What me worry?
December 19, 2012 6:29 PM   Subscribe

Human Existence Filter: Does everyone have pervasive "background radiation" of anxiety/fear/worry?

In my 50+ years on the planet, I've realized that I have a constant level of anxiety/fear/worry in my days - a background radiation of sorts: little variation, and always there. I accept that, and am not trying to change it, so not seeking that sort of advice here. My question is: What would be considered an average amount of a/f/w in today's modern world, an average set-point? Has this been written about? Researched? Quantified?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (42 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
Mine is pretty much zero.

I lead a fairly stoic life and when people cause too much drama for me, I cut them out of it. I married a kind, simple, intelligent woman who "gets" me and doesn't supply any drama. I have arranged my work situation to where I am pretty much indispensable and people who make drama waves get no traction with me because I supply no feedback.

In all, life is good without worry.
posted by sanka at 6:34 PM on December 19, 2012 [11 favorites]

I think this is "normal" in the sense that it's common, and "abnormal" in the sense that it's probably reparable and you'd likely be happier if you did something about it.
posted by threeants at 6:36 PM on December 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

I don't have it, but it's certainly not uncommon. My husband has it for sure, and as someone without it I find it difficult to understand - but I have come to accept over the years that it's just part of who he is, and even when treated for anxiety and depression he will always still experience it to an extent. I do think if you are at the point of asking this question it is worth bringing up with a doctor - proper treatment can help quite a bit.
posted by something something at 6:40 PM on December 19, 2012 [4 favorites]

I've been at places where I have not had it, and places where I have. Right now, yes. But I have a lot of stressors in my life at the moment so I expect it is pretty normal
posted by edgeways at 6:45 PM on December 19, 2012

Anecdote, but I only have a anxiety/worry/fear when I am faced with a situation I truly cannot control (such as someone else's behaviour or decisions made where I have no input). Anxiety is VERY debilitating but also usually not productive. For things I can see that will cause me anxiety in future (retirement, finishing my dissertation) I set realistic goals, set up support structures, and take concrete steps towards the goals.

In case you think I have somehow arranged the "perfect stress-free life" I should note I am in school full-time, have two jobs (one with high visibility, responsibility for others, and legal liability) three young children and a disabled (but loving) husband, and was raised in a lower socio-economic status house with many barriers to advancement.

One thing you could look for is building resilience. I believe resilience is a combination of natural temperament (the brain chemicals you are born with), psychosocial environment and the coping skills you are taught/observe in others. If you are struggling in one area (like wonky brain chemicals) then it is important to compensate by consciously developing very strong and varied coping skills
posted by saucysault at 6:48 PM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm not a psychologist, but it seems as if many in the field accept some kind of "set point theory" for what they term subjective well-being. This 2008 article by Bruce Headley suggests there may be limits to the theory, even from within its framework (dare I say paradigm?). But it seems as if the idea is reasonably well entrenched. It certainly squares with my own experience; it seems like my general level of anxiety (low) fluctuates around a constant mean despite how much, or how little, stress I have in my everyday life.
posted by brianogilvie at 6:56 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'm another "pretty much zero" person - I think I'm probably atypically imperturbable, but I think there's a lot of room on both ends of the spectrum. I don't know if there's ever been any sort of research done, though.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:57 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure it's pervasive with everyone, and I suspect that some worry is conditioned behavior early on, either by seeing other people worry a lot, or by experiencing situations that are hard for an individual to control emotionally, either because they are so overwhelming or not provided with the right coping tools. So, affect regulation from an early age, I suspect, has a lot to do with how we not only develop a fundamental emotional posture to the world in general, but respond to stressful situations when the arise, and whether those situations are allowed to have a negative effect on that fundamental emotional posture, for good or ill.

Of course, this doesn't explain all situations, as there are always outlier cases that seem to be an exception to environmental variables. But I suspect it explains many cases. And perhaps, too, there are biochemical reasons why some people worry more than others. Not serious psychological issues, but things that have to do with biological makeup that cater towards emotional tendencies.
posted by SpacemanStix at 7:00 PM on December 19, 2012

Put me in the zero club too. Shit is gonna happen, I probably can't change it. That said, I can think of a few points in my life where worrying more would have been a good thing. But I'm not going to worry about that either.
posted by COD at 7:04 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have it, although it's a reasonably recent (last few years) development and I am trying to get rid of it. Which is to say, I know for a fact that not everyone does.
posted by Lady Li at 7:16 PM on December 19, 2012

