How to control worry and focus on what needs to get done?
January 19, 2009 5:05 AM   Subscribe

How do you stop worrying so you can work? When you start to freak out with worry, how do you stop?

With a big deadline looming at work, I have found myself getting so overwhelmed by worry that I can't think straight and therefore can't work. I have to take a walk to stop internally freaking out ("oh my god oh my god oh my god").

I mostly worry I won't finish in time. I also worry that outsiders will find a mistake in the report or the method. I feel responsible for the reputation of the entire group. This is a long-term project, so I worry people will think "he worked on this for how long and still, this part isn't perfect?"

I particularly am having trouble making a final "to do" list, because as I think about certain loose ends, I get really critical of myself for not having finished them yet. They are 99.9% done, but that 0.1% gap seems hard to close. There are only one or two steps for each, but I have trouble thinking about them because I get derailed into thinking "oh my god, Important Step B is not 100.0% done, what have I been doing with my time, how could I be so stupid, someone else should be in charge of this project, am I even going to finish this?"

But when I am calm, things seem manageable. I can get myself organized to finish things up on time. I can list the Important Steps and the few "to do" items that would close that 0.1% for each of them, and it's a realistic amount of work to do. I can also see that, in reality, the project will never be perfect. There will always be ways that others could improve upon the work, and that's just the way these projects are.

Do you have any tricks to help me shift back into being calm and productive when I get into that freaked out state? This is a fairly new thing for me (well, I can see hints of it in some procrastination in college, and it's gotten worse around deadline times over the past few years), so I don't have good tricks yet. What works for you?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like classic anxiety to me, which is both common and treatable. If you're willing to seek professional help, go that route. Otherwise consider changes in diet, exercise, and other habits that may be exacerbating your problem. Something like cutting back on caffeine and sugar may do the trick.
posted by wfrgms at 5:13 AM on January 19, 2009

Taking the walks is good.

I've recently started walking first thing in the morning, dragging my unwilling body out of bed earlier than usual to find the time to do that. It's been good so far (except for a nasty heel blister); sets me up nicely for the day.
posted by flabdablet at 5:16 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

And do watch the caffeine intake. I know quite a few people who go into bad worry spirals when their caffeine consumption gets higher than is good for them.
posted by flabdablet at 5:18 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

When I'm feeling at my absolute worst, I take 250mg of niacin and, about ten minutes later, wonder why I was ever freaking out in the first place. Here's why:

Niacin is known as a natural tranquilizer. In a study on rats, niacin had similar effects to valium on the turnover of serotonin, noradrenalin, dopamine, and GABA in the areas of the brain that are thought to be affected by anxiety—without being addictive. Some experts go so far as to call niacin "Nature's Valium." Niacin also helps decrease excess lactic acid levels and episodes of low blood sugar/hypoglycemia (from adrenal fatigue).

The textbook description of anxiety neurosis exactly matches the symptoms of vitamin B3 (niacin) deficiency: hyperactivity, depression, fatigue, apprehension, headache, and insomnia. It has been shown in animals to work in the brain in ways similar to drugs such as benzodiazepines (Valium-type drugs) that are used to treat anxiety. One study found that niacinamide (not niacin) could help people get through withdrawal from benzodiazepines, which is a common problem. A reasonable amount of niacinamide to take for anxiety, according to some doctors, is up to 500mg four times per day.

Niacinamide locks onto the same receptor sites in the brain as do tranquilizers such as Valium, and is a natural tranquilizer. The manufacturer of valium is also the worlds largest manufacturer of niacinamide. [Nature 278: pp.563-5,1979]

Vitamins are good, good stuff.
posted by aquafortis at 5:37 AM on January 19, 2009 [30 favorites]

(1) Make your final to-do list based on what's most likely to be noticed if missing/not done.
(2) When overwhelmed, decide to sit down and do "one small thing" instead of thinking about the massive weight of ten thousand things. After you finish that one thing, how do you feel? Do another.
posted by rokusan at 5:42 AM on January 19, 2009

Dear anonymous,

This is exactly why I went to the doctor 3 days before Christmas, and why I had my first appointment with a psychologist today. Exactly the same why. The doctor has prescribed me an anti-anxiety medication that is helping already (though I am still worrying but not as much). The psychologist will be helping with CBT techniques.

I put it off for about a year, after a couple of anonymous posts here where several people (many, maybe) told me doctor + therapy, but I thought the doctor would think I was a hyperchondriac. The doctor, though it was my first ever visit to her, was sympathetic, understanding, did some blood work to rule out other factors and arranged my referral ASAP. Please, see your doctor, get some help, don't wait as long as I did. It's not worth it, there's no benefit to it, it doesn't make you stronger, it just tires you out.
posted by b33j at 5:46 AM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've found meditation is good for improving general calmness.

