Anxiety Distilled

June 01, 2021

This is a bit of a departure from discussions about technology, but I believe in transparency and authenticity, so it is worth sharing something personal.

For anyone who has or is dealing with anxiety or depression, please use your best judgement if reading further. It is likely that some of the concepts can be a trigger.

Ryan Reynolds recently discussed his own struggles with anxiety. This hits home for me. I’ve struggled with clinical anxiety for about 4 decades. It’s hard.

Very hard.

To be clear, I’m specifically referring to anxiety of clinical origin, where it exists as a function of brain chemistry.

Recognition

Reaching a diagnosis can be a challenge, because you have no idea what is wrong with you. In many cases, only the extreme aspects of the disorder (freaking out, panicking) are immediately apparent. Trying to isolate anxiety as a root cause can prove to be elusive.

If you’ve experienced these extremes for any amount of time, you’ve more than likely and come to learn that it is “a panic attack”. You might be the type of person who thinks that they can rationalize themselves out of the attack. We know that it isn’t rational. Do you take your pulse, and find that it’s normal? Maybe you’ve gone as far as to pick up a device that can take your own blood pressure. That’s usually fine too. Have you gone to the emergency room only to be told everything is fine? Yeah, I have too.

Sometimes there is no rhyme or reason to it. You might be having a fantastic day, when panic strikes. I recall sitting through meetings in a complete state of panic, for no reason. Nothing bad was happening.

You don’t want to tell anyone, because it feels completely real to you. It’s terrifying, yet there is no evidence that anything is physiologically wrong with you based on a basic triage of your vitals.

It’s embarrassing. Even as I try to open up about it now, it’s difficult to write about.

Beyond the extreme symptoms, anxiety is also a silent catalyst for many day-to-day interactions. Your mood, thought process, communication style, body language are all affected. It is much more than just extreme symptoms. There is a baseline monotonous anxiety that permeates through everything.

Anxiety is powerful enough to skew your perception of time. There is an irrational and extreme attachment to the outcomes and consequences of daily occurrences. Things like being late, or waiting for test results, or dealing with an outcome that isn’t going to play out for a few days are all good examples where we struggle to cope. Anxiety prevents the ability to slow down and think rationally. Many of us might be accused of being impulsive, or we develop the ability to think very quickly on our feet because we have to. It’s a beast with an unforgiving appetite that requires instant and constant gratification. It’s very much like putting the general theory of relativity on steroids. Minutes can appear like seconds when we are fearful of consequences of our own decisions, and days can appear like years when we are waiting for results.

Even if you experience anxiety frequently enough to qualify for a clinical diagnosis, it’s still a moving target. There are going to be instances where there are no perceivable side effects of your anxiety. This makes recognition even harder. Most likely, you just think “this is me, and there’s something wrong with me.” If you don’t think that, don’t worry, there are plenty of people out there who think it for you, and no shortage of people who tell you.

There is good news and bad news. More often than not, we need to hear it from someone else. My hope is that most of us are fortunate enough to hear it from those who care enough to do it with compassion, rather than hearing it from those who aren’t. That isn’t easy. It stings, and it makes recognition that much more elusive, because not everyone is open to a microcosm of truth extracted from a mountain of ignorance. I like to call it the “Devil’s Diamond”.

We often focus on recognition as the first step in problem-solving, however in terms of emotional unrest, it’s also the first step towards the realization of needing a support system.

Support Systems

It’s hard to build a support system around something intangible. Family and friends that you do let in to your world are likely to treat you and your symptoms with a fair amount of skepticism.

Without a diagnosis, and a lack of understanding of what you are going through, you aren’t likely to know that you need to take advantage of an existing support system. Realistically, the line is going to be pretty short. Anxiety is exhausting for everyone involved. Most people don’t have the patience or interest to invest their time and effort into it.

If you aren’t able to understand it, then you aren’t going to be able to communicate it. Those around you are more likely to dismiss it with a superficial label, from a position of ignorance and misunderstanding. Even if you are aware of it, as we identified, it’s not something that is easy to talk about.

