How can I proactively prevent anxiety from limiting me in life?
December 8, 2014 9:03 AM   Subscribe

Anxiety runs in my family. I'm watching how much it affects my mom and I want to keep on challenging myself to take risks so that I never get so afraid that it limits me from doing stuff and enjoying life. How do I do this?

My mom's automatic response to anything is worry, fear, and how anything will hurt/kill me. Seriously. Recent example: I text her photos of my new xmas tree and her reply is, 'Is it fresh? Be sure to keep it away from the heater." I'm over 35 years old, and have been living on my own since my 20s.

I realize that's a minor example, but it's really frustrating that these messages still persist even when I've talked to her about how her comments contribute to my anxiety. She is afraid to drive or fly anywhere on her own, and I too *feel* myself becoming more anxious as I grow older.

I've taken a few international trips in life for work or with friends, but any work travel, even domestic, has been absent since a job change in 2011. I don't travel much for leisure, haven't left the country since 2011. Getting packed and out of the house, even for work every day, or going to the gym, sometimes becomes something I work myself up over, like I need to do everything RIGHT. I now live in an uber-safe neighborhood, which is nice, but I fear growing comfortable in this environment. I overthink most purchases, haven't thrown a party or coordinated my friends for an outing in several years, and my public/professional speaking anxiety has gotten worse, even running small meetings. I've recently joined toastmasters to help with the latter. But what are some other challenges I can try to keep pushing myself to take risks and be comfortable with uncertainty, travel, etc? And do so in a systematic, continuous way?

Just to clarify, I'm primarily asking about what *I* can do for myself, and provided the mom-stuff for context (she's in her 70s, I am not trying to make her change.)

(ok, and yes I realized this post is how I am anxious about becoming... anxious. sigh.)

(and, yes, I will talk to my psychiatrist soon to see if he thinks I need to go the med route. But I really want to push myself behaviorally as much as possible as well.)

Thanks in advance.
posted by ArgyleMarionette to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Cognitive behavioral therapy aims is to identify and redirect those type of automatic responses. Additional info: NAMI, Mayo Clinic, Wikipedia
posted by JackBurden at 9:19 AM on December 8, 2014

I can relate a lot to this because my mother is the same way. I'm still in my 20's but I notice myself feeling the need to fight those instincts as well.

One thing to keep in mind is that you are not your mother. In being able to recognize the irrational behaviours caused by anxiety, you already distance yourself from those behaviours in a way your mother has not.

Also, I think it is important to acknowledge that if you are trying too hard not to become one thing, you are bound to become something else. We may think we are able to overcome our parents' faults, but more likely than not this will result in other faults. Fighting against your nature might not be the quickest route to confidence. Instead of exerting your energy trying not to be a certain thing, you could instead choose several positive qualities and aim to embody them. It is much more empowering to orient yourself towards your attributes rather than your frailties. Replace your goal of "striving not to be anxious" with another goal such as "striving to exceed my capabilities in a particular skill" or "striving to accomplish a task that means a lot to me". Remember that you can be anxious but still be a person of strength. When it comes to traveling, I've accepted the fact that I don't really like it that much and I've accepted that you can be an educated person without doing a lot of traveling. For many people travel is a privilege they can't afford, it's really not a necessity for living a full life.

But anyways, to answer your question, I think toastmasters is already a great step that you've taken. For me, going to a new exercise class (muay thai) where everyone was way more advanced than me, but going anyways and not caring what they think, was an empowering experience. Also, going out to parties alone if you have no one to go with, and being comfortable standing to the side and observing things (not succumbing to the feeling that I'm a loser because I'm not in conversation). Go see a lot of art events too because those can shake you out of your comfort zone.
posted by winterportage at 9:21 AM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

My situation is very similar to yours, in that my mother is incredibly anxious and I am as well. I've seen what her anxiety has done to her life and I don't want to be in her position when I am her age.

My mom texts me stuff just like yours. I'll tell her I'm going out for dinner and she'll say "Don't have sushi; raw fish is dangerous!" or I'll tell her I went to a friend's house and she'll say "Don't they live far away? Did you have to drive on the highway at night?! You shouldn't do that!" I am also in my thirties, so these texts are, well, a bit silly. Sigh. Dealing with my mother's anxiety is the subject of another post, and isn't your question, but I have figured out how to cope with that, for the most part.

