Happy New Year! In these first days of 2011, I wish you health, strong relationships, emotional awareness, peace, empathy, compassion, humor, meaningful work, and excellent rest! So many of us went through upheavals in 2010 that I think we could all use a rest and a break. Here’s a strange idea: Let’s befriend anxiety!
I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and anxiety this month, and I’ve got a question and a request for you. I heard an interesting interview last month on the radio show Forum with Michael Krasny. Michael spoke with Dr. Mary Lamia, who is a psychoanalyst and psychologist working here in Northern California. She wrote a book called Understanding Myself: A Kid’s Guide to Intense Emotions and Strong Feelings. It looks like a really good book for kids, and Dr. Lamia has some very interesting things to say.
In the latter part of the interview, Dr. Lamia spoke about anxiety in a way I haven’t heard before, and I’ve been mulling it over a great deal. She sees anxiety as the emotion that helps us take action and get things done. I knew that about fear (the question for fear is: What action must be taken?”), and in the fear chapter in The Language of Emotions, I focus on the very positive aspects of fear. However, I sort of push anxiety off to the side because, honestly, it bugs me when people run around being anxious. I just want them to calm down and focus themselves. You know, just take a deep breath why dontcha?
Putting it off versus doing it ahead of time
Dr. Lamia contrasts procrastinators, who put things off until their anxiety kicks in and makes them do their work with do-it-aheaders, who do their work ahead of time. I’m a do-it-aheader, and we’ve got a joke in our family about thanking Karla from the past. We’ll find some job I finished weeks ago, or unearth finished pieces to a project that is crucial, or we’ll find important papers in my filing system, and we’ll say, “Thanks, Karla from the past, for making things easy on us!” Clearly, this thanking is a great motivator, because in each day, I think of all kinds of cool projects and jobs to do for the future happiness of my friends, my family, and myself. It’s a total win-win. It’s time travel that works!
Before I heard Dr, Lamia, I would have said that I didn’t do anxiety, but now I’m realizing, “Ooohhhh, I’ve got plenty of anxiety, but I’ve been been responding to it at very early points in its appearance, so it rarely gets to the level of a mood.” I have mistakenly thought of my very subtle level of do-it-ahead anxiety as, I don’t know, conscience, foresight, responsibility, or perhaps just being organized. I missed the fact that I was feeling an emotion that was trying to prepare me for the future. Whoops!! We live and learn, so I’m now taking anxiety out of the shadows and asking it questions, looking at people who run anxiety in its mood state, and focusing on anxiety more clearly.
My behavior seems not to be anxiety-driven because I don’t look anxious. But see, I’m using my anxiety about not having competed things as a way to help myself. Does that make sense? We’ve all experienced what it’s like to look for a specific shirt that turns out to need ironing (disappointment, frustration), or how it feels to lose important papers (anxiety, fear, disappointment), or how it feels to be late (embarrassment, shame, anxiety). As a do-it-aheader, I’m working to avoid those unpleasant outcomes by confronting them head on. I’m time-traveling in a way that’s different from a procrastinator (who is trying to avoid an unpleasant future by not confronting it), but we’re both attempting to achieve the same goals.
In the Forum interview, a self-avowed procrastinator called in and explained that he could easily finish things that were pleasant, but really had to force himself to do things that felt like work, or finish chores that he didn’t feel he was good at. He needed his anxiety to sort of get to a fever pitch so that he could power his way through unpleasant tasks. Even as a do-it-aheader, I totally get that.
When I have a miserable task to accomplish, my online gaming habit takes over, and I hide from the misery. However, I’ve learned to “pay” myself with procrastination, such that I’ll tell myself: “Okay, you get three games of (insert current favorite game here) if you write that difficult letter or clean out the crisper drawer in the frig.” That may sound silly, but I think it helps me remain emotionally honest.
I don’t want to write that letter or clean out the dirty crisper. It’s miserable! If I’m gonna do it, I need a reward! So in essence, I play with my procrastination and my anxiety, rather than being played by and overwhelmed by them. Score!
Reframing your approach to anxiety
So here’s my question and my request: Can you learn to work and play with your anxiety, or is it too powerful a feedback loop? What I see in career procrastinators and anxiety-prone people (mood-state anxiety, that is), is that the procrastination and anxiety become lifestyles, and very much a part of self image. Procrastinators and anxiety-ridden people may feel some shame about their behavior, but because they’re in a feedback loop with a powerful emotion like anxiety (which affects the adrenals, sleep patterns, stress reactions, eating behaviors, and more), it may feel as if they have no control over it. So it becomes an unwanted but persistent guest, and eventually, they just learn to live with it. Some people even begin to champion it (think of those signs that flaunt a messy desk as a mark of genius or something).
I’m wondering if there could be any relief in turning toward the anxiety and procrastination and asking the question: “What really needs to be done?” I think the word really is key, because if you ask procrastination what needs to get done, it will answer: “Eat chocolate, browse Facebook, go blog hopping, play Machinarium, watch TV …” and then it’s four hours later and where are you? Did those really need to get done? And if you ask anxiety what needs to get done, it might answer: “Check the stove to see if you turned it off, now check it again, now polish the doorknob, now wash your hands, but are they really clean? You better wash them again, and what about reorganizing the closet or starting a wallpaper project? Oh, did you check the stove?” And again, it’s four hours later, and you’ve been sent on any number of fool’s errands. What really needs to get done?
When your emotions are caught in feedback loops, it’s very tempting to turn away and ignore them, but you can make significant changes if you 1) understand what the emotion is trying to tell you, and 2) question and work with the emotion so that it can do its proper work and then recede naturally. With anxiety, if you can name it, you can calm your brain and your body down (as this UCLA study suggests). If you can say, “Okay, I’m anxious, and that means something needs to get done. Now, what really needs to get done?” then you may be able to calm, focus, and organize yourself.
Anxiety has a purpose and a function, and it’s a really important one. As you enter into this new year, see if you can befriend your anxiety and learn from it. Then report back on your progress, okay? I’m really interested to see if emotional mindfulness can affect a strong habitual behavior like procrastination.
Update: my sister-in-law Janelle created an anxiety practice that’s quite good. It’s here.