Anticipation & Anxiety
Making a plan and creating structure is a strategy for dealing with anxiety. It can be effective, but is it helpful?
I imagine even people without severe anxiety can relate to the following example. It feels like 9 times out of 10, anticipation of a stressful event, like a job interview, is far worse than the experience of the event itself. That fear of the unknown is something we can ruminate on, and those of us with anxiety cannot stop the rumination. Thus, some structure is helpful. I find that using the calendar to plan my days allows me to get all the tasks out of my head where they stir up insecurity and shame.
I need to clean the house, finish 2 projects for my client, walk the dog, buy groceries, call a contractor, make dinner, meditate, journal, exercise, edit some podcasts, finish an art project, oh, there's another art project as well, return some emails, water my bonsai, do the dishes, organize my photo files, plan a holiday...
All of that is not going to happen in one day. In my mind, it must or I am a failure. Then, I freeze. It's an impossible feat and therefore easier to sink into depression. The next day, that list is compounded with new tasks and I become more anxious. It is too much and I am overwhelmed. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
If I take the list and break it down into the week using a calendar, I can focus on things a bit easier. I do not have to worry about cleaning the house until Wednesday because today I am focusing on client projects. Managing anxiety in this way compartmentalizes the unrest. Of course, my anxious and fearful mind can now pay full attention to the client projects. In other words, anxiety is on an extreme alert still.
Structure is a form of control. If I can absolutely influence an outcome and know what to expect, anxiety goes down. Since I don't understand my emotions and learned to avoid them, I seek control. Anxiety and I ruminate on every outcome in hopes to dodge any surprises. I can live with failure, insecurity and shame. They are the comfortable norm. (Well, they were until things got so heavy that I broke.) At times, I would rather disappoint myself than feel accomplished. Should I have success, it will be expected of me in the future. That sounds like more pressure, stress, and anxiety.
In reality, control is an illusion for the most part. We can plan to go on a bike ride together, but I cannot control all of the factors of our trip. A flat tire on my bicycle may result in you feeling as if you have to turn around and walk back with me. I may feel that I have ruined your bike ride. Of course, the flat tire is not my doing. Though I could argue that I saw the hazard and reacted too late. Maybe I could have been more responsible and brought a patch kit and a small pump. It was your decision to turn around with me. I do not control your emotions or reactions. In this example, my structure/plan was unable to mitigate the painful feelings of shame, embarrassment, guilt and anger at myself.
As I have shared before in my journals, our biological, human system is quick to store these types of painful experiences in an effort to protect us in the future. This system that developed to protect our ancestors from death have not adapted to the modern stresses of today's world. So, that fictional bike ride adds fuel to the shame I already have. You'll never want to hang out with me again. I shouldn't make plans like that with friends because I will just screw it up. I will control the self-inflicted pain by avoiding these situations in the future.
I do not like who I am. I have a historic pattern of outsourcing my self-love. I jump to help others to gain their affection because I have none for myself. My structure and plans for the week will go out the window if someone needs something. I drop everything. I prioritize others before me because I do not have self-worth.
Once I have deviated from the plan, there is no control. My anxiety level rises and I use self-deprecating humor as a defense mechanism. I will 'tease' myself before others have a chance to offer constructive criticism. Again, I want to control the narrative. I want to feel disappointed in myself because that is my comfort zone. To rush to someone 's aid with a subconscious hope for praise and affection and then disappoint them would be devastatingly painful for me.
Should my aid be of use and I do get praise and affection from someone, it very quickly becomes a fluke. They were just being nice because I helped. They don't really think that about me. Or, that was a very simple deed to do that any friend would have done. This is nothing that I should celebrate.
Once I have dispatched with the foreign feelings of pride, happiness, and compassion it is time to look at the damage I have done. I dropped everything to help a friend. My task list has suffered. Thus, the list drops onto the next day's list. I get overwhelmed and wash, rinse, repeat.
All or Nothing
This very journal entry (likely convoluted and confusing) is an example of the many Cannot Win situations my depression loves. If I add structure and planning I will disappoint myself if I drop everything for others. If I do not drop things for others, I will not get any affection or praise at all. As brief as it is, without it I will endlessly beat myself up. Again, that cognitive distortion of black & white thinking sparks up and I am unable to see the gray here. I do not have to jump at everyone else's whim. I could prioritize myself sometimes. Perhaps that would result in some self-compassion? I do not have to control everyday of the week with structure because there are too many factors to control. The interruptions in my productivity can result in good things. No really, Chris, it is possible. All deviations from the plan do not need to result in shame.
I guess I wonder if structure is a good strategy for anxiety in my case because it may not be mitigating much. As I said above, splitting tasks to different days does not make me less anxious. I am 100% anxious about all the things I must finish this month! Scheduling it out allows me to be 100% anxious about today's task. I can ruminate on all the ways it could go wrong, how I could fail, and how painful the eventual failure will be.
Perhaps, simply letting the anxiety be there without trying to minimize, avoid, or reality check it would be more effective? This makes me anxious. Hey anxiety, welcome. Feeling exactly where the emotion is in my body and observing it versus ruminating with it could be a better strategy.
The difficulty comes in making any progress when I do not feel as if I have worth. Shame has always been my motivator. Currently, I want to be perfect, but I am human. What if I sit with my anxiety and still find myself getting carried away with thoughts of failure? I'm not good enough. I'm broken. This strategy doesn't work. Shame once convinced me to end my life. Now, it motivates me to not have one. If I try, I will fail. That's a hard rule in my mind to overcome. I suppose each day that I am here on this Earth is progress.