Mild anxiety and sadness are the mean to which I return after short periods of calm. I can only speak for myself, though. It makes writing difficult, because I want my work to be good, and a first draft is never any good.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:16 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I only experience regular anxiety/worry when I have a job and have to report to other people. When I can live my life on my terms, I don't have the experience of constant background worry. Thank god for writing.
posted by Sternmeyer at 7:24 PM on December 19, 2012

You are not alone.
posted by rr at 7:27 PM on December 19, 2012 [10 favorites]

Lots of people certainly have it. Not everyone does. I have cut mine way way back over the last 20 years and it has improved my life tremendously. Without that constant power drain of fretting and worrying, I have much more energy to deal with actual crises (of which I have had many in the last 10 years).

I was literally more freaked out about missing a train 20 years ago than I was about having an emergency appendectomy last year.
posted by Sidhedevil at 7:28 PM on December 19, 2012

I have what seems to be lifelong depression and anxiety - the 'drama magnet' comments seem a little out of left field though. In stressful situations it becomes close to unmanageable (I will lay awake imagining the many ways my life could go to hell, including the many ways my child could die, my partner, me, being assaulted again and so on and so forth) but usually it is a mild level of 'where are the exits, who is touching me, that guy triggers something in my lizard brain, that car is weaving like an idiot, my eyes are drooping so I should pull over'.

That said I have learnt calm, and mindfulness, and that anxiety doesn't always have an outlet. I may be excruciatingly nervous and anxious but will get comments about how calm I appear to be (particularly in emergency situations).

I separate out the anxiety, the fear and the worry. Anxiety, for me, is almost a physical thing and has set routes so to speak. It is rarely productive but I will, on the rare occasion, 'give in' rather than fight it (sleep in my daughter's room for example, if I am excruciatingly nervous about her breathing) - only on the proviso and acknowledgement that this is useless anxiety. Not intuition, not protectiveness, just anxiety.

Fear is immediate and usually pretty solidly based in reality and nothing pisses me off more than someone writing off my fear as 'anxiety' or 'worry'. My fear that my mental issues would crescendo and my partner would be unhelpful were actually well founded and eventually came true - had they been treated as legitimate they probably wouldn't have but thems the breaks. We're through and over it, but for me that was fear, not anxiety, not worry. Fear is something that can be explained and has a rational basis.

Worry is sort of a mix of the two, and is also utterly useless. It's the fear but based on bad statistics and exacerbated by anxiety. It also tends to be very related to the past, and to the unknowable and/or unchangeable.

I use mindfulness to cope with all three.
posted by geek anachronism at 7:31 PM on December 19, 2012 [6 favorites]

I have noticed that the price of many a phlegmatic person's philosophical stance is at the cost of anxiety to their more organized/imaginative/overly responsible partner or coworker or relative. Who are the people in your life?
posted by likeso at 7:33 PM on December 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I have this. I don't know that I'd say it's constant, but it's a pretty persistant background chatter that for me can be related to my social anxiety.

I wish there was a way to measure it, because I'm curious where I would be on the spectrum. It seems like the worry is present even when things are good - I can be objectively saying "things are pretty great in my life right now" and still be fretting about in my brain at the same time.

I'm surprised at all the people saying theirs is near zero. I guess I always assumed that everyone had the little anxious voice in their head like me.
posted by sherber at 7:33 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I fluctuate. Sometimes I have a fairly constant low-level buzz of anxiety, sometimes it's absent. It's enough so I notice, but not enough so it messes with my day. When it's there, sometimes I even get worried that I don't have anything to worry about because clearly I've forgotten something.

When I've got that slight anxiety, it's much easier for me to jump to genuinely disruptive levels of anxiety at the slightest setback. If my anxiety baseline is zero, I'm less flappable.

You mention that you're resigned to it, but I have to say that exercise is the absolute best remedy I've found for that mild buzzy anxiety. It always works for me. Sure, sometimes that means I get anxious about my impending workout, but I tell myself that that means I just need it all the more.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:42 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have always had this, as long as I can remember. I am feeling very envious of those of you in the zero club right now. It goes up and down depending on my life situation and my immediate circumstances, but anxiety is always with me. Is it normal? I don't really know. You're not the only one, though.

This recent XKCD comic kind of sums it up, as far as I'm concerned.
posted by Scientist at 7:42 PM on December 19, 2012 [5 favorites]

Has this been written about? Researched? Quantified?

