrument, specifically at night time, he couldn't bear it and had to remove himself from the sounds reach. If it was during the daytime, he didn't struggle at all. This was a man, who lived in a far simpler time, whose mind was battling with anxiety over something he shouldn't have been afraid of. Food for thought…
It's not that I don't socialize, but I do struggle with it. The anticipation of being present in a group of people that a) I don't know or b) may not align with my values and beliefs is terrifying to me. In the 21st century, we judge people before we’re even aware of it. We judge the hipster wearing his 1980’s vintage shorts and long socks, we judge the guy driving the BMW to be an asshole. The judgements are made within a split second without even uttering a word to the person in question.
Big groups are hard to navigate for me. I start to lose my identity as I feel like I have to compensate for everyone else's identity. Each person in the group gets a piece of my identity that I feel like they may need in order for them to accept me. In a group of 5–10 people, this gets tiring, exhausting in fact, so after a few hours, I'm finished. I have no more of my “faux self” to give, what's the point anyhow if I'm not really giving them real pieces of who I am.
I love to travel. I love seeing new places and living with the idea that one day when I have kids they can ask me all the questions that I asked my Dad from his travel hay-days, if there is anything I wish to pass on to my future kids, it would be that intangible knowledge on how to survive outside of your safety zone.
That being said, my anxiety peaks around travel. Travel, in essence, is about accepting your lack of control and familiarity. New places equal new experiences, change, resourcefulness and spontaneity. It means that you put your life and safety in other peoples hands. The pilot, the immigration officer, the bus driver, the train conductor — its all up to the responsibility of other people to decide whether you’re okay or not and furthermore or your own resourcefulness and commonsense which can be a difficult monster to do battle with when you have low self-confidence.
Sigmund Freud said:
Civilized people have exchanged some part of their chances of happiness for a measure of security.
How many decisions do you make each day that has to do with your safety? I’ve grown up in South Africa, a country with high poverty and unemployment rates. Where 80% of the country is less fortunate than I am. Crime, murder, rape, muggings, break-ins are common here, you don't leave your front door unlocked, you don't leave your garage open, you check and triple check your car is locked, to what end? Making sure you’re safe.
Every decision you make becomes about safety: don't drive through that area, don't live in that place, don't walk down that street, don't take that train, don't take that taxi. For 29 years this has been my reality and South Africans are not the only ones that the above applies to. I am preconditioned to be cynical, paranoid, prepared for the worst. Is it so crazy that that mentality seeps into other parts of my life? I don't think so.
Delayed flights, boarding procedures, airport security and baggage claim are all part of a process which requires me to let go of my control and put my faith in other peoples competence, which is a long shot on a good day. I worry about not getting enough overhead cabin space, my bags not arriving off the plane, missing flights, and even though I have nothing to hide, going through airport security multiple times is just tedious, as someone who suffers from generalized anxiety, the combination of all these variables make it exceedingly overwhelming to travel.
To a degree, work is one of the few aspects of my life that I feel I have more control over. It can be less emotional, less ambiguous and easier to get gratification based on quantifiable outcomes. Thus, work has always been a safe haven for me, but something that I am very scared of losing or for that matter, not doing my absolute best at.
I have a serious drive to succeed in the business world and its where I get a lot of my self-confidence from, but the level of expectation I place on myself causes a lot of anxiety in itself. Self-doubt is a big issue, not performing as well as you would have liked to and the need (especially in my industry) to constantly upskill and further your knowledge feels like treading water in an ever-deepening world of innovation, new technologies and methodologies. I often wonder if my occupation has in fact added to my anxiety. Maybe more so than what other industries would have as few industries change this quickly, this often.
For the most part, navigating relationships is like being in the trenches for me. Due to a lack of self-confidence, I’ve resorted to an elevated level of empathy as a fix. What does that mean?
I sacrifice what's best for me, so you can have what's best for you.
I'm indecisive because I don't want to make any mistakes by you, and all I really want is for us to be perfect. An incredibly high pedestal to position anyone on not only myself on, but anyone involved with me.
By behaving this way, I'm disappointed more often. I feel let down and I beat myself up more often. It’s a terrible downward spiral that generally results in a loss of trust, on both sides as well as unspoken feelings and flaring tempers. Relationships are not easy at the best of times, but when it comes to being a relationship with someone who suffers from anxiety, it adds another level of complexity. People who suffer from anxiety on some level expect understanding and empathy because their natural reaction to the pain of the world is giving out understanding and empathy to others. Even if they may not deserve it.
When I'm in a situation I feel uncomfortable in, I probably have about 20–25 thoughts a minute, varying from how to get out of the situation, what would sound convincing enough to get me out of the situation without any questions asked to completely detaching from the situation. My mind will in fact even sometimes go as far as to find a work problem (or create one) and start solving that — remember, work is where I get my confidence from so it's an easy neurological path for my brain to run down when I get into a situation where I'm not feeling comfortable.
In fact, even talking about work to others makes me feel more confident — probably to the point where it gets super irritating.
What's more is I'm actually ashamed of my GAD. I feel responsible for not only my actions but the reactions of the people that are directly affected by my own actions. Day to day life is a constant struggle of being scared to make a choice, dreading the consequences of others opinions and judgement and still somehow being able to feel confident that the decision you’ve made is the right one for you, not anyone else.
Well, can you fix anxiety? I'm not convinced. Can you manage it? Yes. I don't see a day in my life where I won’t worry about something, I do see a day where I can manage my worry a lot better. In all honesty, the last 10 years I’ve spent completely ignoring “me”. My focus has been on career, getting further, getting more things, apartments, cars and “living the dream” if we want to use the cliche.
I’ve developed manifestations of things that are wrong in the outside world, but the real problems aren't outside, they are inside. As the years have gone by, I’ve left these wounds to fester, pretending like they don't hurt, pretending like they don't even exist. Imagine having been stabbed in the leg and carried on walking around as if it hadn't happened. What I’ve done to myself is no different.
I don't have a concluding paragraph which tells you how to manage anxiety, what I can tell you is what I plan on doing so maybe it will give you a few ideas. I plan on implementing the following in my life:
- Quit drinking alcohol — go straight edge for all intensive purposes.
- Find a mindfulness course to attend — my mind either crucifies me for past mistakes or causes me untold misery when contemplating the future.
- I run outdoors a lot, but not nearly enough and I'm neglecting other parts of my body. So, something more challenging and something that will make me stronger overall, maybe Crossfit, or something that will really show results.
- Kill the coffee — I want to be less anxious, but I love drinking coffee. More caffeine equals more adrenaline, more adrenaline equals a heightened perception of reality. I already have an issue with my perception of reality, so best not to make it worse. Plus, I think I’d save a ton of money.
- Time to go back to therapy. I used to get pissed off with therapy. Its time consuming, it's costly, and you seem to make little progress. But in retrospect, the progress is underneath the surface, its subtle and slow moving.
- Learn how to communicate. That statement is a dime a dozen, but I don't necessarily mean how to communicate with others, I need to learn how to communicate with myself before I can communicate with others.
I really would like to hear your struggles about anxiety and how you’ve got through them. I'm just one person with unique experiences and so are you. We should be helping each other grow. Thanks for listening!