Monday, April 28, 2014

Worry, Anxiety, and Uncertainty

I've been told I overthink things.

To some degree this is little more than a loveable quirk (at least I hope it's loveable). I often take things I've observed, and try to dissect them as much as I can, often to the point of absurdity.

Recently, for example, I noticed that I had been reading more works of nonfiction than fiction. I was fascinated with this, and brought it up to my friends. I asked "When did this happen? Why did it occur? Do fiction books just not interest me as much anymore? Was I ever really that into fiction books?" For my friends, the reaction was mostly a combination of bemusement and exhaustion. It wasn't the first time I'd overanalyzed something as simple as me changing my preference of literature.

Unfortunately, my tendency to overthink isn't limited just to little things like that. I overthink everything. I dissect them, analyze them, ruminate over them. Often I overthink the things I fear might happen, or the things I don't know. And then I overthink them more. And more. And more.

Other words for it are anxiety, and in extreme cases obsession. It can be found in OCD, ADHD, and GAD, among doubtless many other conditions. The point is the same: there are thoughts, and I cannot let them go.

Let me give an example. For as long as I can remember, I've been afraid of brain damage. I fear it happening to me, and I fear the effects it could have on my personality, my beliefs, and my relationships with other people. I fear the philosophical possibility that if I suffer brain damage, that I cease to be myself.

I'm sure many other people have these fears from time to time. The difference for me is the immediacy and intensity with which I feel them, so that I feel not that brain damage might happen, but that it will. Several weeks ago, I spent an entire afternoon caught up in these fears of brain damage. I researched philosophical theories of the relationship between the mind and brain, theories of personality and the self. In my fear I bought a book how to live with brain trauma. I began feeling psychosomatic sensations in my head, minor throbbings and lightheadedness, and became paranoid that these were the precursor of an aneurysm, or an unnoticed concussion. All of this culminated in a point where I had checked myself into the school mental health counseling services, and broke down in despair over what brain damage might do to me.

I have not had brain damage. There was no reason for me to assume I had that likelihood in the near future. My family had shown no previous risk for strokes or the like, and I was not engaged in any high-risk activities that would put me at risk for brain damage. Even if I did suffer brain damage, there was no reason to believe it would affect me in the horrid, personality-effacing ways that I feared it would. All of that didn't make a difference to me. It could happen, there was nothing to prevent it from happening, and therefore my mind interpreted that it would, in the worst possible way.

That's an extreme example, but the same phenomenon occurs again and again in my life. These questions include, but are not limited to:
  • Is there a God? (And other philosophical questions)
  • Does someone I care about really love me?
  • Do I really love the people I think I care about?
  • Do I have some early stage of cancer right now but don't know it yet? 
  • Is this future event going to turn out the way I want it to, or  fear it will?
A common thread throughout is that all of these questions are things there are no easily knowable answers to. Take love for example. I want to think I love other people, but how do I know truly? Is there some test I can take to verify that the emotion I feel is love? What if I'm only convincing myself I'm feeling love? What if there's no such thing as love? I don't know, so I try to dissect every feeling, every thought, analyze it and reduce it, and ask myself "is this love? Am I feeling love?"

Unfortunately for me, there is no answer to this, or at least none that our society currently knows. Philosophers have been debating love for thousands of years, and if I were to take a guess, I'd say they'll be debating it for thousands of years more. We can put our stock in one view of love or another, but in the end there's no way we can guarantee that we have the right idea.

And that's where the anxiety comes in. Anxiety is about trying to get certainty in things we can't be certain about. We want to know about our future, about our relationships, about God, as clearly and certainly as we know the time of day. We want certainty, but we can't get it, so we become miserable thinking about the things we can't be certain about.

Often, when faced with this anxiety and uncertainty, our first response is to double down on our desire for certainty, often through checking behaviors. We try to do what we can to be as certain as we can be, even if what we can do doesn't actually leave us any more certain. A person afraid of catching disease may frequently wash his hands. A person who is insecure about their relationships may constantly apologize to other people for some wrongs they think they have done. Someone who is worried about whether there is or is not a God may spend a great deal of time reading philosophical works on the divine in search of an answer.

