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September 1, 2011 6:02 PM   Subscribe

How do you know when it's anxiety and when it's something you really need to worry about? I don't trust my judgment anymore.

MeFites fighting/having fought anxiety, how do you know when it's the anxiety talking and when it's something you really need to be concerned about? Here's an example:

A few days ago, I parked my car in an older building. When I came back to get it, it was parked on/near some floor tiles, some of which looked like they'd been cut or broken, and the floor was dusty. I got in my car and drove off, but I've been worrying since then that the tiles were asbestos and that I've exposed myself and everyone around me. I have no real reason to suspect that they were, and I've got a history of worrying needlessly about environmental concerns (including asbestos), but I feel like I need to pull a Dick Cheney and assume that if there's a 1% chance something bad could happen, that it's a certainty.

I'm pretty good at doing thought charts, and they help. I also know that if I'm feeling anxious, having something to eat is a good idea. Excercise, also good. Even though those things usually dial the anxiety down, I still have a hard time calibrating my concern. Anybody else dealt with this? How did you handle it? (Yes, I'm in therapy, but I'm looking for things I can do on my own too.)

Sock puppet account in case anyone wants to follow up:
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have no real reason to suspect that they were, and I've got a history of worrying needlessly about environmental concerns (including asbestos)

There's your answer.
posted by anildash at 6:28 PM on September 1, 2011

Knowing the facts about asbestos exposure might help. I found this information about asbestos on wikipedia:

Asbestos exposure becomes a health concern when high concentrations of asbestos fibers are inhaled over a long time period.[34] People who become ill from inhaling asbestos are often those who are exposed on a day-to-day basis in a job where they worked directly with the material. As a person's exposure to fibers increases, because of being exposed to higher concentrations of fibers and/or by being exposed for a longer time, then that person's risk of disease also increases. Disease is very unlikely to result from a single, high-level exposure, or from a short period of exposure to lower levels.[34]

I have anxiety about my health sometimes. When I get like this, I rely on facts to get me through it. For example, when I freak out that I'm developing Type II diabetes I pull out a blood glucose monitor and take a reading. Since my doctor has told me time and again that I'm fine, and the meter tells me I'm fine (in that moment of fear), I can move on. Doing this over and over again has helped me deal with this particular fear because the worst has never happened- I've never had a reading that would be an indication of a problem. The excessive fear of developing diabetes is now almost gone- I love not thinking about it all the time.

FWIW, I tend to have thought patterns similar to yours when I have a lot of free-floating anxiety and am just stressed in general. My brain latches on to anything suspicious to avoid dealing with the source of my anxiety because whatever the source is, it's so bad I don't feel like I can tackle it.

Trust the facts. You haven't down anything to hurt yourself or anyone else around you. It sounds like you know that you probably don't need to worry about this- believe that part of yourself.
posted by Mouse Army at 6:44 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Last year I was super stressed out about school, and happened to be in the computer lab when construction workers removed asbestos from the room next door. Then my lungs started to burn a few minutes later, and for a little while I was pretty sure cancer and certain death were imminent. So I can relate! I can generally tone down the constant worrying (but not completely eliminate it) by stopping and asking myself a few questions:

1) Is there anything I can do about it? Whatever I'm worried about is usually a finished event -- no amount of worrying will change the fact that I was in the computer lab, so there's no point in obsessing about that. What can be done about the fact that it did happen? Well, I could go to my doctor and tell him I was in the lab for about 5 minutes after my lungs started to burn, but then I know he's going to say "there's nothing that can be done about it now," and the most he'll probably want to do is test for mesothelioma, which generally takes a long time to show up anyway... so, really, there's nothing that can be done about it right now to make me stop worrying. So it's probably not a genuine need for concern at this moment, when I have more important things to do.

2) Am I stressed out about other things? When I'm particularly stressed out, everything else seems like a major disaster just waiting to happen. If there's a major stressor on the horizon (deadlines, holiday family visits, etc.), I'm way more likely to redirect nervous energy into stressing out about crazy things like asbestos exposure. Knowing that helps reduce the immediate "but I could be DYING!" concerns because I'm not really worried about the asbestos, I'm worried about whatever deadline I have coming up.

3) Is this the type of thing that usually stresses me out? You say you tend to worry about environmental health problems. Knowing that you tend to go overboard on those issues can help keep yourself in check. Knowing I get panicky about grades doesn't always lessen the worry, but it does help me stay a little detached. Now, if I'm suddenly worried about something that I don't normally panic about, I know to take that a little more seriously.

