An Analogy for Anxiety

It happens, you hit a curb just right, crawl over a rock that’s a little too big, or drive through that pot-hole that felt like it ate your entire front tire. After such an incident something is not right. Your steering is shaky and feels loose. The alignment is off and pulls to one side. The steering wheel is off-center. If ignored long enough, the tires will start showing uneven wear. Described by many mechanics as an unlikely fail-point, bent tie-rods can happen. Denying such does not solve the issue. 

Like bent tie-rods, generalized anxiety can arise from life events that everyone faces. It is typically not triggered by carelessness or inattention, but it does make it feel like it’s hard to keep your life on track without extra effort. Specific physical symptoms of anxiety are identified by the DSM 5(1), last longer than six months and consist of:

  • Excessive worry and difficulty controlling such worry
  • Feeling keyed up or restless
  • Feeling easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Being more irritable
  • Experiencing muscle tension
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep

When men describe anxiety, they talk about feeling shaky or jittery. They feel they are losing their grip on their emotions and know something is not right. They are fatigued, not sleeping well, and feel worried or fearful. Over time these feelings wear on their family, friends, and workplace relationships. Their life veers off-center and eventually off-course.


Meet Frank:

For as long as he can remember, Frank has struggled with feeling overwhelmed in stressful situations. When Frank played sports in high school, he preferred to be the support guy to the teams stars, doing just enough to be part of the team and never wanting to be the one called for the clutch play. In college, Frank struggled with the increased responsibilities and he leaned on his cohort and tutors to give him the answers he needed to alleviate him the responsibility of having to take a risk in his research. Frank would also avoid taking tests in which he did not have a crystal clear understanding of what was on the test. If he could not get this from individuals from previous semesters or from the teaching assistants, Frank would avoid the test by saying he was sick. He would get the information he needed from classmates and then finally take the test a day or two later. 

Somehow Frank made it through college and entered the workplace with much trepidation. He went to multiple interviews with sweaty palms and sweaty underarms. Frank’s feelings of fear led to him being passed over for many positions which he was well trained for. So, he finally settled on an entry level position working on a production line. Overtime, Frank’s abilities to deliver showed through his work style and he was promoted. He moved to line manager, then floor manager, and then shift manager. With each promotion, Frank’s financial situation improved. He was married and had children. Overall, Frank was functioning well and coping with daily stressors with only the same minor discomfort he had always had. 

Then the news came that the plant was being sold to a foreign company. The new owners came through in a whirlwind, demanding that Frank’s department implement the use of automated machines and reduce their workforce headcount. Frank was dumbfounded, fearful, and overwhelmed. He was now in charge of learning the new automated machinery and providing real feedback on where it would be best implemented to reduce the greatest cost, waste, and people. He was charged with shifting his workers from being line production workers to mechanics of automated dumb-bots. But Frank knew that after the factory was automated, half of his long-time loyal employees would be laid-off. Frank first started losing sleep, staying up later and later, unable to stop his mind from racing. His attention suffered and he struggled to concentrate on the plans, technical manuals, and online trainings which became part of his typical week. Frank’s legs started shaking more, his palms sweat, his heart felt like it would beat through his chest. Worse of all, Frank became snappy whenever someone approached him. At work, at home, or at his social club, Frank was feeling sore and tired. He began to retreat, going into work late, leaving early, and going for long drives to avoid going home. 


How to manage Anxiety: 

Many researchers liken Anxiety to our natural fight, flight, freeze (FFF) response. When we sense danger, we either fight our way free, we flee the situation, or we freeze to try to avoid the danger. 

However, it has also been shown that anxiety is NOT fear. If we are fearful, then the FFF response makes sense. If we survive, then we can make more logical and protective choices later. But anxiety indicates fear of something not yet happened – it’s worrying about unwanted possibilities.

For example:

  • Fear is realizing that a mountain lion is stalking you while you are hiking.

Anxiety is worrying that there are animals that could harm you in the woods.

  • Fear is being threatened by a gunman who walked into your building.