This has totally been researched. The field you're looking for is called "personality psychology," which is all about studying individual psychological variation from a non-medial point of view — not trying to distinguish between "sick" and "healthy" people, or "good" and "bad" character, but just looking at the whole range of variation and trying to figure out how different personality traits fit together.

The Wikipedia article on the "big five" personality traits is a decent place to start if you're looking for more information. The relevant trait, in the big five model, is called "neuroticism" — which sounds really obnoxious and judge-y, but it's not meant as an insult, and it also doesn't have anything to do with being "neurotic" in the Freudian sense of the word. Basically if you ask me they chose kind of a shitty misleading name for it, but now the name's caught on and it's too late.

Anyway, the name doesn't really matter. You could call it "blorfiness" if you wanted. But based on an awful lot of surveys and other research, we know that people vary in how blorfy they are; that people at the high end of the blorfiness scale are especially vulnerable to stress and worry; and that people at the low end of the blorfiness scale are especially calm and imperturbable. People's level of blorfiness tends to be pretty constant over the course of their life — it's rare to go from extremely blorfy to extremely unblorfy or vice versa, except as a temporary reaction to some sort of intense experience — and there are other interesting statistical patterns: for instance, in most cultures, women are on average blorfier than men, but in some cultures men are on average blorfier than women.

But so yeah. There's lots of individual variation here. Enough that when they made a top-five list of "ways in which people differ from each other, personality-wise," this one made the cut.
posted by and so but then, we at 7:44 PM on December 19, 2012 [20 favorites]

I think this is "normal" in the sense that it's common, and "abnormal" in the sense that it's probably reparable and you'd likely be happier if you did something about it.

This, so much.

I also concur with the idea that it's partly inherited from our parent/s, or imprinted from our early upbringing, or both. My dad operates at quite a high level of 'ambient worry', and I have inherited that (unfortunately).

So yeah. As soon as I read your question, I knew exactly what you meant. In fact, I've given it a fair bit of thought (read: worried about it quite a bit ;-) myself. It's fascinating to me that there there are people who don't exist this way, to be honest.
posted by Salamander at 7:56 PM on December 19, 2012

I have an identical twin who is like you, generally jumpy and anxious. Myself, I'm hardly anxious unless my brain chemistry is wonky. I've always found it odd how different we are in dealing with the world. Because we're so different, I've looked around over the years and noticed that there's a good deal of both of us in the world. More anxious people in my experience than not, but a good deal of both.
posted by patheral at 8:12 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Another dude with background radiation here. Like GA I have made a lot of progress managing mine with mindfulness techniques (and therapy and exercise iny case). I'm told by mental health professionals that a low dose of an SSRI can be a helpful way to go here as well for many people. (And yeah, jealous of all you naturally static-free folks!)
posted by en forme de poire at 8:13 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm pretty much zero, barring pending crisis or something big coming up. I found worrying about things I can't control was just tiring and didn't accomplish anything, so I don't. If I can control it, once I hit upon a solution or plan, I'm pretty confident and willing to change on the fly.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:45 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I used to have it more or less constantly, until I really got my depression in hand, starting doing yoga regularly, and started studying Buddhism/mindfulness. I would say it's dropped by about, I dunno, maybe 80-90%? So in my experience it certainly exists, but it's not something that exists in a static way or to an uncontrollable degree.
posted by scody at 9:33 PM on December 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

Oh, and funnily enough, I was reading Schnitzler's Century (an interesting look at the rise of the bourgeoisie and middle-class culture in the 19th century) the other day and came across this quote that seems to get at at least a part of the genesis of the anxiety of modern life: "Often enough, young men and women who moved to the city from the countryside or a small town to escape the attentions of the stifling family and prying neighbors discovered that the independence they so ardently sought had degenerated into an unwanted anonymity, a disheartening lack of friends and appreciative community—too heavy a price, some thought, for deserting the collective nest. These lost souls had exchanged provincialism for alienation."
posted by scody at 9:40 PM on December 19, 2012 [7 favorites]

