I have a tendency to move my decisions from nice, logical decision trees into an underground network of convoluted root balls. Aboveground, choices are determined based on simple, bifurcating factors. Underground, no such rules exist.
Sometimes my decision root balls are so confusing that they’re also wrapped up in other trees’ roots. Those aren’t even my trees! When this happens, it feels like there’s just so much to think about that I can’t consider all of it at once. I’m left with a horribly overwhelming feeling that makes me want to say “no” to everything. It’s like going a million miles an hour and coming to a sudden stop, somehow at the same time.
I’m a habitual overthinker. I feel compelled to organize all possible plans and outcomes before even considering making a choice. The anxiety stems from the powerful feeling that I have to make the “right” decision, or else. The “or else” is vague and in most cases, probably entirely fictional.
And yet, often, I don’t have a specific worst-case scenario in mind. It’s just a sudden feeling of doom. Once I get myself to slow down and think through the choice in actual words, the real overthinking happens. The pros and cons of each choice are easier to hold onto, but they go straight into the center of a decision root ball. Then they get tumbled around for a while before I get frustrated enough to make the decision.
Untangling a Decision Root Ball
I’m learning that, for slightly longer-term choices, I do better when I force myself to not try to make a decision right away, but to instead let it sit for a day or two so as to avoid my immediate reaction. Of course, I can’t always stop myself from thinking about it all the time and being anxious, but I can reduce the pressure a little.
When I succeed at this strategy for overthinking, I’m much better at choosing the option that’s scary but leads to more growth. The positives start to outweigh the anxiety. The decision root ball starts to become a little less constricted.
For shorter-term decisions, I’ve found that I have to do the opposite of the long-term strategy. If I let myself waffle too much, I become paralyzed and am overwhelmingly likely to pick whichever option involves the least uncertainty.
To illustrate this with a mundane example, imagine me considering the benefits and drawbacks of various food court establishments. If I’m overwhelmed by attempting to balance the benefits and drawbacks, I will pick the option with the least uncertainty and go home empty-handed. And by benefits and drawbacks, I mean things like the length of the line, how harried the employees look, the likelihood that I’ll have to shout to be heard, and how chaotic the space around the line is. I mean, seriously. Sometimes, I’m deterred by not knowing what sizing system they use for their cups. It’s a wonder I can function at all.
Maybe someday I’ll progress to making decisions on the spot with minimal anxiety, but that sounds like an expert-level endeavor. For now, I’ll stick to gradually pruning my decision root balls and trying to say “yes” to some things.
Having anxiety about therapy doesn’t mean that therapy isn’t “for” you or that you can’t benefit from it. Instead, it might be a fear you can change by adjusting the way you approach your sessions.
We often focus on the role of the therapist and how well we connect with them when talking about how to feel comfortable opening up in therapy, but we don’t often examine our expectations of ourselves. Self-criticism and high expectations had me feeling anxious about therapy until I changed the way I thought about myself as a client.
When I decided to start going to therapy in college, I was apprehensive about having to do the classic back-and-forth discussion with my chosen therapist. In fact, I’m still not always keen on it. But the expectation that I held for myself – that I would sit down and spill my guts and cry and reach some kind of catharsis every week – did not pan out. The more accurate picture was (and sometimes still is) one of me sitting down, saying I’m okay, shrugging a lot, and forcing my therapist to sit in silence with me while I wrestle with my thoughts.
I thought for a long time that I was bad at therapy. I was very critical of myself for inadvertently shutting down. Sometimes, I still feel guilty because I perceive my excruciating quietness as a waste of my therapist’s time.
Shifting My Perspective on Myself in Therapy
The longer I’ve stuck with it, the more I can see that this perspective of myself as something like a student who is expected to achieve success is preventing me from recognizing the progress I’ve made. As a perfectionist, I’m prone to thinking that no amount of improvement is good enough, and if I’m not meeting my own expectations, I must be failing. Perhaps even more importantly, my anxiety about therapy gets in the way of me focusing on what I can get out of the process despite and because of my difficulty with certain topics.
I have been trying to shift my perspective on my role in therapy to be more like that of an explorer or some kind of self-ethnographer. I go to therapy, I do my best to talk, and I observe whatever happens. I’m there to be curious, and if talking about something is suddenly challenging, that in itself is interesting information.
Why Go to Therapy if It’s So Uncomfortable?
I learned early on in my experience with therapy that although talking about myself is deeply uncomfortable, it feels worthwhile. I have always been quiet and reserved, and I tell myself that it’s a preference. But, finding myself unable to answer personal questions in therapy taught me that I have less control over it than I wanted to believe.