Unfortunately, all of these techniques are temporary solutions, and often can be more problematic in the long-term than they help in the short term. If someone feels they have to constantly wash their hands to prevent from catching disease, they build up the fear of the disease in their mind, and become increasingly anxious the longer they go without washing their hands. Someone who constantly apologizes for perceived wrongdoings in relationships may tire his loved ones through constant apologizing, ironically making the success of relationships less certain than if he did nothing at all. And with philosophy, well, men have been debating these things for thousands of years. We haven't gotten a certain answer yet, and continued readings of philosophy will only make that uncertainty all the more pronounced.

Yet for the anxious mind, what else can they do? When I have felt acute anxiety over something, I feel like the only thing I can do is, if I cannot be certain, to get as close to certainty as I can. Yet there's only so close one can get to certainty. No matter what I do, there will always be a gap between what I know and what I want to know, and there is no way to bridge that.

The only option, then, is to accept it.

When I first heard that suggestion, I bucked it as hard as I could. I couldn't imagine accepting the things I feared would happen, because in my mind that was as good as allowing them to happen, to admit defeat and give into the real possibly of my worst fears being realized.

But the possibility was always there. Most of the time, worrying about those fears doesn't prevent them from occurring, it just make the interim until/if they occur all the harder to bear. No matter what I do, no matter what I think, the things I worry about can still happen. I may get cancer. I may lose my loved ones. I may get brain damage and may through brain damage have my personality inexorably erased from existence.

But so far, none of those things have happened. So far, all that I have done is worry about them. And worry. And worry. My quality of life has been lowered over things that have not even happened yet, if they happen at all.

One may still be resistant about giving up their anxiety. One may argue that their anxiety has been useful, where by worrying about things they then do things to prevent the things they worry about from happening. And that may be the case for mild anxiety.

But for more severe cases. Cases like my own, I've found the exact opposite.

Often when I worry, I don't prevent the things I fear from happening; I make them all the more likely. By fearing bad outcomes to such a severe extent, I impair myself, and reduce my ability to function properly. When I've worried about a test or an assignment, I become paralyzed with fear, and avoid starting the project, or working on it as much as I should, because of how deeply I associate the project with the uncomfortable fear of failure. With friendships and other relationships, I become so worried about losing them that I no longer able to function normally in them, in the ways that started those relationships in the first place. I become visibly anxious and uncomfortable around them, and the other person does not want to be around someone like that, and so they begin to drift away. Which causes me to become more anxious. Which causes them to drift away.

Maybe for some of those cases, my anxiety didn't make things worse. Maybe in some of those cases, my anxiety had no effect on what was going to happen, or even delayed it. Maybe in some cases, my anxiety has actually prevented some of the things I worry about from coming to fruition. I can't think of any, and I seriously doubt there were more than a few, if any at all, but it's possible.

It's still not worth it.

I'm afraid of many things because I fear they will ruin my life. But anxiety has already done that for them. Anxiety has taken away my ability to enjoy the world from day to day, and has left me in constant fear of the future. Anxiety has made me paranoid and insecure, constantly worrying that I'm doing something wrong, or putting myself at risk. Anxiety has curled up inside of me like a parasite, and eaten me up from the inside.

And I want it to stop.

We can't always change the things we want to. We can't always know the things we want to. In those cases, all we can do is accept.

Accept all the things we do not know, and cannot be certain about. Accept that we will not get the answers to many of our questions for a very long time, if we ever will. Acknowledge that we are suffering greatly in our anxiety over the things which we do not know, and that worrying about them is unlikely to change the outcome of the things we worry about (they may even make the bad outcomes we worry about more likely!). The things we are afraid of may happen, and if/when they happen, they may be very hard to deal with. But we cause ourselves a great deal of misery now about something that hasn't happened yet, and may never happen.

Do we want to live in a world where we're constantly worrying over the things we don't know? How much better could our lives be if we could acknowledge the things we don't know, accept that the worst may happen, and still strive to live the best lives we can at this moment in time?

Jonathan Grayson, author of the book "Freedom from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder", from which I've drawn a great deal of material for this post, said in his book that "Living with uncertainty means choosing to cope with whatever may happen. There is no alternative." He is right. We have no other option, save to continue to suffer and agonize over the countless things we do not know, and that is no option at all. To get better, and to free ourselves from our anxiety and obsessions by no longer letting ourselves be in fear over them, is the only option we have. And we can begin the process now.

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