4) Reality checks with sympathetic parties. Sometimes I just need to say "I'm really worried I will not meet this minor deadline and I will get kicked out of school" to someone and have them say "that's silly" back to me. I try not to overly rely on this one, because a) it usually doesn't make me feel that much better, and b) it gets annoying to other people. But the occasional check-in with a trusted someone can give helpful feedback about whether my concerns are realistic.
posted by lilac girl at 7:08 PM on September 1, 2011

When I really think I might be nuts, I ask. That simple.

It can be asking the parking lot attendant [hey, any asbestos in this building...yeah (LOL) I knew you'd say that]
It can be a MeFi poll of random strangers [reference question about soggy breakfast cereal here...thank you brain, you can turn off now]
It can be a friend I trust to tell me when I'm being silly [hey Friend: Would this trip your alarms? No? Thanks.].

Basically, I acknowledge that some part of my brain really, REALLY needs to know RIGHT NOW!!! what the answer is, and feed it the data it wants so it can stop cycling and move on to other stuff.
posted by Ys at 10:04 PM on September 1, 2011

One way to help determine whether it's anxiety or something actually worth following up on is to ask yourself, if you had to bet $50,000 on whether it was a harmful amount of asbestos or just dust of the relatively harmless variety, which side would you bet on?

Replace "$50,000" with some other relevant sum, if applicable, obviously.

There's a fine distinction between the awareness of a potential danger and the mental anxiety that it can produce. Asbestos is a serious concern, but it's worth distinguishing the issue of the potential asbestos with the over-anxious emotional response in your mind.

One way to help defuse anxiety is to say to yourself, "Maybe that was asbestos." Not, "What if that was asbestos?" or "That was probably asbestos" or even "That probably wasn't asbestos."

This is because to be anxious is to constantly ask yourself "What if? Trying to counter that with probabilities and rational arguments won't stop your mind from asking, "But what if?" In other words, checking in with the facts (looking up potential dangers of asbestos, talking to the parking lot attendant, etc.) might be worth doing on their own, but it might not help your anxiety. In fact it might worsen it, because you're responding to your anxiety by treating it as if it were legitimate. So cut off the anxiety at the pass, and say to yourself, "Yes, maybe that was asbestos." And you'll feel anxious about that thought. That's good. Now keep saying this to yourself. Eventually, your anxiety will start to gradually lessen. It's like ringing a bell constantly in front of Pavlov's dog without following up with the food: kind of cruel, maybe, but eventually, it's going to stop drooling.
posted by Busoni at 11:06 PM on September 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

The most important factor in quelling my anxiety is having confidence in myself that I can handle any given situation. I get this from 1) meditation 2) being prepared 3) reminding myself of other stressful situations I've been through

So, today I'm taking a plane trip. Oddly, I'm not anxious about the actual plane ride - I have no fears of crashing. I'm anxious about missing the plane. Even though it's 11 hours from now. So. I've been doing some deep breathing. I've made sure I'm packed & ready to go, that I have my ID & reservation numbers in a designated spot. I've gone to the TSA website and double-checked that I have followed all of their regulations. I think about what would happen if I did miss my flight. Well, I'd reschedule it. I've had to do that before. I've had to sleep in an airport overnight. It was unpleasant but I made it.

If you were me, you might be worried about some substance on the plane and not missing the flight, but at the root of both our anxiety is a worry that we'll have to endure something unpleasant. Relief comes from accepting that it's inevitable. I WILL be uncomfortable someday. I WILL be in pain. I WILL die. Those things are non-negotiable, and there is a paradoxical freedom in realizing that. (PS I stole all my ideas from Buddha)
posted by desjardins at 7:31 AM on September 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from poor judgement.

What are you going to do about it? Here are some options.

* Go back to the garage, steal a tile and have it tested at your own expense.
* Report loose tiles to the EPA.
* Threaten to report the garage owner to the EPA for having suspicious tiles laying around.
* Call a mesothelioma attorney advertising on TV, see if he'll take your case since you drove over a loose tile in a garage one time.
* Talk to your GP doc and see if he will get a chest x-ray done because you drove over a loose tile one time.
* Imagine how you would like to be on the recieving end of any of the above conversations.

Not to say that there aren't times when real threats/emergencies exist. I try to follow these simple steps:

1. Is there anything (useful) I can do about it?
2. If yes, then do it (or take initial steps if it can't be done immediately).
3. If no, leave it alone.

#3 can be challenging. Stream-of-consciouness writing can help dump those thoughts out of the brain and onto paper. Then I shred the pages.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:08 AM on September 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

How do you know when it's anxiety and when it's something you really need to worry about? I don't trust my judgment anymore.

When I'm not trusting my judgement I usually use someone else's instead.

That's done either through actually asking them, or more frequently via having a pretty good idea what they would say if I brought it up.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:52 AM on September 2, 2011

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