I’ve thought about this question all day today. I’m a nervous guy. My baseline feeling is nervous, but things can certainly get a lot worse under certain conditions, ranging from mild discomfort, sleep deprivation to a dozen panic attacks per day. I’ve come to realize that anxiety is a big part of who I am. I have learned to some extent how to accept that fact in my life. It will not go away. In fact, in some ways it made me excel at things, but despite it being 16 years since I first experienced a panic attack, I have not fully embraced every bit of it yet. On the worst days, it becomes easy to refuse the acceptance.
I could go on and list a range of things and subjects that make me nervous, but who the hell cares? I think what’s much more interesting is understanding how I typically deal with my anxieties.
I learned quite early that the best way to beat unnecessary fear of all levels is to move towards it. By repeatingly showing your brain that it doesn’t need to go into fight or flight mode at every turn of a corner, it actually learns how to label certain things as ‘safe’. No more anxiety. I have dozens of examples. Fear of heights? For a while I had mostly overcome it, by regular rope climbing, bouldering and via ferrata. Fear of public speaking? I became teaching assistant, then an active teacher at university, and a regular presenter at conferences. Afraid of sharing my opinion? I started a PhD and finished it, I started a daily blog where I would post something ‘mine’ every day. I decided I would not be afraid to look stupid, in conversations, on my blog or elsewhere, and overcame a lot of fear through that. Fear of public spaces (lecture halls… Brrr!)? Go to large conferences and as many of them as possible. Feel the fear and nerves, but go there anyway. I told myself I could sit in the back and close to the door, but I could never leave the room. Exposure has had a tremendous impact on my mental wellbeing.
I could go on and on, because I have a list of examples, but I think the point is clear. Fear dissolves best when you move towards it, not run away. (Okay, I’m talking irrational fear. If you’re facing a tiger, just fucking get out of there, unless you are confident that you can knock the fucker out!)
Now I’m not sure about the other people suffering anxiety disorders, but for me, my brain will find two new things to freak out about for every thing I labeled safe.
And that kind of sucks.
It does give me great food for thought, to learn about myself. Fodder for therapy. I’m still trying to understand if there are any patterns?
What I’ve learned over the past years, is that I’m kind of a control freak. I never realized this before, but many of my fears are entirely based in not being (able to be) in control of the situation.
Example 1: my recent decision to leave my email unchecked in evenings and weekends gives me the feeling of not being in control. I open emails every morning with great fear of what comes up. Irrational? Yes! So exposure is the way to go, and it will dissolve
Example 2: my future career, as any early career in academia, is uncertain. I have a fixed term appointment, and after this that could be it. Two years to go, which is a luxury in a way, but I am not in control of available positions and hiring committees. The thought alone induces panic diarhaea. It’s bloody awful. This is partly irrational, but not entirely. Exposure would be living on the edge, and forever go for temporary contracts, but I don’t think I can…
Example 3: a gazillion tasks (particularly admin stuff) that suddenly come out of nowhere and need to happen yesterday. Even if it probably takes two hours to arrange them, this sort of shit – not being in control of my own planning – blows up in my head and shifts my mental state all over the place. Exposure is the way. Don’t send me requests!
Not being in control, or fear of losing control is really the only thing that makes me really nervous.
I have yet to learn how to strategically let go of that or solve that through exposure therapy. The thought of it alone makes my head spin.
Other control freaks around with any good advice of how to let stuff go, or how to care less? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email.