Monkey mind
September 10, 2012 4:46 PM   Subscribe

This question is probably very similar to others, but what is a normal degree of worrywarting vs. an anxiety disorder or personality disorder?

I come from a family of worrywarts. My sisters seem to have escaped the pattern, but my parents definitely have it.

Anything new tends to elicit anxiety. So does dependence on spur-of-the-moment types. We can be sitting around for hours waiting on our spur-of-the-moment, always-late friends to arrive for dinner and chewing our collective fingernails.

Trips elicit frantic planning. I am freaking out right now with worry that the person organizing accommodations for an academic conference has not booked my room. Flying also makes me nervous as despite the statistically tiny likelihood of airplane crashes, I can't convince myself that the plane is safe.

Work is also a source of worry. I worry that I will be blamed for not acting immediately on e-mails that I was supposed to get at work and didn't because less organized or more overwhelmed people didn't forward them.

I don't enjoy "new experiences" the way you are supposed to. Last year I went on a trip to Rome, Italy by myself (no tour) and spent the time frantically trying to make connections, find museums, and avoid being run over by maniacs on motorbikes. La dolce vita, not.

I prefer buying things, but if I order from eBay and they don't arrive on time I start worrying that I have been ripped off. Someone stole my credit card number last year, and I had it changed, but since then I have had a phobia that people are going to hack into my accounts.

My parents and I also hoard things. The house is presentable but the closets and drawers are not.

I don't have a lot of friends (neither do they). I don't do much Facebook either, mainly because crafting a presentable self would elicit anxiety on the order of the family's annual Christmas letter, which is written usually around Dec. 23rd and mailed in haste.

Doubtless those of a certain persuasion on Mefi would advise smoking pot to chill out, but then I would be fantasizing that the DEA was about to bust my house or that I would lose my job (at a highly anti-drug workplace). I also suspect I'd hate it (my mother tried it back in the day and hated it).

I and my parents are all high-detail professionals.

I realize all this is absurd, worthy of those Roz Chast cartoons where the woman looks as if she has eight arms because she's waving them frantically.

I have not had bona fide panic attacks (the ones where you feel you're dying). I don't feel that I qualify for generalized anxiety disorder. I may qualify for OCPD. I am taking an antidepressant but am not in therapy. Is this a normal range of behavior? Do I need therapy, or is it foolish to think I should be able to change myself into a different, low-stress, high-adventure, high-risk, extroverted person?
posted by bad grammar to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You will maybe never be relaxed, but you can definitely enjoy your life more with the help of possibly therapy and/or medication and/or self-medication through stress reduction techniques that may not require full-on doctoring.

So, I'd worry less about yourself in relation to unknown other people who may be relaxed and think about you in relation to what your ideal you would be more like. Would vacations be more enjoyable? Would you be more on the ball about holiday letters? Would you drawers be cleaner? Would you have more friends? If any of those is something you'd want but you seem to not be able to do, then it may be that your anxiety is "interfering with your life" which is usually the point at which it's useful to think about it as a disorder and not just a personality quirk.

I am an anxious person. I feel like in some ways the anxiety helps keep me focused and effective. However in other ways (insomnia, idiotic arguments with my boyfriend that are clearly my fault, hating flying for no rational reason) it is keeping me from doing things that I otherwise want. I do a few things here

- exercise to get the free-floating jitters out
- eating a lot more sensibly (I am happier with less sugar, alcohol and caffeine than I want, ymmv)
- mindfulness to learn how to say "Well that's a thought" and not have to act on it and freak out over it
- lorazepam for when I just can't fight it (usually once a month or so, here is a recent AskMe about it).

Many people report good results with CBT and/or the Feeling Good Handbook. If you are skeptical of doctor stuff you could start there and see what you feel. I don't think you have to go all out and say "I have an anxiety disorder" and you definitely don't have to feel like you are dying, but you can say "My emotional state is problematic and keeping me from enjoying my life, I'd like to make a change" and that can be enough of a reason to think about either a doctor or starting with some lifestyle changes and seeing what works. Best of luck. This is not at all foolish and it's one of those things that you may look back on and feel sorry for poor worried old you not doing this sooner, I know I did.
posted by jessamyn at 4:57 PM on September 10, 2012 [4 favorites]

I don't think there's a single line in the sand, but from your description there are a lot of situations where your anxiety/worry interferes with things that would otherwise be pleasant. You don't have to enjoy the same things that everyone else does, but it sounds like the worry is a pretty constant companion.

Follow Omniwise's advice about getting the most out of therapy and invest one hour a week in seeing if you can have more happiness and less worry.
posted by mercredi at 4:57 PM on September 10, 2012

Instead of the pot, I would suggest mindfulness meditation and exercise.

Anxiety is really only a problem if it prevents you from doing things you'd like to do. If you're doing everything you want and feeling worried, then you just need to lower your level of concern. Because your body/mind is to a certain extent programmed to respond in this way, you just need to retrain it. Mindfulness and CBT can help - the first because it's about being present in the moment, acknowledging the worry, and then putting it away; and the second because it's about deconstructing the thought patterns that have been built around certain things.
posted by heyjude at 5:08 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do I need therapy, or is it foolish to think I should be able to change myself into a different, low-stress, high-adventure, high-risk, extroverted person?

I don't think the goal of any therapy is about changing personality. There's a bit of middle ground here. The goal of therapy would be towards not letting your anxieties get the best of you in situations, and giving you the skills and coping strategies to approach a stressor more calmly. Cognitive behavioural therapy is the standard for this kind of therapy, and could be very helpful for you.

