Adventures in Anxiety, Part Three: What If?

Missed the other posts in this series? Check out Part One and Part Two.

Most people (possibly including you) would never guess that somewhere underneath the cool exterior lies a bundle of worries. I can leave the house without having a panic attack, I can make small talk with strangers, and I’ve made speeches in front of large audiences with just a few jitters.

While some of my anxieties are expected, others manifest themselves in ways few people would expect.

One of my supervisors once commented that he (and other coworkers) liked the way I try to figure things out for myself before asking for help. While I’m a curious and reasonably intelligent person, there’s a reason I try to figure these things out myself. If I can figure something out for myself, I don’t have to inconvenience someone with a question. Now, I know that most of the time I’m not inconveniencing anyone with a question or request, but what if the answer is really simple and I look dumb for asking? What if I interrupt something important? What if… what if… what if… These thoughts still echo through my head as the rational side of me acknowledges that this worry is a silly one.

My people-related anxiety doesn’t end there. I can make small talk with strangers. I can even approach them and ask a question if needed (and if it’s clear I won’t bother them by asking), a skill that has come in handy for getting directions, acquiring set lists at concerts, and having fun at social gatherings where I don’t know anyone. But something happens while befriending those strangers, especially as they become good friends. A guard goes up.

What if I say something dumb? What if something I do makes them not like me anymore? What if they think I’m stupid (a fear I still haven’t shaken off from my straight-A days)? What if I say something dumb? Crap, what do I say to that? Um… I run through my mind, trying to put something that won’t make me sound dumb. If I ever just pause at an inappropriate point in conversation, this is probably what’s happening.

I was even hesitant to make these posts on anxiety for this reason–not because I’d be exposing myself in a way unprecedented since my lifeblogging days, but because of the friends with more anxiety than I do. Maybe you’re one of them. Maybe I know this about you, maybe not. But what if my nondiagnosis meant I didn’t have real anxiety (whatever that means)? On and on the worries go…

At some point, I find myself needing to make a decision of some kind with these friends. Maybe we’re setting a date for something or figuring out where to eat, or just deciding what song to play in Rock Band. I hesitate as long as I can on things like this. For instance, what if I choose a restaurant and it’s a bad experience? What if someone didn’t like their food or we get bad service or someone gets sick from the food or I don’t choose the best thing on the menu? Anxiety brain tells me this choice would reflect badly on me; if I had chosen another place, this wouldn’t have happened, right? Maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn’t have, rational brain tells me. And besides, your friends probably won’t think badly of you when the place provided the experience. And then anxiety brain asks, “But what if they do?”

The thing is, a little bit of anxiety is normal, and it can even help enhance performance in small amounts. In large amounts, anxiety can take over if coping mechanisms aren’t in place. But normal amounts of anxiety don’t come with headaches that don’t go away, or feeling close to tears with those headaches for days at a time. It’s not normal, yet I continue with my life as if it is, and no one ever knows.

People who have known me for awhile might know that I’m terrible at doing just one thing at a time. I’m terrible at going out to exercise without a destination or something interesting to listen to, hence my use of audiobooks on the run. I hate cleaning without some background noise, which audiobooks fill nicely. I despise boredom, not because none of my options sound appealing, but because of my need to be doing something, anything.

Take a recent weekend as an example. I had finished eating breakfast, it was Saturday, and the whole day awaited me. I could go for an early morning run after my stomach settled a little, I could read a book, I could work on writing or Wikiwrimo, I could clean… So many options, so little desire to do any of them, yet I kept bouncing around in my desk chair needing to do something because life is short and I want to make the most of it and sitting around would not serve me well and oh gods what if I find myself not doing enough of well, anything? What if I did something that wouldn’t maximize my overall happiness and quality of life? The bouncing around should have been a sign to go on that run, but that involved getting dressed and ugh. Setting aside the fact that this was Saturday morning and the weekend was just getting started, there was no need to cram something into every moment of the day, making sure I was always getting the most out of my life.

I coped with this feeling the same way I cope with most of my anxieties: a deep breath or five, butt in chair, and pen in hand. Awhile later I found myself feeling more relaxed, headache-free, and ready to take on the day… after lunch.

I sometimes joke that notebooks are cheaper than therapy and just as effective. This is mostly true. While writing about my feelings is usually easier than talking about them, journals usually don’t answer with their advice and encouragement, nor do they teach coping mechanisms. Fortunately I’ve learned how to cope and am continuing to do so for now.

No matter what anxiety brain says, I know everything’s going to be all right. So I’m gonna take a deep breath, write it out, and then–a rare thing indeed–click that Update button so the whole world knows.

2 replies on “Adventures in Anxiety, Part Three: What If?”

I came on here to look at your adulting schedule and then realized I hadn’t read your blog in a really long time and started reading and came across this post (well this whole series). It was like I was reading something I wrote except I’ve never had the money for therapy and wouldn’t be able to bring myself to go even if I did, regardless of how much I might need it.

I have a lot of the same worries you do. I hate making decisions for fear of disappointing people if they’re unhappy with my choice. I don’t pick songs on Rock Band because if no one else has picked it clearly everyone hates that song/band and will think I’m a loser if I admit that I like it. I rarely say anything because I don’t know what to say most of the time. I don’t get a lot of the references you guys make and worry that if you guys knew how much stuff I didn’t know, you’d hate me (of course I also worry that by being so quiet you will all hate me, too, but at least being silent is something I’m really good at).

I know you’re taking a break from blogging; I just wanted to let you know that I understand a lot of what you’re going through – or at least what you were going through five months ago. 🙂

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