It takes a profound degree of empathy, compassion and patience to be supportive of issues like anxiety and depression, because the emotions are extreme, and the impact on those involved is frequent. It is very easy to judge those who distance themselves from people who experience anxiety, but not everyone is in a position of health to take that on. Empathy has to be practiced bidirectionally.

Building a support system has to be an offering. It’s not something we can choose.

It can be a lonely place, because the human race is in short supply of that kind of empathy and compassion. It’s also a lonely place, because anxiety makes it hard to trust people. The pool from which you might draw support is incredibly small.

If you suffer from anxiety, this part is often the hardest. You are going to endure harsh opinions and a multitude of conflict. You aren’t going to understand why, because your entire life, perspective, frame of mind, thought process, et al. is moving at a different pace than everyone else who isn’t experiencing that anxiety. You are in the highest gear possible, while everyone else appears to be in a parked car.

The loneliest aspect is that you will not just feel misunderstood, you will feel disconnected from being able to be understood. It damages our sense of belonging. That imperfect match between your pace and the pace of the rest of the world is a place where anxiety can devolve into greater problems, because it’s very nature defines hopelessness. We all have an innate need and desire to be accepted at some level. Anxiety invites alienation from those around us, and even within ourselves.

When Anxiety Becomes More

This section is not intended for anyone who experiences anxiety, depression or severe emotional unrest. If you have, it’s likely a trigger. Feel free to skip to the next session. This is intended for those of you who haven’t experienced it.

There are many ways we reach rock bottom, points of despair, or severe emotional unrest. Anxiety is only one of the doors that can lead here.

I mentioned above how anxiety can lead to the attachment to outcomes. One of those attachments is dwelling on the opinions and statements of others. As we get older, and personal relationships become more complex, this gets more challenging to navigate. As the complexity increases, so do the stakes. Anxiety skews this such that the value and impact of our perception of those around us has much further reach. It isn’t a matter of our skins becoming thinner, but rather our own minds picking up where our skin leaves off.

Constructive criticism can be misconstrued, or we’ll simply dwell on it to the point of becoming over defensive and inflexible. Maybe it leads to sadness or depression. Anxiety becomes an attacker to our self-esteem, sometimes even without external provocation.

I also mentioned that anxiety, in our daily lives, can often be like a silent trickle. As we are forced to navigate some of these complex relationships and situations, the degree of our baseline anxiety is going to rise. We are going to become excessively self-aware and cognizant of our actions. Some might come off super needy, others will come off awkward or with low self-esteem, often questioning or second-guessing their actions and behavior. We cannot see what others see, so we have an increasingly hyperactive sense of self-reflection. We become hyper focused on fixing a problem we are incapable of recognizing, because of this anxiety-driven mismatched tempo. Our defensiveness rises to a persistent state of fight or flight. What was previously monotonous has risen to cacophony.

This isn’t sustainable. We become exhausted, and are often forced into the next state of defense, which is emotional withdrawal. This might be complete isolation from our personal lives, disengaging from work, or it might simply be a state of detachment. It’s entirely possible to simply seek out superficial, meaningless personal relationships as a delusional mechanism to prevent ourselves from feeling pain. This is one of the key points. Emotional pain has reached a threshold where we are willing to go to great lengths not to feel it, often foregoing any emotion at the expense.

Preventing or escaping this is ideal. It is an incredibly painful place. The longer you stay here, the more likely you are to find yourself in life-threatening circumstances. These are far too often romanticized in the media. Statistics surrounding drug addition, suicide, and violence are on the rise, and we’ve only just begun to study and understand the causality in terms of mental health.

I say ideal, because when we find ourselves in this stage, we aren’t usually capable of listening to help. Our subconscious is tucked into a fetal ball in the basement of our psyche. At some point, the feeling of staying one more second in that circumstance is worse than not feeling anything at all. I say ideal, because when we reach this point, we’re no longer driving.

Anyone who has ever lived through this understands how silly it is for me to suggest that they should “snap out of it”, or “get help”. The deeper we fall down this pit, the more irrational or fearful we become. Our control over the way we interact with our surroundings decreases, making it much more challenging to pull ourselves up. Sometimes the thought of the pain of facing the climb itself is just too much for us to endure.