Generally, if you feel like your anxieties are getting in the way of your life, therapy is a good idea. If your problems are enough that you're taking medicine for it, they are probably enough for therapy - which tends to be a bit more effective for anxiety disorders anyway. Just a note about antidepressants for anxiety disorders - make sure you ask whoever prescribed it whether you're on a sufficient dose; many people need higher doses for anxiety than depression but it needs to be increased gradually so as not to precipitate more anxiety.

Good luck with everything.
posted by chiquitita at 5:11 PM on September 10, 2012

I also come from a worrywart family and frequently wonder about my level of anxiety and whether it's normal or not! In my not at all expert opinion, I think your behavior and your anxiety levels are a few ticks past normal worrywarting, and not necessarily because of the individual examples you list. I'm pretty sure the majority of people share at least one or two of those anxiety examples without being candidates for an anxiety disorder diagnosis. But all of them together sounds like something that really effects your quality of life and peace of mind.

As a personal example, I worry about my anxiety levels sometimes as well, and I really only exhibit a few of these examples on a regular basis: I avoid Facebook because it gives me too much anxiety and stress, and I worry about work-related stuff. I can also get into an anxious, catastrophizing loop when it comes to loved ones' safety or something not going to plan. I handle these and a couple other anxiety vectors with mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and in general, I don't feel they impact my happiness so much that I need to get help.

You do not need to change yourself into "a different, low-stress, high-adventure, high-risk, extroverted person"! Introversion especially is nothing to be ashamed of or necessary to change, and trying to change that about yourself is just going to cause you unnecessary stress. If, once you address your anxiety with a therapist and/or medication, you find that you are more willing and able to be a high-adventure, extroverted type person, then go for it. But your goal with addressing your anxiety should not be to change who you are, but how you feel. All anxious introverts do not turn into outgoing, carefree extroverts after therapy and medication.
posted by yasaman at 5:12 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

bad grammar, meet The Worry Trap. You two are PERFECT for each other. Instead of a personality makeover, your goal can be to accept inevitable worry and thereby in a cunning paradoxical twist prevent worry from obstructing your in-the-moment engagement with life.

The book's approach blends CBT and mindfulness, which others have recommended above; it provides clever, useful paradigms for thinking about in what ways worry is and is not problematic; and best of all, it's built around nifty practical exercises and excellent procedures for you to follow.

Mind you I'm not saying therapy wouldn't also be smart. Actual human interactions can really boost rearranging your brain's patterns.
posted by feral_goldfish at 6:24 PM on September 10, 2012

The goal of therapy isn't to turn you into a new person. It's (generally) to help manage and/or get rid of shit that is fucking up your life. This level of anxiety seems to do that.

And jesus, no, not weed: in anxiety-ridden people, it tends to really amp up the anxiety. YMMV, of course, but start therapy first, you know/
posted by rtha at 6:26 PM on September 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've made some progress getting past my anxiety, which has been bad at times but not quite as bad as yours, and now I'm in a good place, but not as good as you want to be (i.e. I feel like I can be outgoing, extroverted, adventurous... but people still tell me I worry too much). I did this without therapy, but it's been a long haul, maybe eight years since I became conscious of the problem, and I think I would have benefited from therapy long ago and still would today.

For what it's worth I think your behavior falls outside of the range of 'healthy functioning', though whether you could call it 'normal' or not is a bit of a loaded question. Like you I used to be unable to enjoy vacations (for example) because I was constantly worrying. I've let go of that a bit and my life has improved dramatically. So, if it helps, you do not need to accept your anxieties as the way your life has to be even if anxiety of this nature is not particularly uncommon, and you can begin the quest to improve yourself, whether that includes therapy or not.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:03 PM on September 10, 2012

Think of anxiety as being on a spectrum - at one end you've got I dunno, Bill Murray's character in What About Bob?, and at the other end you've got The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Most people are somewhere in-between.

If your current position on the spectrum is making you enjoy life less, then therapy and/or medication can slide you away from the extreme Bob and more towards the middle. But it can't turn you into The Dude, because it's just not who you are.

And honestly, speaking as someone who has generalised anxiety disorder with hoarding tendencies, you don't want to get rid of all the anxiety anyway. It's tied in to the same personality traits that make you good at high-detail work, and make you the organised and reliable person that people love when they get to know you. So the goal of therapy wouldn't be to remove that part of you, just to stop it from having negative effects.

Give some CBT or mindfulness training a go. If you like the results, cool. If you like the results but are still getting negative effects, talk to someone about getting medication. I really believe that you'll find you have more energy and enjoyment of life if you can turn down the worry a notch.
posted by harriet vane at 4:14 AM on September 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

As harriet vane commented above: And honestly, speaking as someone who has generalised anxiety disorder with hoarding tendencies, you don't want to get rid of all the anxiety anyway. It's tied in to the same personality traits that make you good at high-detail work, and make you the organised and reliable person that people love when they get to know you.

Exactly. While it's not good to be too anxious, being conscientious is considered to be a positive character trait. It's all about balance.

My personal opinion is that if you feel like the anxiety is impacting negatively on your life, then it's a good idea to seek treatment. If you actually enjoyed stressing about things, then that would be ok (some people do!). But it doesn't sound like you find it enjoyable. Beware of self-diagnosis (you're saying that you don't feel that you qualify for generalised anxiety disorder but may qualify for OCPD. How would you know, if you're not a health care professional specialised in this field?)

CBT and drug therapy, but especially CBT, have made my life much more manageable and pleasant by helping me to deal with my social anxiety. I have not changed into a different person and my personality is still the same, for better or worse! However, I'm much happier within myself because I'm not feeling that horrible stressed feeling all the time.

And by the way, I don't think all of what you describe is absurd. It's a very, very common trick that the brain plays on people. Thankfully, for most of us it is very easy to treat.
posted by rubbish bin night at 9:03 AM on September 11, 2012

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