How do I cope with short-term anxiety over long-term change?
August 9, 2011 11:01 PM   Subscribe

I need advice on coping with the (situational) anxiety that accompanies big life changes? I've already done some work and made a major career shift that I think will make me happier, but it's a much more precarious course of action, and the risk-averse part of me is complaining, loudly.

Until recently I was a bit afraid of my own shadow, at least where my career was concerned. When I was young I made the "safe" choice of going to law school straight out of undergrad, and never sort of wallowed in that period you're supposed to have in your early 20s where you bounce around from shitty job to shitty job. The result was that, like a lot of lawyers, I hated my life, but felt I could do nothing to change it without unacceptably increasing my risk profile.

Fast-forward to my early thirties, when I was laid off from a lawyer job and decided not to continue on that path, and, after a detour into academia, took up a creative path I'd long let languish, writing. And I have had not a small amount of professional reinforcement there, and now am enrolled in the fall in a program that I think will take me to the next level. I have to go into a little debt for this, but it's mitigated by a pile of savings I'd like to spend on this dream, and I've made my peace with that - I was debt-free before, this is less than a mortgage, etc.

Or, at least, I thought I had made my peace with it. For the last couple of weeks, as I've been dealing with all the logistics of a move (across a national border for me) to an expensive East Coast city, I've been having these crazed anxious moments, complete with tears. I know, I know: get a prescription for Xanax, everyone tells me. But for lots of reasons I'd rather not do that, and in any event I can't spend my life on benzos, and it's basically my life's direction that's causing the problem here, so it's sort of an unavoidable problem.

Long term, I know I will be happier in a shitty rental for the rest of my life, writing, than I ever was as a very well-heeled corporate lawyer. I have had the year in academia to test this theory and it held water. I did not miss any of the material comforts I had had before.

That said, my mind often races lately with all the things that could go wrong. The successes that have led me to believe I could write may suddenly stop falling from the sky; what if I get sick and don't have health coverage; the U.S. is falling apart oh god what am I doing here etc. You know the spiral. I do not think it approaches the clinical level anyway, just is sort of decreasing my QoL in a marked way.

What do people do, outside the realm of pharmaceuticals, to cope with this kind of thing? Work out a lot? Repeat mantras? Eat a lot of greens? I'm thinking I need tips of this kind. I've been able to relax intermittently though out this period, but haven't found much that's a failsafe.
posted by p.soul to Work & Money (5 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I did the same thing - left a 15 year career as a corporate lawyer to go to grad school in a foreign country. Even though I was confident I had made the right decision, I had days and weeks of severe anxiety leading up to the big move. It went away though, along with the 3 am moments I had been having for seven or eight years (you know, where you wake up at 3 am panicking about what you are doing with your life. It's been nearly four years since I had one of those). I recently did another big move from my home country to England, and didn't have a single anxious moment.
CBT is tailor made for this kind of anxiety and if you are not a therapy type, try sitting with the anxiety for a while and letting it wash through you. It's transient, admittedly not pleasant, but it will go away. It's a big change, let yourself get used to it - and congratulations on your new life.
posted by yogalemon at 11:27 PM on August 9, 2011

Talk to a registered psych. about CBT or ACT (or the combination of the two). They can both deal with anxiety quite well, I was exposed to them as a part of some recent professional development I went after. I recommended it in a thread the other day, probably sound like a marketer, but the tools make a fair difference.

In my case it took about 2 months of regular practice and revision with an ACT trained psych. to really get the hang of the mindfulness techniques. I'd studied it before under the banner of soto zen buddhism but had always struggled with actually using the tools. This helped put it in a more practical framework.

Since then I've been tackling a lot of big changes - new relationship, job change, some financial moves, that I hadn't previously.

The thoughts are all still there - lots of "oh what the GOOD GOD AM I DOING" kind of thing, but my reaction now is more "that's nice brain, pipe down a while" instead of getting anxious or backing off what I'm trying to get done here.
posted by bbtomo at 12:50 AM on August 10, 2011

Shit is going to happen. It will happen no matter what you do. So go see a therapist (something active like CBT) or try some meditation and realise that this in fact one of the most wonderful things about life - some of us can pack everything up and do something brand spanking new, and who on earth knows where it will lead, but it will lead somewhere.

You had the 'nice safe job' and you got laid off. So you go off now and try to do the best you can at doing what you really want right this very moment.
posted by mleigh at 1:03 AM on August 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

double for mleigh's post -
I was once in a major prolonged tailspin of negative projection -- some good advice that helped me was: focus more on what's going on NOW - what can you do NOW? what is your very next step?... focus/dwell on THAT. the past is gone - and as far as long-term stuff goes, try to face a direction, but just take small steps- a month, week, even a day at a time. if things change, or challenges come, then so-be-it; let them come, but deal with it only then-at that point.
posted by mrmarley at 3:00 AM on August 10, 2011

Something I learned about myself in a similar (and abrupt, for me) life change was that I would use the anxiety to squash down my enthusiasm as if it wasn't okay to be excited and happy and relieved. It is okay to be excited and happy and relieved, and you can use those feelings to beat down the anxiety.

There's nothing here you can't undo if you decide you don't like it later. Maybe stop thinking of it as a long-term change and just think about it as two years of education and worry about the long-term later? Lots of people put up with massive difficult QoL changes for their careers or education (consider: medical school, military training, emigration to politically more stable countries), so you're not alone and people rarely regret pursuing education in their field of interest, so you've got statistics on your side.

I cope by acknowledging it: yes, okay, something horrible might happen. I could stay here and do nothing and something horrible might happen too. Is fretting about it right now going to accomplish anything? [If you recognize something here that you actually do need to do, put it on your To Do list or do it and get it over with.] And then, to balance it out, consider something that's going to be cool. I mean, you might go and it could be completely awful, or you could go and it could be COMPLETELY AWESOME. You have to give that option equal consideration, you know.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:01 AM on August 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

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