This week I talked to Janine. Janine is a late twenties millennial who exhibits all the normal behaviours I have come to recognise in Millennials.
She comes from a fairly normal family, if normal can be defined. Her parents are still mostly happy together, they have financial options and they own property. She is able to communicate with her parents and there is an element of friendship that exists between them.
She speaks her mind, is good at her job. She has a college/university degree and has travelled and lived overseas.
She also is active in her local church and has a support network of friends.
Finally, she is physically active. She goes to the gym and spends a lot of time at the beach when she can (Vitamin D).
This list ticks off a lot of things that might typically be recommended to combat anxiety. Semi-stress free job, close family and friends support, exercise and options in life.
What I don’t know is what trauma she might have experienced when she was young. In talking with people I often find that things can often be linked to an event when people are very young. This is also my personal experience.
From my perspective it is easy to see how balanced her life is.
And yet, Janine suffers terrible anxiety.
I can assure her that she is well set up for life and even the fact that her parents are close for support, and young, meaning they will be there to support for a long time, but is not enough.
Her triggers, alarm bells and chemical imbalances are her own, in her mind and nothing I can say will make her feel better.
So, what is it?
Seems like a simple question and the answer is quite simple too but the reality of it feels incredibly complicated.
Even as one who suffers from anxiety and has done for many years it is easy for me to look at another persons anxiety and help explain why it doesn’t exist, like in Janine’s case. Yet for my own anxiety, I can’t rationalise it or explain it away.
The alarm bells, increased temperature, inability to hear and process information, irrational thoughts and generalised fear and terror prevent me from being able process my own anxiety.
There are no immediate threats to me and in my environment and yet I can’t always control my feelings.
Anxiety is something you feel that makes your brain work overtime to control and understand those feelings.
The triggers I most often see are all related to invisible triggers – all related to fear.
Fear of failure. Fear of poverty. Fear of being alone. Fear of being found out as a fraud. Fear of financial failure. Fear of failing as a parent. Fear of physical harm.
Follow your fear to the end
Somewhere in my travels and research in to therapies like CBT I came across the idea of following your fear to the end.
We look into our anxiety as we try to control it and understand it and yet we can never see to the end, we can never see a reason and we can never see what it is that is making us feel so afraid and anxious.
The idea of following your fear to the very end is based on the idea that you follow your thoughts and instead of trying to stop your mind travelling in to ‘dark’ places, you embrace the thoughts and accept them. You acknowledge that you feel them and see them as things rather than your actual self.
e.g. I am fearful today and acknowledge those feelings as what they are, a feeling and thing that is not me, does not define me and isn’t who I am. They are merely a feeling that will pass in time and I don’t need to hold on to them.
You have anxious thoughts about work. You feel like you are not doing enough and what you are doing isn’t good enough. You’re concerned your manager will pull you in to the boardroom at any moment. You are awake at night worried about it and you obsess about it at work making you far less productive as that’s where all your energy is going.
Follow the fear
Let’s follow this for a bit and afterwards, have a look at some things we can do to resolve the feelings.
I haven’t done enough at work recently. I have also made mistakes. My boss is going to give me a warning. Then I will get fired. Then I won’t have a job and can’t pay my rent. I won’t be able to find another job. I’ll end up on the streets. I’ll live with dangerous people on the streets. I will not have food or enough to live on. I’ll probably start taking drugs or become an alcoholic and eventually I will die, alone.
Sounds extreme doesn’t it. One idea behind this is to help you reach the point where you realise it’s very unlikely you will even get to being fired from your job. Our brains go to extremes but reality is not always what will or might happen. There are many things that can intervene before anything that extreme happens.
First, it’s unlikely you’ll lose your job and if you do, there are other jobs on the market even if it means you have to take a humble step in to something to pay the rent until you can find something better. Fast food, fruit picking, grocery stores, manual labour, server etc.
Second it is possible for most that there is some sort of support structure that can kick in during such events. Family, unemployment benefits, 401k/retirement funds, savings, friends with couches or maybe a change of city to get a new job is an option.
This is extreme thinking also called catastrophizing. Going to extreme thinking, and thinking the worst.
The idea of following the fear is to help you realise it’s not that bad. Even if things do not go well there are stops in life along the way that will ensure you don’t end up in a gutter somewhere. Likely, you might need to move home, get a benefit or call on friends for help. So, it’s really not likely you’ll end up on the streets.
Steps to fix things
First, breathe. 1 minute of deep, full breaths.
Second, just start.
Sometimes our anxiety paralyses us and we go in to a spiral of worry. I haven’t done that work. My boss is going to fire me etc. But, if you just start doing work, and you are doing you’re best, then this alone will start you feeling better. You’ll see your adding value, making a contribution and doing your job.
If your manager has feedback, it’s likely a suggestion to improve your direction, not a threat of jobless.
Don’t look in to the future.
Stay present in the NOW.
The now is that you haven’t been fired, your boss hasn’t (and probably isn’t) going to pull you in to the office. Just start and you’ll feel better.
The truth is, almost all of what you worry about never happens – and if it does we usually respond very well to it.
It’s the fear of something happening, not the actual thing happening that worries us most.
Give yourself some grace. Just start and I hope you find it improves things for you.