To Challenge Myself
When pushed to discuss something I’m uncomfortable talking about, I simply clam up. It frustrates me because it does not feel like a voluntary reaction. Obviously, I go to therapy to talk about myself – why can’t I override my tendency to shut down? It’s like a drawbridge lifts in front of me, and I can no longer get my words across the gulf between myself and my therapist.
To Practice Being Vulnerable
Ultimately, therapy led me to the realization that while staying quiet is comfortable for me, it is also lonely. I don’t intend to change my natural tendency to be reserved, but I do hope that by practicing being open about difficult things, I can allow my reservation to be a choice, not a barrier.
Everyone has secrets, and it’s perfectly okay to keep them private. But there are times when it’s good to share personal information, especially if it’s going to help you overcome a challenge in your life. Holding secrets out of an inability to put them down can be a deeply isolating experience.
Finding Ways Around My Anxiety About Therapy
I’ve gotten better at talking about myself in therapy, but it’s still hard. I still have sessions where I can’t seem to find the lever to lower the drawbridge and let the words out, and that’s okay. My therapist knows that I stay quiet not out of disinterest in the process but because it’s hard for me to engage in it.
On days when I don’t say much, I go home and write her an email with all of the words I couldn’t set free. It gives us somewhere to start the next time and lets me communicate in a way that’s easier for me. I still challenge myself to talk, but I know that I have a backup line of communication if I need it.
Whether I choose to discuss something or not is up to me, of course. My therapist is there to guide me, even push me a little, but ultimately, I decide what to talk about or not. If I want to set aside a more difficult subject in favor of discussing something easier but still meaningful, I can do that.
Considering the Therapeutic Relationship
I have found that for me, viewing a therapist’s role as that of a knowledgeable partner rather than an authority figure helps me stay intrinsically motivated and makes me more willing to push myself. We’re exploring my brain together, and I know that if I don’t accomplish something I set out to do, I won’t be “in trouble” with my therapist the way I would think I were if our relationship were less equal.
It’s a strange relationship to navigate — one that is inherently unequal in more than one way. You go to a therapist for help because they have knowledge and a perspective you don’t. You pay them, and you probably defer to their expertise. They are in a position to set expectations and try to interpret the implications of what you say or don’t say. It’s easy to start seeing your therapist as someone to impress, especially if, like me, you’re a chronic people-pleaser.
At the same time, clients have the option to stop going, the freedom to ask for adjustments in their treatment, and the potential to view themselves as indispensable experts on their own experiences. It can be motivating to think of therapy as something you get to take part in with your therapist rather than something you have to go to. Ultimately, I think the dynamic of a partnership makes me less likely to fear that my therapist might disapprove of or be disappointed in me for not achieving something or even for not talking enough.
I’m still trying to let go of my self-imposed pressure to be a wonderfully verbose client. I go to therapy to work on my depression and anxiety, and part of that involves being less critical of myself. I used to think I was a bad client because of my anxiety about therapy. Now, I think I struggle to talk about myself, and that’s part of why I’m in therapy.
My depression has not been great lately, and I’ve let my blog go wild in my absence. The longer I go without posting, the harder it is to pick up again. I have to think back to where I left off and decide how to begin.
After the Disaster
Last I wrote, I was wrestling with the loss of our house and belongings after a grassfire destroyed them. Life has gone on, as it tends to do. I’ve been back to the house a few more times, but only to look at it – not to search for anything. Yesterday, I parked by the trails near my neighborhood (when do I start calling it “my old neighborhood?”) and got out to look at the mesa. Green grass was growing like stubble over the burned landscape. I don’t know why I was surprised to see it that way. I knew the mesa would recover quickly. I suppose it was just more painful than I expected to notice the passage of time after a disaster.
It’s not prominent in national news anymore, displaced people have scattered and settled, and we’ve acquired all the things we need in our new place. The wider community is moving on, as is reasonable and expected. And yet, it still feels so immediate and all-encompassing to me.
The Day-to-Day Stress
Wind, for instance, makes me feel a horrible sense of dread. It reminds me of walking Stella by the houses across the street that morning, several hours before the fire. Snapshots of it come back to me: a woman in her pajamas, rushing to pick up trash from her capsized bin; a full recycling can skidding across the street at high velocity; picking up crumpled, Christmas-themed debris and hearing someone remind me that wrapping paper can’t be recycled.