But dealing with my own anxiety has been an uphill battle. And I've found one thing that really, really, really helps: low-dose SSRIs. I started over the summer and my life is so much better. I used to have lots of physical manifestations of my anxiety and those are gone. Challenging myself and doing things that once would have made me anxious isn't really a "thing" anymore because I don't have that low level anxiety buzz all of the time. My life is infinitely better without anxiety. I did a lot before going on the medication, and was very anxious about starting medication itself - I've talked on here before about how I cut the pill into quarters and took only 12 miligrams for the first few weeks, because I was so worried about what the drug would do to me - but it really was a good decision for me. I did have to try two drugs before finding one that didn't give me bad side effects and that actually worked rather than making me feel dull and suppressed, so that is something of which to be mindful.

No amount of pushing myself helped. I was able to get things done and do them but I was not functioning in a good way - I was being ruled by my anxiety and my attempts to control it were so taxing. The medication helped with that. Now I'm in control of my anxiety rather than my anxiety controlling me. Medication isn't for everyone, but it might be something to consider. Best of luck.
posted by sockermom at 9:21 AM on December 8, 2014 [4 favorites]

Practice. The truth is, you can feel all the anxiety you want and still do the thing. If you're fainting from it, then yes you must pursue medical intervention (and you CAN pursue it long before then if you think it assists you), but if you just feel bad, feeling bad is surmountable. You can do so formally with practices like CBT or you can start with something like The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, if you want a 101 on how to think your way through the roadblock.

It's when you start letting it dictate boundaries that it becomes a problem. Don't let it define your conversations with other people, like your mother does. Don't let it tell you that you can't interact with strangers, which then becomes driving at night, which then becomes leaving the house when it might get dark before you get home, when then becomes ever leaving the house. If you stretch and practice dealing with the bad feelings and then exercise doing the thing - just like you'd do if you played softball or pitched projects to clients - you remain flexible and your muscles remember how to do it.

Don't convince yourself that you are owed comfort at all times. Being uncomfortable is not a fatal condition. Embrace it, the way a dancer or pianist looks forward to trying the next slightly harder thing because it would be boring to keep doing the thing that has become easy with repetition.

like I need to do everything RIGHT

There is no such thing. You are going to be uncomfortable, and unlucky, and wrong, over and over and over in your life. You can either get on with it and deal with it when it comes*, or you can spend every moment of your life fearing it in between the moments it's actually happening. Which one sounds like the more productive option?

*And don't we admire those people? Isn't it more pleasant to be around someone who's operating productively and rolling with the punches than the self-defeating drama-hoarder who is relentlessly negative about everything? You can choose a role model, if you know someone like that, or you can just think about the archetype of a person who isn't driven by fear.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:23 AM on December 8, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you do something medical based, such as SSRIs or any other anti-depressant, these might work for you but, above all, stay away from Benzodiazepines (Benzos) such as Xanax, Valium, etc. They are fine for very short term relief (such as flying on a plane for example) but are otherwise very difficult to get off of for people who have had long term treatment and the manner in which you do get off of them (very, very slow taper) is generally not supported by the medical community, leaving people out in the cold. Thankfully, these days, they are generally not the first option but they are still prescribed, just not as much as they used to be.
posted by juiceCake at 9:52 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

First, recognize that your mom is gonna worry. And she's going to share her worries with you. It's her way. You are probably not going to be able to change that. What you can do is mentally take a step back from it. Recognize that your mom is doing what she does. She's not doing it because you are doing something wrong, she's doing it because that's what she does. Change the subject, if you can. Or don't talk to her about things that you know are going to get a response you don't want.

You don't need to do everything right. Even if you did manage to do that, things might still go wrong- there's an element of randomness to these things. Sometimes bad things happen to people who did everything right. Sometimes bad things don't happen to people who were totally unprepared.

A very powerful realization for me has been that anxious thoughts are just that, thoughts. They're not psychic revelations of the future. If you're like me, you've worried about lots of things that have ended up not happening (your mom certainly has). And don't get sucked into the cycle of worrying that you're worrying too much. That one really sucks.

A big problem for me has been futurizing. Thoughts like "if I can't do X, how am I ever going to cope with situation Y?" I have to remind myself that I have not been in situation Y, so I don't know what would happen if I were. Neither one of us can predict the future (if you can, get off Metafilter and buy a Powerball ticket).
posted by Anne Neville at 9:55 AM on December 8, 2014 [3 favorites]

even when I've talked to her about how her comments contribute to my anxiety.

Mom or not, you can't let others' worries add to your to-do list, unless you are getting paid for it.
Non-family members who do this over and over again have to be limited in contact and interactions.

How can I proactively prevent anxiety from limiting me in life?

