walking on custard

Untangling Anxiety: The First Step

6 Mar 2015

Photo by Jan Tinneberg on Unsplash

Estimated reading time: 3 minutes

The first thing I had to do after admitting that I had anxiety was to decide to actually do something towards being less anxious.

Well, I say the “first” thing. But this decision actually took me several years.

In fairness, I was busy! You can’t just drop everything and go ‘deal with anxiety’, can you?

Plus, if I left it alone maybe it would just get better? Maybe if I started messing with it, it would only get worse… Not to mention that it sounds difficult and unpleasant. Let’s just forget it and watch a film, or something. Please?

These – plus many other excuses – kept me from action for a long, long time. It wasn’t until everything became completely intolerable that I finally chose to do whatever it took to stop being anxious.

But to make that decision I had to believe I could be less anxious.

If I never believed it was possible, why would I ever decide to start? Looking back, this was probably the single biggest reason for my inaction: I thought I was doomed to be anxious forever.

I had been told it was possible to stop, but I didn’t believe it. In fact, I laughed in the face of the person who told me.

But eventually enough people claimed otherwise for me to finally push myself into action.

(I’ve been told a fact about changing beliefs: that in order for them to change, you have to be told a new belief six times. But this is obviously complete nonsense, as I believed this fact about changing beliefs as soon as I heard it.)

Once I finally to seek an alternative to anxiety, I was immediately confronted by a complete mess. Me.

I took a closer look at myself and immediately found a thousand reasons why I might be anxious:

  • Overthinking
  • Perfectionism
  • Repressed grief
  • Health anxiety
  • Self-criticism (Inner critic: I really don’t see what’s wrong with this one…)
  • What if Manchester United actually keep on winning after Ferguson retires?! (this was a few years ago, and anyone who cares already knows how this turned out…)
  • Crisis of meaning
  • Global catastrophe
  • Fear of making the wrong choices
  • Those utterly terrifying children’s tv shows they make nowadays
  • Shia LaBeouf
  • Getting trapped somewhere I can’t escape
  • And many, many more…

What are you supposed to do when confronted with so many possible problems at once?

I did try to just get stuck in. I seriously considered that maybe I hadn’t properly dealt with the death of my father some years before, and perhaps if I just handled that then everything else would fall into place.

But while I was attempting to unrepress some grief (whatever that means in reality), I got into a serious bout of health anxiety. While I tried to fix that, I fell into a crisis of meaning.

Everything was too mixed up: as soon as I tried to fix one problem, all the others reared up and I became convinced some other problem must be the deeper issue.

I needed to find the fundamentals, and put everything into some kind of order, or I’d never untangle this mess.

When physically working on such a tangled knot, you can’t just follow one strand. Nor can you attempt to unpick every strand at once. You need to go far enough along each one, in the right order, and that way you’ll eventually reach the end.

The first step in anxiety management, then, is barely a step at all. It’s acknowledging that getting to the bottom of your own personal tangle is a hard task, and so it’s okay if you don’t immediately sort everything out. And you have to continue believing that it is possible to untangle this knot.

The important thing is that it’s NOT doing what I did: throwing yourself into every possible cause as it comes to your attention, wondering if this will be the One Solution to Fix Them All.

Once we’re resolved to patiently untie the knot, strand by strand, we will eventually succeed.

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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