Rough time to be alive, huh? I’m writing this on October 7, 2018; Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in yesterday, Brazil looks to be electing a fascist today, and earlier this afternoon, I was lying in bed, ill, and I heard a sick screech of metal on metal, and I stumbled woozily over to my window to see two black sedans bent around each other in the intersection below, steel exoskeletons crumpled like paper, and two people who I presume were the drivers, pacing back and forth on their cell phones. Today, as on all days, there are no shortage of reasons to freak the fuck out and despair at the state of the world and feel powerless to effect change in the face of random, malicious chaos.
I’m not here to eradicate your anxiety. I’m not a medical professional; I’m just your friendly neighbourhood Peyton, trying to make my way in the world with a wicked case of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which is not the same thing as obsessive-compulsive disorder, although, like, it’s understandable why people might confuse the two. In essence, I worry about everything. I have always been like this. I recently dug up some notes from a sixth-grade psych eval, and this social worker was literally like, “Peyton is a very anxious child. Peyton worries about everything. Peyton could benefit from learning techniques for deep relaxation.” This was true of eleven-year-old Peyton, and it’s generally true of twenty-five-year-old Peyton, and I am still working on the whole “calming the fuck down” thing.
Among the most effective calming-the-fuck-down methods I’ve devised is something that I like to call an Anxiety Inventory. It’s not the same thing as the Beck Anxiety Inventory, which is basically a checklist that asks you to answer, on a four-point scale, such questions as: Are you experiencing numbness or tingling? Do you feel hot? Do you ever get nervous? Are you single? I heard you fucked your girl, is it true? You getting money? You think them homies you with is with you?
No, an Anxiety Inventory is a different kind of process, and this is how I do it:
- Write down literally everything that is stressing me out.
- Take a quick break to stretch and get a snack.
- Respond to every point on my list the way I’d respond to a close friend.
With me so far? Let’s take a closer look at each one of these steps.
STEP ONE: WRITE DOWN EVERYTHING THAT IS MAKING YOU ANXIOUS, LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE LITTLE THING, NO PROBLEM IS TOO BIG OR TOO SMALL, AND BE AS CRAZY AND IRRATIONAL AS YOU WANT TO BE, REALLY DON’T HOLD BACK
When we talk to other people about our problems, we often hedge. We often say it’s not that bad, and we know we’re just being whiny and irrational, and it’s totally not a big deal. And I get that! Being vulnerable with other people is really hard. It’s normal to feel like you need to sand the edges off your problems before you ask for advice.
But the Anxiety Inventory is a solitary exercise. It is just for you. You are the only person who will ever read this. There are no spectators. You are not here to judge yourself. You are not here to pretend you’re not afraid. Your only job is to be completely honest about the contours of your fear.
To illustrate what I mean, this is a valid Anxiety Inventory item:
- It’s been a few hours, and Britney still hasn’t texted me back. I’m worried I may have done something to upset her.
But this is also valid:
- It’s been a few hours, and Britney still hasn’t texted me back. I’m worried I may have done something to upset her. She’s going to tell all of our mutual friends about whatever I did to upset her, and they’re all going to be upset on her behalf, and they’re going to block and unfriend me en masse and warn other people to stop associating with me, and if I try to reach out and apologize for whatever I did, they will call me a disingenuous liar, and if I don’t reach out and apologize for whatever I did, they will march to my apartment in a furious, pulsing mob, kick my door into splinters, extract me from my bedroom, and fling me down the stairwell, shattering my solar plexus. I will then undergo a months-long hospitalization, which I cannot afford because I don’t have health insurance, and once released from the hospital I will go bankrupt, go into arrears on my rent, and die in a gutter.
Now, is this a realistic scenario? No. Is it even possible? Also no. But if your fear is genuine, if even one tiny little part of you is really, truly worried that this might happen, just record it. Just put it on paper.
I watched a lot of CNN as a kid — like, please understand, I was a weird, weird kid — and I was seven or eight when 9/11 happened, and I started having these vivid nighttime hallucinations that Osama bin Laden was hiding out in my suburban Vancouver home. In my closet. Behind the shower curtain. Deep in the bowels of the crawlspace. I must have known intellectually that the president and CEO of al Qaeda was not, in fact, evading the CIA by hanging out in my bathtub. But I sat on the toilet and trembled at the opaque shower curtain all the same, too afraid to poop.