As I spent time researching the subject for some supporting facts, I was deeply saddened by the overwhelming amount of information about how deadly depression and anxiety are, but how little information there is about the survivors. There is so little information about causal relationships, I’m only left with questions. Is it luck? Is it strength?

We are very tuned to the phrase “don’t be a statistic”. Someday, I hope that understanding the paths of survivors becomes a greater focus for future study, so that this phrase changes to “Be a statistic”. Be a survivor.

I’d like to think that there are people who’ve hit rock bottom and bounced back based on their own initiative. Personally, I stumbled forward. I was lucky enough for life to kick me into a scenario from which I was able to pull myself up from that position. In my experience with others who’ve experienced similar journeys, I’m comfortable saying that most of us feel much more as though dodging a bullet was due to the aim of the person firing rather than anything we consciously did to evade it. It simply missed.

Diagnosis

As stated, getting a diagnosis is challenging. If you’ve managed to hit rock bottom and found yourself at a point where you have any amount of control, you are still facing a long climb to the summit where you can focus on anxiety being your main problem. It’s very easy to spend a few months talking to a counselor and think all of your problems are solved, because you feel so much better than you had when you were at the bottom. Unfortunately, if torrential rain brings a flood, sunshine doesn’t repair the damage. It only makes it easier for you to see what needs to be fixed.

A frustrating obstacle is that we may still not recognize that anxiety is the issue. If we’ve spent time in pain or going through bouts of depression, we might be going through a repetitive cycle of addressing symptoms without ever diagnosing or recognizing the root cause.

Like any kind of problem solving, our ability to provide solutions are constrained by the quality of our information.

Be honest with yourselves. Bravery and strength aren’t about overcoming the pain. It’s about admitting to yourself that you aren’t perfect, and it’s ok not to be. It’s about being willing to take a leap of faith to listen to how you are perceived without being able to understand it yourself. Seeking help, asking questions and realizing that “while you may be lonely, you are not alone” are beacons from which you can begin to heal and provide relief for whatever you hold inside.

You’re probably going to spend some time talking to a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist. Don’t rush this process. You might have to go through a few doctors until you find someone you are comfortable with. There are support groups. Traditionally most of them have been in person. Online options were few and far between, but I’ve seen more options pop up recently more than likely due to the pandemic. There are also groups available on social media sites, and the experience is getting better.

Get connected. Talk about your experiences with people who can understand you. This helps you segregate your communication. Learning how to communicate with people who haven’t experienced anxiety is an emotional parallel to learning how to walk again. This is especially important for those who aren’t going to take medication, or don’t need it.

Medication

For some of us, medication is a necessity. Some brain chemistries just don’t allow for conscious control of panic and anxiety.

Medication can work. Take it. However, “works” doesn’t mean it is a magical solution that instantly solves all of your problems. We have to be realistic. Science is an ever growing landscape of discovery. We don’t know everything, so medications represent the best of what we know today. This also means that you can push your doctor about changing medication if your experience is subpar. New alternatives and better experiences are in constant development.

Medication can be very unforgiving. It can take several weeks (months?) to get acclimated to it. You’ll also spend some time adjusting the dosage to get it right. Your mileage may vary, but it took me over a year. You’re going to be… moody. You’re probably going to feel like absolute garbage at first. We’ve all seen pharmaceutical commercials and joked about the side effects. This is a reality. Everyone’s experience is different. You have to sweat it out.

Despite the side effects, I can say confidently that I haven’t had a single panic attack since I started taking medication over a decade ago.

As I mentioned, it can be very unforgiving. If you miss a dose, or even take it 30-60 minutes late, that can be enough to cause you to have a bad day. Getting into a strict routine is typically the recommended way to maximize it’s benefit, but always listen to your doctor and make sure to provide detailed feedback on your experience. They can’t fix a problem you don’t communicate.

But it’s worth it. It’s like the Wizard of Oz shifting from B&W to Technicolor.

Once the meds kick in, and you start to normalize, things change drastically. I call it “stretched time”. Anxiety has a way of making everything seem urgent. It’s hard to prioritize your life. Taking that away recalibrates how we perceive time. However, as much as it helps, this isn’t Hogwarts. The meds don’t suddenly make you “normal”, they just turn off the forced cruise control and hand you the steering wheel to navigate your life. This is when the real work begins.