Most viscerally, though, wind reminds me of stumbling to a fencepost on the mesa, my hair whipping around my face in the deafening howl of near hurricane-force wind. It reminds me of standing there in disbelief, watching the wall of smoke move closer.
I was driving during a high wind advisory the other day, and all I could think about was my dog, Stella, alone in the apartment. I wanted to get back there as soon as possible in case a fire broke out. I couldn’t help but imagine the terrible possibilities. What if the road to the gate was clogged with cars? Could I park on the sidewalk and climb the fence? How would I transport Stella and our things to the car? What would I take? I imagined myself climbing the fence and running to our apartment, only to realize that imaginary me had left the garage door opener in the car, and I would need it to get inside. Should I break a window or run back to the car?
Suddenly, my GPS told me to get off at the next exit, so I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it was windy. That was it. No emergency.
The slightest thing will make me think of the fire. A wooden bowl in a craft store brought me to tears the other day. The realization that it’s spring and I don’t have any warm-weather clothes is disheartening. Then again, I don’t think about it all the time, and in some ways, I’m settling into our new place and getting used to my new routine. When I try to notice when things don’t suck, I can identify things about the apartment that I like. It’s sunny, conveniently located, and it has walking paths nearby. I like my room, which feels bigger than my old one. My new plants are doing well. It’s a nice place to live, and we’re fortunate to have it.
Depression is Stubborn
Despite the positive developments, my mental health has been declining for a while. Well, it’s on a low plateau, like one of those deep-sea shelves. Even before the fire, things were trending downward, so all the upheaval hasn’t helped my depression.
I’m having a hard time pulling myself out of the hopelessness. Whenever my depression worsens, I struggle to see things positively, and not just about the fire. The future is hard to imagine. Depression seems to stretch on infinitely. I can go out and do things and even enjoy them on some level, but underneath the top layers, any kind of meaningful goal or long-term ambition feels like too much effort and utterly out of reach.
Depending on when I finish working for the day, I either take a nap or go for a walk with Stella. My afternoon walks feel long and exhausting, but Stella doesn’t mind if I walk slowly and stop a lot. I let her point us down a new street the other day, and I ended up getting completely turned around. I had to use Google Maps to get back. Small hiccups like that make me irritable when my mental health is poor, so I put Stella on a short leash for the rest of the walk. She eats goose poop, rolls on damp dirt, and forgets she’s on a leash when she takes off in pursuit of squirrels. It’s better if she walks right next to me.
I know that I’m very isolated. It’s somehow overwhelming to talk to friends or even make a blog post. I worry that if I go do something social, I’ll run out of energy and won’t be able to muster up any enthusiasm. Usually, it’s fine, but the thought of it is so exhausting that I’d rather be alone. I’m more comfortable alone, but I know it’s not good for me.
I don’t like abandoning my blog for long periods of time. Depressed me struggles to create an entire post that follows a cohesive story or structure. When I do write something, I usually convince myself that it needs more work before I can post it. I let it languish in my drafts folder until I eventually return to it, read it, and wonder why I thought it was so bad. This post, for instance, is a conglomeration of several drafts I wrote over the last few weeks.
The combination of depression and perfectionism is a strange mix. When it comes to things like showering and eating, I’m apathetic. But, when I’m writing a blog post, an email, or even a text, I have to edit obsessively. That is, until depression fills me up with apathy like sand in an hourglass, and I decide to set aside my writing.
Let’s see how long it takes me to write the next one. I’m setting that clam for one week. Maybe two.
Counterintuitively, stubborn determination is a trait that really holds me back from personal growth. It creates a cycle of unnecessary stress, anxiety, and avoidance that leads me to say “no” more often than I’d like.
When I start something, I automatically lock myself into seeing it out, even if I don’t like it, am bad at it, or if any number of valid reasons for stepping away from something crop up. So, the thought of doing something new comes with a flood of anxiety about entering into something I would never allow myself to quit. I worry about doing a bad job, letting people down, disappointing myself, ruining something, etc., and ultimately, being trapped in a role that doesn’t fit. So, I’m tempted to never start at all. It’s rather paralyzing.
But doing something new is not necessarily forever. You can quit things, and it’s ok. In fact, movement and personal growth can come from quitting, as taking new opportunities frequently requires that you let go of something else. It inherently results in change, and although change is uncomfortable, it’s how we grow. And so, I want to be a quitter, and despite the negative connotation of the word, I want it to be like one of those positive affirmations that I never say to myself in the mirror.
