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Stuff Everyone Should Know About Anxiety and Obsession
What I learned through overcoming an anxiety disorder and why we all need to know it.
ONE FROM A LONG TIME AGO IN A GALAXY FAR FAR AWAY
Yoda, on the key to overcoming fear:
“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.
Source: Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
ONE FROM TODAY
Paulo Coehlo on Anxiety:
“Anxiety was born in the very same moment as mankind. And since we will never be able to master it, we will have to learn to live with it— just as we have learned to live with storms.”
Source: Manuscript Found in Accra
ONE FROM US
A couple weeks ago, Neely and I were getting the kids ready for bed when Neely found an inflamed lymph node on our four-year-old, Ace. He didn’t have a cold (yet), so she did what millennial parents do. She googled it. Why, oh why, did she google it?
Her terror was quickly evident. So I googled it. Why, oh why, did I google it? It was terrifying. No matter how I worded the search prompt, everything indicated lymphoma. I became so convinced that I began researching doctors to line up the biopsy and cancer treatment. Finally, I stopped myself. I knew better than this.
My father was an Emergency Room physician who had told me many stories about how the internet had led to an influx of worried parents coming to him presuming the worst. I am also well aware of “medical students’ syndrome,'' where med-school students learning about disease symptoms become convinced that they have many of the diseases they are studying. Most crucially, my years struggling through OCD have given me a bit of expertise in how obsessive fear works.
As I told Neely, I basically spent 3 years doing this - obsessively googling in pursuit of something that could prove my fears were unfounded. In situations like this, nothing you find online is going to make you feel better. The more you look, the more anxious you get. And all that anxiousness doesn’t help anything. It was time for us to stop playing WebMD and wait to see what the pediatrician said in the morning.
As you may have guessed, the pediatrician put our fears to rest. Ace is great, although he did get a cough and a cold a day later. Neely and I are committed to never “googling it” again.
It occurs to me that much of what I learned in overcoming my Pure O, a form of OCD, are very straightforward and more necessary for living well than most of what is taught at school. Obsessive fear and anxiety is on the rise across all age groups and, for all we still don’t know about the mind, treating anxiety is pretty darn clear.
On Anxiety and Obsession
Anxiety is a necessary, and on occasion, positive feeling that everyone gets. But it is also a feeling that can take hold of you. It can be the gateway to many other disorders because most of us have no concept of how to handle a mounting wave of anxiety. Even my wife, the most mentally stable person I’ve ever met, could be sucked into the vortex of obsession.
Many disorders, from OCD and Pure O, to body dysmorphia and agoraphobia, are just different manifestations of anxiety. Thus, it is best to look at these more as rough categories than as a specific disease. People often feel a sense of relief when they find a disorder to explain their particular mental distress and they might even find a bit of pleasure in having a label. But becoming attached to the identity of having X disorder can get in the way of improvement. Eventually, you have to let go of that identity and the security (or even status) associated with having a particular disorder.
The treatment for anxiety is very clear. Exposure. Anxiety sticks around because you try to avoid it. Stop avoiding what you fear.
You may think, wait, obsessiveness is the opposite of avoidance. But it is not. Obsessiveness is feeling an anxious feeling and not being able to sit with it. We want so badly to avoid this feeling that we obsessively search for that mythical something that will make it all go away. Maybe I can find an article that makes me think this isn’t lymphoma. Maybe I can find a way to get a hold of a doctor at 9 pm. Maybe I can get a doctors appointment first thing when they open tomorrow. Anxiety is constructive when Vikings are on their way to storm your castle walls. In a survival context, anxiety-induced obsessiveness can spur necessary energy and focus. That is why anxiety exists. But too often in the 21st century, that survival mechanism gets switched on in situations that are not dire and where it is counterproductive.
The two primary means of avoiding fear are fight and flight. Obsessiveness is mental battle (fight). But flight is just as common. We flee fears by avoiding situations where we have to deal with them or by simply trying to distract ourselves anytime anxious feelings come. There are many common avoidances - discussing death, recognizing hard truths, or having difficult, vulnerable conversations - but avoidance (flight) has a way of making things far worse.
This is the biggest issue with safe spaces and a youth development culture where parents ask others to accommodate their children’s pathologies. Parents often email their students' teachers and play secretary for their young-adults because their kids say they aren’t comfortable doing this themselves. Teachers are asked not to call on students because it causes anxiety. The student remains frail and petrified.
Like almost every person, I was once scared of public speaking. I dreaded those frequent class speech days. But I got over this and came to love it through more frequent public speaking. The principle is simple. Short term pains through exposing ourselves to our fears tend to yield long term gains. Short term gains from avoiding our fears (like not being called on in class) yield long term pains. We have to face our fears in order to not be controlled by them. This should be done gradually and it can be applied in many different ways. Overcoming my own obsessive anxiety required sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and even encouraging them, rather than trying to fight them away.
The final, and most crucial, part of getting past my anxiety was to begin a consistent meditation practice. Meditation is not just focusing on your breath, but it is learning to observe your mind as it is without trying to rush in and change anything. Through consistent practice sitting, watching, and not responding to thoughts, you can drastically change your relationship to anxiety. When you scratch the itch, you make it worse. When there is no fight and no flight, you grow far more comfortable and accepting of things you would typically want to push away. Meditation is practice in observing reality as it is and learning to feel the itch, to recognize how counterproductive scratching would be, and to, instead, let it pass.
Thank you for reading. Please share with anyone who you think would enjoy or benefit from this. If you’re interested in digging deeper, I wrote about my experience with OCD in more detail. I’m constantly amazed by how many kids I see struggling through anxiety and how much it means to them just to talk to someone who understands.
For more on the rising rates of childhood anxiety and what can be done, Kate Julian wrote a wonderful piece in the Atlantic.
Also, of note - there is a new treatment for childhood anxiety that does not even involve the child. SPACE focuses on what the parents of kids with OCD, anxiety, and other disorders can change in their own behavior. It has been quite successful.
Life is too short to be normal.