Anxiety is worrying that you’re going to be laid off because your boss didn’t praise your last report.

  • Fear is that millisecond before you are in a car accident and you see a car coming toward you.

Anxiety is worrying that the next time you are in a car you are going to be in another accident.

In some sense, fear and anxiety are rational and reasonable responses to unwanted situations but it is easy to see how different they are. Fear should result in adrenaline pumping, fight, flight, freeze responses. Anxiety, in a logical sense, should not. Although, many times we react in similar fashion, just like Frank responded.

How to improve our response to anxiety:

A – Acknowledge your thoughts, feelings and status

As inferred above, logically thinking about anxiety does not make it go away; just like wishing you didn’t have a bent tie-rod on your car can fix it. So, start by accepting the situation by saying something like, “Okay, I have a bent tie-rod” OR “Okay, I am feeling anxious.” Generally, saying this out-loud (yes, it’s best to actually say it out loud) helps your mind take a step back from the non-stop rollercoaster that it’s been experiencing. This leads you to the next step. 

C – Consider all the factors

If my tie-rod is bent, how bad is it? Can I slowly and carefully drive it to the nearest repair shop or can I drive home? If I can’t, do I have enough of a cell signal to call a tow truck? 

Likewise with anxiety, how bad is it? Can I take a break and remove myself from the situation? Can I go somewhere that I find relaxing or head home for a while? If I can’t, can I call someone that I find particularly calming who could help me put my situation into context?

T – Try something different

Try deep breathing: Yes, I know it’s cliche but it works! (2) Try it by:

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose while counting to four (4)
  • Hold your breath while counting to four (4) 
  • Breath out slowly through your mouth while counting to six (6)
  • Repeat 12 times (or for two minutes)

Stop! And imagine yourself in a calm place:

  • First find a place that you can expect some relative peace and time alone
  • Sit or lay down, whichever is best suited or most comfortable
  • Set a timer for five (5) minutes
  • Bring forth an image in your mind of somewhere calm, relaxing, and pleasant
  • Keep that image in your mind for as long as you can
  • Imagine the sounds, the smells, the feel of the place
  • If your thought breaks from the place, don’t fret just take your mind back to that calming image

Grab a notebook and write it out:

  • Write out the last worry or racing thought that was going through your head
  • List the feelings that you are experiencing
  • Write the next thought or feeling that comes from doing both of the above
  • Re-read what you have written thus far
  • Write a few sentences about what you think is going on in your mind right now

Eliminate or limit caffeine and other stimulants (3):

  • Too much caffeine and other stimulants are known to cause similar physical effects of anxiety (i.e. feeling jittery, on edge, alertness, racing heartbeat, nausea, and/or abdominal pain) 
  • Limit caffeine to lower doses each day (50mg-200mg) or about two 8 oz cups of coffee or less
  • Try drinking 16 oz of water, or more, between caffeinated drinks  

S – Start again

Once you have addressed your anxiety, try returning to your previous tasks. If it returns, that’s okay. Remind yourself to actively take a break from your anxiety whenever you need to do so. 

For most people anxiety is not like a tie-rod in that they can’t pop off the old part and replace it with a new one. Also, bending your mind back into shape rarely works. Anxiety is best managed through acceptance and coping techniques including those described above. If your anxiety is so bad that you cannot function throughout your day, this may be a clear indicator that it’s time to seek the help of a psychiatrist or mental health counselor. Here is an online list of verified mental health professionals in your area: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

References:

(1) American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.books.9780890425596

(2) Ma, X., Yue, Z. Q., Gong, Z. Q., Zhang, H., Duan, N. Y., Shi, Y. T., … Li, Y. F. (2017). The Effect of Diaphragmatic Breathing on Attention, Negative Affect and Stress in Healthy Adults. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 874. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00874 

(3) Preidt, R. (2019, July 19). Is Caffeine Fueling Your Anxieties? Retrieved from https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/news/20190719/is-caffeine-fueling-your-anxieties