Now, my parents could have reacted in one of two ways. They could have said, “Osama bin Laden has not barricaded himself in our two-storey home in the suburbs of Vancouver, you seven-year-old dipshit. Don’t you know anything about geopolitics? How are you this stupid?” Fortunately, my parents did not do that. When I went wailing to them in the middle of the night, vibrating with panic after having dreamt of Osama bin Laden popping out of the craft closet like fucking Whack-A-Mole, they were more like, “Peyton, I’m so sorry you’re frightened. I know that you’ve seen a lot of scary things on the news lately, and it’s easy to feel like the world isn’t a very safe place anymore. Let’s stay here for a while and cuddle until you feel calmer, and then we’ll turn on the lights and go to your room and we’ll look under the bed, together, just to make sure Osama bin Laden hasn’t set up camp with the dust bunnies. Also, we’re putting a filter on the TV so you can’t watch CNN anymore.”
Sandra Cisneros, in her short story “Eleven,” wrote my favourite opening paragraph in the history of literature:
What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are—underneath the year that makes you eleven.
Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up, maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three.
I’m sure that so much of your life right now is about trying to look competent and capable for other people. You think to yourself, “You are an adult; you should be able to handle this. It’s pathetic that you can’t handle this. Stop being such a baby. Grow up.” When you do an Anxiety Inventory, though, it’s absolutely crucial that you give yourself permission to say something stupid like you’re ten, or be scared like you’re five, or cry like you’re three. There is a frantic, screaming kid inside of you who only knows fear, who has no idea how to fix it; take that younger you by the shoulders and say, gently, “I see you. I understand why you’re afraid of this. You’re not stupid to be afraid of this. If you can tell me what’s wrong, we can fix it together.”
List as many things as you can think of. Go into as much detail as you need to. Jot down big problems and little annoyances. Get it all out of your system.
This is by no means a template, because this is your exercise and it’s up to you to decide what to include, but here’s an example from a real Anxiety Inventory of mine, from December of 2016:
- my boss and i are in conflict and i’m worried she won’t like me or she’ll make my working life difficult or she’ll fire me, and if she fires me i’ll have to look for a job again and i don’t want to job hunt again, not for a while
- coworker #1 and coworker #2 are hanging out without me, all my coworkers have a group text without me, i’m starting to feel stressed out and excluded
- my apartment is messy
- i’m depressed
- i self-harmed this morning
- i’m so stressed out about telling the person i like how i feel about them and i’m wondering if i even should at this point
- my savings account took a major hit when i had to take my cat to the vet and i’m nearly broke
- i still haven’t finished the second draft of my novel
- everyone’s going to hate will toledo now after what he said about carrie & lowell even though he apologized
- donald trump is going to be the president
Fortunately, I quit that terrible job, I cleaned my apartment, I went on anti-depressants and stopped self-harming, I told that person how I felt and it was fine, I replenished my savings account, I finished the second draft of my novel, and the whole Carrie & Lowell thing blew over. Unfortunately, Donald Trump is still the president.
STEP TWO: STEP AWAY FOR TEN OR FIFTEEN MINUTES, BREATHE IN, BREATHE OUT
You’re going to take a break. Long enough to ground yourself after the anxiety induction of Step One, but not long enough to get distracted and forget what you’re doing. Ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes should do it. Set a timer if you want to.
Don’t do anything rigorous with this time. No input — like, don’t fill these minutes up by reading an article or watching TV — and no output — don’t fire off a message to a friend, don’t do homework. Your only job right now is to relax.
Again, this is your exercise, and you know what keeps you calm better than I do. That being said, some suggestions:
- Fix yourself an easy snack or something to drink.
- Take a long, hot shower with nice-smelling soap and shampoo.
- Find a brief guided meditation exercise or yoga routine on YouTube.
- Go for a walk around your block.
- Dance around your room to your favourite song.
- Do a sheet mask or paint your nails.
- Cuddle your favourite stuffed animal.
- Doodle aimlessly.
When you’re feeling ready, you can go ahead and start Step Three.
STEP THREE: RESPOND TO EVERY POINT ON THE LIST LIKE IT’S A DM FROM THE PERSON YOU LOVE MOST IN THE WORLD, LIKE, REMEMBER WHEN LORDE SAID, “I CARE FOR MYSELF THE WAY I USED TO CARE ABOUT YOU?” THAT’S THE IDEA
You are not going to magically solve all of your problems by doing this exercise. Let’s be crystal: if you’re doing an Anxiety Inventory, you’ve probably already considered a wide variety of solutions to your problems, and you may feel powerless to control what’s stressing you out.