“I’m a QUITTER!” I’d say, and then I’d do some fist pumps and charge out of the house, ready to quit some things so that I can start anew, flush with the knowledge that if those new things go awry, I can quit those, too. I don’t want to quit everything, of course – I just want it to be easier for me to accept risk and not hold myself to impossible, permanent standards.
An Quick Anecdote About Quitting
I quit a job with no warning, once. In fact, I quit on the first day. It was such a terrible fit for me that the discomfort of quitting something was nothing compared to the prospect of working there every day. I called after going home and explained that, having experienced the job for a day, I definitely would not be able to do the job in a safe, satisfactory way. And it was fine! In fact, they thanked me for being frank with them. I felt awful for wasting their time, but in hindsight, it was 100% the right thing to do. Quitting was good.
Finding Personal Growth in Stressful Situations
For some reason, that experience has not completely impressed upon me the non-world-ending nature of most quitting scenarios. Just the possibility of encountering something I end up wanting to quit still causes me a lot of anxiety. But logically, I know that for the kinds of choices I make in my daily life, nothing catastrophic would happen if I chose to change things. Even in the worst-case scenario, my life would be likely be altered, but certainly not threatened. People are resilient. I could make it through the bumps of quitting, just fine, and I would probably find some ongoing personal growth along the way.
If only I could just quit my dedication to not quitting things.
And I love it. Well, “love” is too strong, but I have distinctly positive feelings about this change in my depression. From the outside, it may sound amazing to take a four-hour nap every day. Living it is a different matter. When you’re absolutely exhausted all the time and you crawl into bed simply because you don’t want to exist as a conscious person anymore, it’s not rejuvenating. When you go to sleep because you just want the day to be over and at least that way, you won’t perceive the passage of time, it’s not indulgent self-care. Instead, it’s just a black hole siphoning days, weeks, months of your life away from you. So, when you suddenly have every precious second of the day to be awake, it’s wonderful – and a little bit uncomfortable.
Wellbutrin is what’s still making me anxious – a side effect that Google says goes away within a week or two. Not so, for me, although hopefully, for a more complex reason. When I started taking propranolol, a beta blocker, to counteract the anxiety and jitters, I hoped that I could start to really enjoy my improved motivation. I’ve been mostly feeling like it arose solely as a product of anxiety that propels me from distraction to distraction. Instead, I encountered a strange result. Two propranolol per day had minimal effect, but three made me so shaky that I struggled to type or to use a spoon. This is weird, and not at all what’s supposed to happen. Perhaps I had a paradoxical reaction to it, but it’s hard to say. As for the anxiety, my psychiatric nurse practitioner theorized that the addition of Wellbutrin made for three medications in my list that deal with norepinephrine. I was making too much of it, essentially leaving me constantly primed for fight or flight. I’m now tapering down on one of those meds in preparation to increase the Wellbutrin.
Although the anxiety is improving, it still keeps me from napping most days. It’s that odd combination of being tired and full of energy at the same time. I want to close my eyes and rest, but it kind of feels like my trachea is the size of a large straw, and I can feel my heartbeat in my ears. It’s a tug-of-war between depression, which still votes in favor of sleep, and anxiety, which votes for frantic activity. Consequently, many of my days feel much longer than they used to because I’m unable to sleep. I’m still not as interested in my, well, interests as I used to be, so although I have this itch to be active, nothing seems quite right. The anxiety is also not nice, but it is a novel experience to be conscious for an entire day. There are so many hours to pass!
In an example day, I’ve:
fixed my clogged bathroom sink
drawn some potted plants
accomplished my part-time work in one sitting
refilled the bird feeder
took the dog to the vet
*perused the web for “doggles”
went for a walk
There have been some recent days that included naps, but on the whole, I’m pleased with my daily awakeness. Now to try not to go too far in this direction and become more anxious that I’m only doing very minimal activity and it somehow feels like a lot to me. Don’t. Over. Think. It.
*Doggles, or dog goggles, are on my shopping list because my dog, Stella, habitually develops eye infections, likely in the course of her high-speed, full-contact dog park outings. The doggles are for her to wear while we play fetch, silly as that is. But hey – ten bucks for doggles, or $180 for each vet trip? They also look awesome.
Being anxious and depressed at the same time feels like a mental contradiction. I feel mismatched, like my head and my body are going at different speeds. Many times during a day, depression tells me I’d like to sit and do nothing, but my body impolitely declines that option. I feel an almost constant low level of adrenaline, like someone jumps out of a closet and startles me 15 times a day.