Personally I like the buddhist kind but I suspect non-religious versions would also help if you want that.
posted by curious_yellow at 6:23 AM on January 19, 2009

I could have written this post. My answers would be, in order of effectiveness: (1) a low dosage of an anti-anxiety medication; and (2) a lot of experience under your belt (i.e., you'll eventually have a track record you can look to in those gibbery moments). Good luck.
posted by JimN2TAW at 7:17 AM on January 19, 2009

Yeah, this is exactly what cognitive-behavioral therapy is for. If you can't afford it, check with your local university for special rates with doctoral students.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:53 AM on January 19, 2009

I could have written what b33j wrote. I was in almost exactly the same state as you at the start of November. I went to the doctor, who prescribed anti-anxiety medication and referred me to a self-help group. The anti-anxiety meds have taken 6 weeks to kick in, but the calming and meditation techniques I've been working on via the self-help have helped instantly. I'm just about to embark on some CBT, too.

What also helped was just telling someone about it. Admitting I had a problem, and I couldn't fix it on my own, was very cathartic and went a long way to helping. So please go to see your GP.
posted by greycap at 7:55 AM on January 19, 2009

When I was in my early 20's, I had serious anxiety, that manifested itself in the same way yours seems to. In the short term, klonopin resolved the issue, but I found that if I took it more than once a month, the potency would dip significantly. As such, I had to find other ways to deal with it.

Remarkably, I found that doing something that required my attention usually drove me away from my anxiety long enough to calm down. Things like Reading and watching TV allowed my mind to wander and I would quickly find myself dwelling again. Activities which require concentration, which were, for me, crossword puzzles, Tetris, even driving (not something I recommend for all people when having a panic attack but worked for me) required enough of my brain's attention that I couldn't dwell on whatever was worrying me.

Also, it's good to remind yourself that human beings suffer from a significant expectation gap. What I mean is, the expectation of how bad those inchoate, nebulous problems you have will turn out often greatly exceed the actuality of how bad they are.
posted by orville sash at 7:56 AM on January 19, 2009

Its important to bring positive thinking in your life. There are a lot of books and websites that teach this. Usually chronic anxiety can be attached to the idea that things will always go wrong, which is never true. You may want to check out this book and this book, but if you find no progress from the DIY then you must talk to a doctor. The earlier you tackle anxiety the happier you will be.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:10 AM on January 19, 2009

Medication or at least a psych screening - when it gets to the point where it affects your work life and health and it's not going away, it's time to go see a doctor - psychiatrist or naturopath (is that the term??).

Homeopathy didn't work for me so I'm on an anti-anxiety and it allows me to function normally.
posted by HolyWood at 8:59 AM on January 19, 2009

Walking and meditation (every morning, regardless of mood) are good first steps.

If you do those regularly and are still paralyzed by the anxiety, it may be time to consider medication.
posted by tkolar at 10:51 AM on January 19, 2009

I particularly am having trouble making a final "to do" list, because as I think about certain loose ends, I get really critical of myself for not having finished them yet

Well, you need to break down your to-do list into smaller items - the problem is that you likely have some 'projects' (multiple steps) disguised as a 'to do' item.

The idea that to-do lists calm you down - is based on GTD (david allen, getting things done.) The problem is, the to do list, is itself, only a step into figuring out what needs to be done next.
posted by filmgeek at 12:53 PM on January 19, 2009

I drink lots of chamomile and Tension Tamer tea. I try to tell myself things like "you can figure this out" and "just take it step by step."
posted by salvia at 4:22 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Is there someone on your team who can make the lists for you? Not that you have to follow their lists - just that it may be easier for you to edit a project plan than to create one.

This could be a way for you to mentor someone who doesn't have your experience, and for you to get some real help.

If you are working solo so far, is there any way you can request some help without feeling like you are dropping the ball?

Also, would it help to review status reports or initial meeting minutes and see how far you have come?
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:47 PM on January 19, 2009

Seconding the suggestion of CBT. This cheesy-but-worthwhile book has a good chapter on addressing anxiety. I have also been recommended Michael Yapko's Calm Down for racing/spiraling thoughts of anxiety. Also, I have seen anti-anxiety meds do wonders for people, if that's a route you care to find out more about.
posted by tamarack at 10:09 PM on January 19, 2009

I pretty much just look at the big picture. I think about how how insignificant I am and how little most of the things I do mean in the grand scheme of things. It really takes the pressure off. I think of all the people in the world who are less fortunate than me who would love to have my problems considering that they have real problems. I pretty much don't let myself freak out because it serves no purpose other than being pointless and debilitating. Take a walk, meditate, listen to music and just be grateful for every second of life you have and don't take any bit of it for granted. There's always a bright side to life, you just have to look for it. You know what has to be done, you know you can do it, so just do it and then FUNTIME!
posted by wherever, whatever at 1:34 PM on January 20, 2009

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