It is kind of like white noise - if i turn up other things (exercise, healthy eating, new hobbies, extra sun, corgis) then it gets to be where I can hardly tell it is playing in the background. If things get quiet or still or tequila-ed it becomes immediately obvious again.
posted by skrozidile at 10:06 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I totally wanted to say, yes, that's normal - but. I'm unsure as to how much is personality and how much is just general blow back from life. I had a terrible upbringing with utterly stressed out and irrational parents. I feel a decent amount of that 'background radiation' that you feel (great term, by the way), but I often feel that it isn't how I SHOULD be. It's nurture, not nature. I guess the trick in life is to try and figure out how much is you and how much is something you picked up along the way. Therapy might be a good way to do that - or maybe just a good think. Either way, I don't think it's abnormal to feel the way you do. Just try and decide whether or not it's natural for you to feel that way.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:13 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I used to have this, but I don't anymore. I am bipolar and heavily medicated, and since I found the right combination of pills, the anxiety/worry center of my brain doesn't have a mainline to my adrenaline-pumping machinery. Oh, I'm still *concerned* about things, but there is no filament of terror in the midst of my thoughts about them. I feel I will control the situation to the best of my abilities and be able to deal with it. I still need to take action to improve certain things, of course.

My theory is that it's largely chemical in nature, based on my own sample size of one.
posted by marble at 10:19 PM on December 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm sure some researchers have attempted to quantify generalized anxiety. In the medical field, we diagnose the pathological level as "generalized anxiety disorder".

To me, it is the point at which the symptoms become a verifiable, diagnosable medical problem that define a useful line between 'normal' and 'abnormal' levels of anxiety. Anything less than this could be defined as 'normal' (which to me is more meaningful than asking for an 'average' on something that difficult to define or quantify).

Here is a link to a discussion of Anxiety Disorders including lists of criteria for their diagnosis. The criteria for Generalized Anxiety Disorder, as copied from there, include:
- Excessive anxiety about a number of events or activities, occurring more days than not, for at least 6 months.
- The person finds it difficult to control the worry.
- The anxiety and worry are associated with at least three of the following six symptoms (with at least some symptoms present for more days than not, for the past 6 months):
Restlessness or feeling keyed up or on edge
Being easily fatigued
Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
Muscle tension
Sleep disturbance
- The focus of the anxiety and worry is not confined to features of an Axis I disorder, being embarrassed in public (as in social phobia), being contaminated (as in obsessive-compulsive disorder), being away from home or close relatives (as in separation anxiety disorder), gaining weight (as in anorexia nervosa), having multiple physical complaints (as in somatization disorder), or having a serious illness (as in hypochondriasis), and the anxiety and worry do not occur exclusively during posttraumatic stress disorder.
- The anxiety, worry, or physical symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social or occupational functioning.
- The disturbance does not occur exclusively during a mood disorder, a psychotic disorder, pervasive developmental disorder, substance use, or general medical condition.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:48 PM on December 19, 2012

I guess I always assumed that everyone had the little anxious voice in their head like me.

Little? Mine's more like Edvard Munch's Scream. Fortunately, I can tune it out, usually. But you know the slogan:

If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention.

posted by Rash at 11:50 PM on December 19, 2012

This may not be what you're referring to, but perhaps you can read up on existential angst and dread. See Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Sartre (anguish), etc.
posted by destrius at 12:53 AM on December 20, 2012

I rarely have anxiety, fear or worry - it tends not to occur to me at all that hazards are around me or that bad things might happen. I feel like if things went wrong or problems came up unexpectedly I'd be able to handle them well enough. I do get anxiety, fear or worry when preparing for specific events - job interviews, first day at a new job, exams etc.
posted by EatMyHat at 3:42 AM on December 20, 2012

Definitely not everyone. When I've explained to other people what it's like to live with constant anxiety, some of them are seriously horrified and can't comprehend it.

But lots of people have it, including me. I'm like, 99% certain this is due to childhood neglect/trauma stuff, in my case; also see my collected answers/questions for, um, additional factors.

I do not believe that persistent/chronic anxiety is a rational response to the nature of reality, incidentally, and I'm pretty sure the science is behind me on this. The effects this kind of thing has on our bodies really strongly suggests to me that it's maladaptive: when we're experiencing fear, we're triggering biological processes that were not designed for daily, let alone continuous use.

Which is to say: even if the overwhelming majority of people are in some kind of angst-filled joyless state for most of their lives, it's still something that ought to be treated.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 6:06 AM on December 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Oh, I have this. It used to be mostly about my job (and it didn't help that my first big grown-up job was for an evil dictator), and since we started foster parenting I'm constantly low-level anxious about whatever's going on with our foster daughter's case. I'm pregnant after losing my first pregnancy earlier this year, and I'm constantly anxious about something going wrong with this pregnancy even though I'm into my second trimester and have had no indications whatsoever that anything is amiss. Being on a combination antidepressant/antianxiety pill helped turn it down a little, but it was still there: I continued to worry about things outside of my control.

