Monday, April 13, 2020

Anxiety Looks Like This

“The mind that is anxious about future events is miserable.” – Seneca

The current isolation-in-place lifestyle in response to Covid-19 has created a siege mentality, fueled by an “uncertain future” mentality. More recently, Tyler Cowen declared in, “The very worst scenario is that the coronavirus itself becomes our main entertainment.  It could become an ongoing horror show that drives us crazy.”

But anxiety is an emotional response to anticipated danger; its mind lives in the imagined future more than the turbulent present.  Anxiety is a destabilizing emotion, especially as shared in large groups.  It produces paralysis and indecision (an outcome of loss aversion), along with social withdrawal and dread of new information, which is seen as distressing in advance and disruptive rather than saving and securing, part of better knowledge that can be used to face and solve the problem.  Being anxious affects human ability to learn and integrate new information, welcome or unwelcome.
For problem solving, the anxiety around things going wrong translates to fear of the future, loss of confidence in people, things, systems, and past experience and its meaning.  Anxious consumers suffer from lack of self-confidence and efficacy, buyer’s remorse, and decision-making stall-outs because things going wrong force the questions “How did this happen?” and “What was my role in making it happen?”  Unclear responsibility results from this general confusion of causes and effects, especially when the problem frame hasn’t yet been totally determined.
Anxiety therapy
Anxiety therapy resets and reduces the anxiety-producing fuzziness by 1) investigating how the problem came about and 2) clarifying how it can be resolved.  The clarity brought to the table by the therapist is the work that the anxious sufferers themselves can’t manage.  Even those very competent operators who have good histories of dealing with heavy issues overestimate their capabilities based on the assumption that they can handle anything.  As their anxiety level increases to the point where they finally do meet their match, they realize there are too many data points and too entwined to untangle.  But it is often late in the game before the breakpoint in anxiety arrives.  Still, many of us still think we should be able to handle our own issues. It seems luxurious and indulgent to ask for help (especially for men).

There should be an anxiety stress test, even a simple one, that can be self-scored.  Here is mine:

Self-analysis questions (self-scoring, yes or no, total over half): 
1) Can’t sleep?  Does your sleep revolve around bouts of anxious rumination?
2) Does your mind return again and again to your issue, all day and in your dreams?
3) Have you tried to solve it yourself, with few or mixed results? 
4) Is this anxiety getting in the way of your life and work, creating blocks to action?
5) Do you often wish this would just go away?
6) Do you discuss with others, hoping they will have an answer to cut through the clutter?
7) Is there a sense of danger or dread around this issue, a feeling that it might cause losses in health, mobility, housing, wealth, work, future opportunities, or social relations?  (Loss security = what I have today, I’ll have tomorrow)?  [Definitely yes!]

Anxiety answers

          “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.” 
                         -        Theodore Roosevelt

Over 18% the US population, 40 million, at some time in life will be ruled by an anxious mind. Anxiety disorders, often accompanied by depression, are the most common mental illness in the nation. Although highly treatable, these disorders leave over a third of sufferers without treatment.  This is typically resolved by medication, but more effectively long-term by working through with realistic applied thinking.  Cognitive practice is an avenue to resolving basic life issues, including the negative effects of anxiety in causing people to question their own effectiveness (efficacy).  

The world is now subject to a universal anxiety episode. The current “CVX” (“The Covid-19 Experience”) compounds anxious thinking and behavior as an aggravated public health crisis with an indeterminate end-point.   Social distancing has suspended our evolved cooperation and socialization instincts so important to mental health.  This crisis is indeed different from previous wide-scale sudden change because 1) it isn’t localized or containable to one city, state, or country; 2) its effects are rolling, rather than one-time, creating ongoing change waves difficult to track or anticipate; 3) it disrupts all manner of expectation, planning, and process as discontinuities and unanticipated consequences mount; 4) the scale is unquestionably global and networked at every level in every domain of human activity.  This means that for every change that happens, dozens more are released in an exploding multiplier effect.

As a form of fear, anxiety is a common outcome of uncertainty, “normal because the future is unpredictable, unknowable, and uncontrollable.” Psychologist Joe Minden’s new book Show Your Anxiety Who’s Boss (March 2020) reviews the reasons for anxiety and proposes solutions directly related to the work of solution-finding for the current health crisis as well as the many life systems we must be able to negotiate.
Fear v. rational control
Minden begins by defining anxiety as a set of negative “reactions that appear when we don’t want or need them,” creating an internal battle for control between rational behavior and fear.  Our tendency to become anxious in the face of difficult, prolonged, or uncertain problems resistant to solving “is best countered by taking action by logical thinking and purpose.”  A subset of our common fear response when confronted with confusion and uncertainty (risks we can’t control well), anxiety is contagious in groups and self-reinforcing in individuals – as in the current climate of unease, distress, and low-level panic of CVX.  It’s a strange kind of dispersed group experience because the source of its destructive effect is many interlinked systems that affect everyone everywhere.  Unlike other localized disasters, there is no moving away from this one because it’s everywhere you want to be.

Like the flu virus, anxiety doesn’t go away but can be worked with—by social interventions as well as by individual ability to re-think and reframe it--in Minden’s terms, cognitive behavioral techniques.  Navigating difficult terrain can be done by identifying effective behaviors, making plans to get started, then working through problems.  These commonsense principles, as simple as they sound, are not easy.  Which is why they are offered as part of working through anxiety with useful ready-to-use tools by therapists.  But these are difficult to set up and follow because anxiety’s effect is to overstate risks and undervalue ability.

Minden comments on highly functioning anxiety patients who try to “overcontrol” the disorder, discovering that they can’t control or “solve” this mindset, only find ways of working with it by discovering meaning and purpose based on problem solving.  “Many who struggle with anxiety are used to being high-functioning problem solvers who successfully go through life by identifying obstacles and taking steps to eliminate them.”  But anxiety “doesn’t buckle when you try to respond with similarly crafty solutions.”  The counter-productive outcomes to giving in to anxiety are avoiding challenges, leaving important tasks incomplete, taking on distractions at work to feel busy, and ineffective coping strategies.
Anxiety tries to keep us safe by distancing from danger.  But it doesn’t serve us well in avoiding problems that have grown to become obstacles to productive effort.  What is needed is a way to navigate by breaking down problems into solvable frames and sequences that can, with expert advice, be addressed for solutions.  Even more important is this approach now, in a climate of free-floating anxiety that envelopes everything. As George M. Leader put it in his Sapiens article (3.30.20), “The coming months will be a test of humanity’s deeply rooted cooperation tendencies….But can we entirely override our long-programmed interactive cooperation and replace it with distance cooperation?”

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