There is a tipping point between anxiety and genuine excitement. Personally, I am determined that I will not let fear rule my life. I struggle with it still. I also wonder if I were to die at the end of the week, what would I think about the event I am missing, for instance, in retrospect. That really excites me more than makes me anxious. I also think how my anxiety is going to feel anxious if I go ahead with things anyway and I can enjoy it being miserable (I know! The thoughts I have...).

In brief, its about taking care of your thoughts and steering them with CBT-like reason when derailed or if that doesn't work then go for humor and attitude despite how you feel.

One caveat: if the anxiety is already 50 levels above threshold then recognize it and give yourself a break. For five times you face it head on, give yourself a break once. If its just 5 or 10 levels then its an opportunity to overcome it.

The best part is when you actually do something you were anxious about and even enjoy yourself. The feeling is just out of the world!
posted by xm at 10:03 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

stay away from Benzodiazepines

Different people respond differently to different medications. For some people benzos are literally a life saver. They can be habit-forming and have some other issues but don't discard anything out of hand without talking to a medical professional. People respond differently to different stuff. Benzos worked very well for me. The thing no one tells you about anti-anxiety meds is that you will be afraid to take them, and that other anxious people will be giving you advice on them which can sometimes make them sound scarier than they may be in your case.

it's really frustrating that these messages still persist even when I've talked to her about how her comments contribute to my anxiety.

Sorry your mom is not helpful with this stuff. My mom is like that. That said, you know she's not helpful with this stuff so now the next step is moving forward and finding ways to deal with what you can change which is your responses to her anxiety. This may mean some sort of mindfulness work, limiting your exposure to her and her agita or just doing other stuff to minimize your general stress level. For me this involves

- regular tiring exercise
- making certain I get enough sleep (challenging for an anxious person)
- limiting caffeine especially late in the day
- limiting sugar generally (I am not a no carb person but sugar gives me weird spikey good/bad feelings and is not helpful for me)
- trying to set up a life where I don't have to get up and rush out the door
- staying away from things that piss me off (avoidable traffic, people with bad attitudes, facebook arguments)

With the stress level going down, my ambient anxiety levels go way down which helps me be a little more reflective and not reactive about things. My mom is who she is and that is a person who is not managing her anxiety. So I will engage her about her concerns but only just. Instead of talking about her anxieties on their merits ("Here's a photo of how close my tree is to the heater...") I just say thanks and move on. If she wants to dig in ("Hey prove to me that you are on top of this") she doesn't actually get to do that. Learning how to have feelings without reacting to them is a big thing. Learning how to trust yourself and the choices you make. Deciding that even if some worst-case unexpected scenario happens (and sometimes they do) you can handle it because you are someone who can handle things and it's better to just deal with what comes up than live in constant fear.

I am a people pleaser, but I spent a lot of my early years trying to please unpleasable people and that set me up for a difficult early adulthood. Don't be your own unpleasable person. Know when to say when. Have friends who you can check in with to give you reality checks if you're really struggling (I have occasional bedbug-fears when I get a weird bug bite in my house, I have a person I talk to about that) and don't put other people in the place in your mind of "Making" you anxious. Own it. Grapple with it like you have a cold. There are a lot of options you have available to you to make things go better.
posted by jessamyn at 10:06 AM on December 8, 2014 [15 favorites]

I have also had some talk therapy, which was helpful to get me to recognize that my parents are just like your mom :) But as far as changing my own behavior, nothing has helped me to recognize what is irrational anxiety and what is 'real' like the occasional use of Ativan. I don't actually take it anymore but the way it can just squelch anxiety was such a useful tool. You know how you can't hear the noise until it shuts off?

So sorry to be very pro drug and pro-antianxyolytics specifically -- I would urge you to combine drugs with therapy to give you the tools you'll need -- but my first Ativan prescription really was kind of an epiphany. I know my parents have actually been put on it occasionally too, but I think they actually MISS the anxiety and did not get much from the drug.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 10:15 AM on December 8, 2014

It sounds like you've identified a few things that you wish you didn't feel were risky: hosting gatherings of friends, taking trips, running meetings. From a very straightforward perspective, the way to challenge yourself is to do more of these things. Work up incrementally.
1. Call a friend and invite them to a movie. "I want to get out and go see something, what's good? When are you free?"
2. Call a friend and invite them to see a movie of your choice (see, now you're risking more)
3. Decide on a movie and a date, and invite 6 friends for a movie and drinks. (note that every time I say the words "see a movie" you can substitute "dinner at a restaurant" or whatever suits you".)
posted by aimedwander at 10:18 AM on December 8, 2014

Others have attended to the strictly mental health aspects of your question, so I'll address the practical "challenging myself" bit as best I'm able.