Some previous posters indicate that they think this is a learned behavior - watching worrywarts of parents or other relatives, learning to try to control things through worrying about it, or whatever - but research indicates that there is a genetic component. Basically, if you're not a worrier, you won't worry about it, and if you are, well, you'll worry about that too.
posted by SeedStitch at 6:47 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

On a scale of 1 to 10, I spent years at maybe 8. With SSRI's I'm more like 1 or 2. Even my hard days now are better than my best days before.

I hadn't honestly thought about it in these terms before today, so thanks for your question!
posted by beandip at 11:27 AM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh I definitely have this. It's fundamental to my whole deal. I think of it as the hum of like an existential florescent light. Always there, though I'm not always focused on it, or presently aware of it. I cannot even begin to understand what it would be to not have it. It just seems such an innate part of life to me, anxiety the dizziness of freedom, as Kierkegaard said, or from Sickness Unto Death:

“Just as a physician might say that there very likely is not one single living human being who is completely healthy, so anyone who really knows mankind might say that there is not one single living human being who does not despair a little, who does not secretly harbor an unrest, an inner strife, a disharmony, an anxiety about an unknown something or a something he does not even dare try to know, an anxiety about some possibility in existence or an anxiety about himself, so that, just as the physician speaks of going around with an illness in the body, he walks around with a sickness, carries around a sickness of the spirit that signals its presence at rare intervals in and through an anxiety he cannot explain.”

A quote I think about often. I suspect for myself it has some origins in genetics (I have a terribly anxiety-ridden family going way back), a fundie upbringing, and reading (and taking altogether too seriously) a whole lot of philosophy. That is to say - it was in my genes and but I also logic-ed my way to a certain wallowing in it, in what started out as an effort to think my way out of it, basically.

I don't expect it to ever "go away." I fundamentally don't see how that would be possible; I can't imagine it. But I do find ways to manage it, for sure, ways to make it have as little day-to-day negative impact. Yoga, tea and a bit of meds have really been the ticket.

It's also helpful to remember that some anxiety can be useful. It is what drives people. You always do better on a test if you are a little worried about it, you know? When you start fretting over a million modal universes, possible but unlikely or uncontrollable futures, or have terribly intrusive thoughts or fears, that can become really debilitating. But it's possible to find a pragmatic role for your anxiety; it just requires a sort of constant keeping in check.

I use other cognitive strategies too, which are sometimes helpful. If it's a specific anxiety, sometimes focusing on it until I become bored is helpful. Or thinking about the worst possible scenario, which is usually death, and which being inevitable at some point anyway, usually makes me feel a little better about the situation. Though I guess I'm something of a reformed nihilist.

I doubt it is something that, at least with our current scientific capacities, is easily quantifiable in any objective sense. But judging by the ubiquity these days of benzos and therapists and chamomile tea, I would say it is relatively pervasive.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:10 PM on December 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

In my experience it's common but not universal (I agree with threeants sentiments above).

Anecdotally, for the first couple decades of my life I did not experience this. Now I do, to a small degree. It is my fervent hope that this is related to specific things in my life I am currently trying to address and not simply part of growing older, because I do not like it and want it to go away.

I think one can have responsibilities and care about people/things without constant background-level anxiety.
posted by Wretch729 at 1:51 PM on December 20, 2012

Those of us who are over the age of 50 remember that the first several decades of our lives were lived against the background of possible (and at time imminent) nuclear annihilation.

So, yeah, we've internalized a lot of that shit.
posted by megatherium at 2:57 PM on December 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're not alone, mine has been a constant since childhood. It isn't as bad as it used to be since I've been on anti-depressants, but it's still there. I doubt it'll ever be totally gone because I don't have the coping skills.
posted by deborah at 5:43 PM on December 20, 2012

Yeah. I have it. I've come to believe it to be the result of my ego constantly trying to be the ground of its own being, and constantly failing. It's like trying to chew your own teeth. It will never happen. I am not separate from the world, and neither are you.

I used to think it was the fear of death, but fear of death is what the ego does to prove that it is real. David Loy explained this concept to me. He calls it "Lack."
posted by macinchik at 1:18 AM on December 21, 2012

After my first week-long silent meditation retreat, I realized that for the first time in my life I didn't feel this. I've found that since that retreat the anxiety will sometimes creep back a bit, especially when I'm not taking good care of myself, but it always feels less substantial than it used to.
posted by zahava at 8:36 PM on December 21, 2012

« Older Making him happy   |   Is my insurance agent giving good advice? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.