Still, for me, this level of anxiety is vastly preferable to the hibernation I was doing before Wellbutrin. At least now, I have more motivation to stay out of bed and put my energy towards something productive. I feel more like a regular human who can get stuff done, as long as I can focus long enough to do it. I’ve decided to call this combination of symptoms “Depression on Fast-Forward”. If these were potatoes, they’d be hot potatoes, never in one hand for very long. Sometimes, they fall on the floor and split open, to later be relegated to the bin.
Distractions are helpful, as I wrote in my last post. My mom and I recently started cross-country skiing again, and wow, does it really shake your confidence in being proficient at standing upright. I fell five times on our first outing, and three times on our second outing, so I’m really improving on my wobbly wipeout score. That’s pretty good, I’d say.
I just recently figured out yet more issues with my pharmacy, so I’ll be able to try a beta blocker to help with the jitters. An added benefit of this is that it may help reduce my essential tremor. Upon hearing the news of my upcoming fine motor skills, my mom said, “You could do eye surgery!” And I said, “That is what’s holding me back from my love of eyeball operations.” My tremor has worsened in recent years, probably due to the lithium I take for depression, which is totally worth it, but still annoying. Sometimes, if I wake up very suddenly, I find my hands shaking so badly that I can’t unlock my phone. It’s somewhat disturbing, but again- worth it.
Depression on Fast-Forward is troublesome. I’m more active, but most of it is hollow. The bigger things I’m doing, like skiing with my mom, feel meaningful, but the rest of my time…not so much. Well, except for all of the puppies I’ve met lately. They were all amazingly, infectiously joyous creatures. That’s the solution – I need more puppies.
When my depression lifts, I often suffer from a kind of aimless anxiety that seems to have no discernable cause. Unfortunately, I also get anxious about how long I’ve been putting off large goals. Double anxiety. Having recently started taking Wellbutrin, I’m also dealing with the jitters. Triple anxiety. Luckily, feeling less depressed gives me newfound motivation and energy. I’ve been putting that motivation to use in an effort to calm my anxiety.
I’ve been writing more, for one thing. I’m much more motivated to be creative when my mood is ok. And, maybe the cortisol increases my typing speed. Gotta get that words per minute rate up, right?
I’ve also been renewing my dog training efforts. I work with Stella on our daily walks to teach her polite leash walking skills. I generally let her wander the length of the leash and sniff around. She knows not to pull (too much), but I’d like her to walk at my side on command. We’re definitely making progress. In a silly-but-functional goal, I’m also attempting to train her to open her mouth on command and let me brush her teeth without her writhing around like an unearthed worm. It’s ambitious, but hey – they teach hippos at the zoo to do that. Surely, Stella is smarter than a hippo.
Tackling tasks that I’m already comfortable with, like walking the dog or writing something, is one thing. It’s a great way to distract myself from anxiety that I can’t address at the source. But tackling the anxiety that comes from avoiding something is different. When I’m anxious about something large – something that I perceive as a big step – I’m paralyzed. If you struggle with procrastination, you might relate to this. The thing is scary, so you avoid the thing, which makes you anxious because you haven’t done the thing yet, but the cycle continues. The more you avoid it, the bigger and scarier it becomes in your mind.
These are the two sides to the “big step anxiety” coin for me. There’s the anxiety of doing the thing, and the anxiety of knowing I’m putting it off. Usually, I remain inactive until the latter anxiety outweighs the former. At that point, I’m forced to examine the steps I’ll need to take in order to alleviate the discomfort of procrastination. I have this problem where I jump ahead to the end goal and get overwhelmed by all the steps in between. Even though I know that I can break it down and do a little at a time, it feels like a big commitment to get started because I know that I’ll have to do all of the hard parts at some point.
I have a lot to work on in this department, so I’m obviously not the picture of success (yet). What I do know is that in the same way that purposeful action helps me deal with general anxiety, getting started on something I’ve been putting off usually feels better than procrastinating. Having a direction to go in, as long as I can get my motivation past some undetermined threshold, is comforting. I like structure. It helps me organize myself and not do that thing where I skip to the end and get overwhelmed. (It helps a little. I always do that thing).
By procrastinating, you’re suffering both sides of the anxiety coin. Rationally, you can save yourself some stress by chipping away at unpleasant tasks bit by bit, right away. Too bad people are not always rational, and avoiding immediate pain is more attractive than choosing the benefit of the long view. So in essence, fight human nature, beat back entropy, and go conquer your goals! Boom. Fixed procrastination.