How I learned to cozy up to my anxieties
Everybody has his or her own daily moment of peak anxiety. For some, it’s first thing in the morning. For others, it’s while they lay in bed at night trying to achieve sleep. Some people crash right after work, when they get home and panic about how they’re going to resolve all the challenges in their personal lives over the next few hours.
For me, it’s in the very early hours of the morning, when I often wake up—or half-wake, and lie in bed trying to decide whether I should stay there or get up and have a bowl of cereal. Almost as if in a dream, problems that have been on my mind float into focus with a heightened urgency. Just when I’m trying to relax back into sleep, my mind is screaming, don’t relax! There are these huge problems you need to deal with right now!
Those problems, of course, come up in the daytime as well. Sometimes I do something about them, sometimes I don’t. Over the years, though, they’ve lost some of their bite. Several years ago—I don’t remember when the moment was, but I remember there was a moment—I realized that my concerns tend to fall into two categories. Like Sith, there are always two: one in each category.
First, there’s the Specific Anxiety. This is the thing that seems about to go to hell right now. For example:
- A thing at work that—oh my God! Someone’s been waiting on for two weeks! That’s it. When I get to work tomorrow, HR is probably going to be standing at my desk with a cart for my stuff and, just in case, a taser!
- Some kind of upcoming challenge, like tickets that go on sale at exactly the moment when I’m supposed to be settling into a dentist’s chair. What if they sell out before the cleaning is over? Charli XCX will never play the Cabooze outdoor plaza again, and I’m going to miss it!
- A sudden awareness of something in my body like a sore muscle (It’s my hip! I’m going to need a hip replacement in my 30s!) or my pulse (Is my heart supposed to be pounding like this? What if it wears out tonight?!) or a cramp (My appendix has probably burst, and I’ll die of internal bleeding before I wake up!).
Then, there’s the Generalized Angst. This is a large-scale, inexorable concern like:
- Global warming. All the glaciers are shrinking! The drought in California will never end! Humanity will become extinct!
- My career. Have I been in my job too long? Where do I want to be ten years from now? What should I do with my life?!
- Death. Someday, it’s gonna happen. Shit.
Some of these are real concerns that I probably should do something about, some of them are beyond my control, and some of them are just imaginary—but, I’ve realized, there will always be at least one thing in each of those two categories threatening to keep me awake at night. Something. If one problem were to be somehow magically resolved, another one would just as magically pop up.
Now, when I’m lying awake and start to gnaw over some pressing concern, I just tell myself, relax. That’s only your Specific Anxiety. Whew. But wait! What about this GIANT PROBLEM THAT…okay, okay. Hang on. That’s your Generalized Angst. It will never go away. Might as well sleep on it.