What happens next?

You have to own it. Like I said, empathy has to be exercised bidirectionally. If you expect others to cut you some slack, or to be understanding, you have to put in the effort. Medication isn’t going to get you all the way there by itself.

Keep talking to someone. The professional someone. Stay in those support groups. Be patient with yourself. Managing your state of mind is not a straight line. You are going to have setbacks. You’re going to screw up.

Sometimes, challenges aren’t going to be completely in your control. As you get older, your body chemistry will change, your weight might fluctuate, and you might be prescribed other medications. In each of these cases, there are potential impacts to your medication. You might have to readjust your dosage. I’ve had to do this several times, and each time is interesting. I’ve had instances where an adjustment had no perceivable impact, and others where it was…perceivable. Very much so.

As great as medication and counseling can be, regardless of what you suffer from, there is always going to be the chance that life is going to throw you a curve. We simply will never have control of everything around us, and self-improvement of any kind is always a moving target. This isn’t any different than the people who don’t suffer from anxiety. Owning our situation is thinking ahead. Know your triggers, and build up plans to navigate them. Preparation for circumstances helps us side-step problems before they become problems.

Don’t worry about the things you can’t control. Try not to dwell on the consequences of your actions and behaviors as a result of anxiety, but make sure to own them. Be accountable for it, and use it as a way to understand your triggers and areas of improvement. Learn to detach yourself from the outcomes of actions, relationships and efforts. We have to learn to be ok with failure, and learn to provide ourselves with guard rails to ensure that failure and mistakes are small without demoralizing ourselves so that we feel small. When you have a bad day, be humble enough to learn from it so the next time you are in the same situation it’s better. How much better isn’t important.

Self-esteem is a precious commodity for those of us who struggle with anxiety and depression. It’s very easy to surround yourself with “anyone who pays attention for a minute”, because you think that’s all you can muster. Don’t. You don’t have to surround yourself with “yes-persons” or disingenuous people. A good support system is filled with people who will call you out, rather than let you walk around with food in your teeth (metaphorically speaking.). It is filled with people who have a reasonable amount of empathy and compassion. It is filled with people who are going to make mistakes just like you will. Building (or rebuilding, as the case often may be) a sense of belonging takes patience, thoughtfulness and care. Don’t rush it. In the meantime, get to know yourself better. If you’re well into your journey of healing, there’s a good chance that the absence of the anxiety you once felt regularly will open up the world to you in ways you couldn’t see then. Opportunities for belonging will are abound.

Personal Summary

I know that anxiety isn’t directly tied to technology, for most of us. (Insert joke about big bang releases here.) However, for me, it is. Technology, coding, distributed systems and obsessive hunger to solve problems was very much tied to my own related efforts of coping and managing anxiety. Much of my tenacity was anxiety driven. In some respects, this was desirable, but it made it very easy for me to burn myself out, because that tenacity was unchecked.

I also spent a small fortune on personal coaching and counseling to help handle personal relationships better. As much as someone without anxiety can’t empathize with me, I can’t really empathize with them either. I tried to learn how to bridge the gap and practice empathy and compassion towards them as well. In a world with ever-growing anxiety, at some point it’s not unimaginable that we’ll be the majority, making those without it abnormal.

Decomposing problems allowed me to practice introspection and calmness, with a quieted tenacity. Learning about different patterns and techniques increased my vocabulary, and in doing so further helped shape how I managed my own passion and enthusiasm in a productive manner.

As I read and study about trends in technologically driven organizations, I can’t ignore the correlation between anxiety and technology. Studies have long shown that software can be anxiety-filled career. However, as DEI efforts have started to fund research across the stratifications and spectrums of ethnicity, gender and mental health, we are starting to see data that suggests that much of this anxiety is carried into the industry by the personalities of those driven by technology.

My goal in technology has always been to provide “something” that makes tasks easier for “someone”. Today, release, delivery have taken on a bit of a different form, but I hope the value is the same nonetheless.

You are not alone.


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Written by Ed Mangini
A Technology Blog about useful stuff.