So when you go through your list and respond to your own points, you’re not trying to develop a multi-point, bulletproof plan to fix all that ails you and never feel sad again. You’re simply trying to respond to each point in a meaningful way. Maybe you’ll think of a new approach to a problem you’d been stuck on. Maybe you’ll find ways to ameliorate your stress around a problem that’s beyond your control. And maybe you’ll just acknowledge that a situation is hard, and that it’s okay to feel sad about it, and that’s valuable, too. This isn’t just about finding concrete steps to resolve a problem. Sometimes it’s about alleviating stress in situations where solutions aren’t obvious.
The most important thing is that you draw up your answers with total love and compassion for yourself. You can (and should!) treat this part of the exercise like you’re answering texts from a loved one who’s going through a hard time. Like, if your best friend texted you, “ugh i accidentally knocked over a cup of coffee on my boss’s desk and totally wrecked a bunch of his stuff and he got really mad at me and i spent my whole lunch break crying in the bathroom,” you would not answer back, “jesus tap-dancing christ, you idiot klutz, how do you fuck up that bad, you’re just lucky your boss didn’t fire you.” At least, I hope you wouldn’t do that. I hope you’d be more like, “oh no, that’s awful, i’m so sorry, just remember that accidents happen and you’re great at your job and this will all blow over and nobody will remember it in two weeks.” The mood is gentle reassurance and searching for new ways forward. The mood is not self-flagellation.
And, as with the list you made in Step One, these responses are just for you. Nobody else is ever going to see them. You don’t have to worry about anyone else seeing anything you write. You don’t have to moderate your answers for anyone else. This is for you, by you. Only you will know what is most helpful and comforting for you.
That said, here are a few questions that you can use as guides while you’re writing your responses:
- Who can I talk to about this problem? Who can I ask for help? Friends? Family members? Teachers? Therapists or medical professionals? Counseling hotlines or chatlines? Advice columnists? r/legaladvice?
- What’s within my control? What’s beyond my control? If I’m feeling guilty about or responsible for things I can’t control, how can I mitigate those feelings?
- Can I break this problem into smaller pieces to make it more manageable? Can I place this problem in a broader context, so it feels like less of a big deal?
- If I have to do something difficult or stressful, how can I make that task easier for myself? How can I prepare in advance? How can I make sure I go into it feeling confident and relaxed?
- How long is this going to be an issue? Will I still be stressed about this in a week? A month? A year?
- If I can’t take concrete action, how can I at least feel better, healthier, and less anxious?
And, if you need an example, here are a few of my own responses, from that December 2016 Anxiety Inventory I mentioned in Step One:
my apartment is messy
clean it. a little bit every day. you don’t have to go full marie kondo and scour every surface. just set a timer and tidy up for five minutes. ask your roommate to pitch in. you’re capable of cleaning your apartment, and you know that living in a clean space goes a long way to improving your mood.
and you’re on anti-depressants, and you’re seeing a therapist, and you’re actively taking strides to get better. this has been an overwhelmingly difficult year, and you’ve managed to keep your head above water and grow in really positive ways despite a number of extreme difficulties – two bouts of unemployment, two job searches, financial difficulties, the case of your mother, a break-up, the loss of a good friend, complicated feelings for your best friend. donald trump. but you’re still alive, you’re still working hard, you still have so many friends who love you, and you’ve done so, so much work on your novel this year. you’re doing important work that you care about. depression is a liar, anxiety is a liar, trauma is a liar; work very hard on challenging pessimism and hopelessness and despair. keep your chin up and keep trying to do the right thing.
i self-harmed this morning
yeah. it happens. some truly awful, painful, traumatizing things have happened to you, and you know that this trauma makes you react in unhealthy and unhelpful ways. you are not a bad person. you are a victim of trauma, and you deserve help and love. it would be really helpful to practice anti-self-harm techniques when you find yourself in these situations. i think it would also be helpful to limit your exposure to triggering material to avoid retreading that dangerous ground. it’s not okay, but it happened, and you’re still here, and you’re moving forward.
You’re all done! Yay! You’ve completed your Anxiety Inventory, and hopefully now your brain feels a little less like it’s on fire.
BONUS STEP: KEEP A RECORD OF YOUR ANXIETY INVENTORIES AND COME BACK TO THEM AND REALIZE THAT HEY, EVERYTHING WORKED OUT OKAY
I maintain an Anxiety Inventory folder in my gdrive, and I periodically look at old ones to place new problems in perspective. It’s not like my life is suddenly, magically free of difficulty. But there are, honestly, few things better for my mental health than looking through these files and thinking about how I overcame past problems, or how stressful situations resolved themselves without any interference from me.
I’ll leave you with these words, from the great Hanya “Mom” “Queen” “Pulitzer When” Yanagihara:
Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.