I can't tell from your profile where you live, so I can't do much with specifics, but you need to consider seriously spending a little scratch on yourself. Recommendations:

Find a local civil airfield and buy yourself a spin in a plane where you are the one flying (with an instructor). The spouse got this as a Christmas gift one year because she, as experienced a flyer as she was, expressed a desire to be a less-nervous flyer. To be absolutely clear, however, it's been repeated air travel (including by herself) that's been more of a help in this arena. (Anecdata included to emphasize that exposure and desensitization are important here.)

Go somewhere new every weekend, even if it's to just grab a bite to eat. Walk a neighborhood or drive a town until you see a place that looks tempting. Stop, say hi. Nourish yourself. Exercise. Ride a bike somewhere for the first time. Find your way back. Use a smartphone or GPS unit, or don't. You can find maps of damn near anywhere for cycling. Come home and fall into bed exhilarated and exhausted. Sleep like a baby.

Ropes courses, climbing gyms, tai chi classes, boxing lessons, skydiving, toastmasters, cooking classes (that you subsequently use). These are all things that feel risky in some ways but are in fact pretty damned safe. The important thing is to separate and distinguish actual risk from the out-of-whack threat perception you're getting via your mom. Start by inviting a friend(s) to do these things with you.

My mom's also like this, and it took me far too long to step away and recalibrate my ability to accurately assess risk.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:29 AM on December 8, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think of it like this... shift from evaluating actions on the basis of negatives/going away from risks/what should I avoid, to evaluating them on the basis of positives/going toward something/what do I want to do. It's easy to be smart and careful about risks in the day-to-day, and the news media, blogs, social media shareables are all set up to deliver a constant stream of "avoid these foods to avoid cancer", "scary news about retirement plans", whatever. So there is a lot of reinforcement for over-attending to day-to-day risk management and (for me anyway) it can crowd out the bigger-picture positive-goals thinking... but if you never do the big-picture positive-goals thing, you don't make incremental progress toward those goals, and over time you find that all you're doing is being careful day-to-day rather than building toward something. Develop a picture of the life you want, and then consider your actions in relation to that.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:52 AM on December 8, 2014

The way this was explained to me is that if you feel like you have to leave a bowl of Cheetos outside your door so that tigers won't invade your house, then every time you put out Cheetos and tigers don't invade your house, it will reinforce the crazy idea that you were safe from tigers because of the Cheetos. So whatever the crazy idea is, that's what you have to do the opposite of. Every time you choose not to put a bowl of Cheetos outside the door, you prove to yourself that tigers still won't invade the house.

This helps me when my mom plants ideas in my head. I do the exact opposite of what she said. I don't tell her I'm planning to "disobey," or send photos of it or anything, because that would be rude. And I wouldn't do anything genuinely dangerous. But the moment she texted the thing about the tree, I would silently move my tree an inch toward the heater. If she said something about the highway at night, I would find one more errand to add to my planned trip on the highway at night.

And I'd treat my inner anxiety the same way. It sounds like you're already doing this where you've noticed the speaking anxiety increasing, so you're starting toastmasters. Whatever "right" means in terms of how you leave the house, try leaving the house "wrong." If having friends over or visiting other countries is important to you, put something on the calendar now. Whatever your anxiety is telling you not to do, do that exact thing.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 11:47 AM on December 8, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used to be very anxious, and now I'm only sort-of anxious. I travel in countries where I don't speak the language, eat weird things, talk to strangers, etc. with less trouble than I used to have. Here's what (apparently) helped.

- I was prescribed Xanax once and reluctantly took half a dose. It was like flipping a switch. Suddenly I couldn't even remember what I had been obsessively worrying about. This convinced me that my anxiety was largely a chemical glitch in my brain and not a personal weakness or somehow my fault.

- Thanks to the above realization, I became able to tell myself, "Oh, that's just the anxiety kicking in," thinking of it like a bad knee. That makes it easier to accept the discomfort without frantically trying to relieve or stifle it.

- I set goals that are important to me and regularly check my progress, which makes it easier to do the sometimes scary things necessary to reach the goals.

- I stretch myself a little at a time. I started traveling domestically, then to easy countries, and now to wherever the heck catches my eye. When I land in a new place, I quickly establish a familiar, safe spot (hotel or apartment) and slowly expand my world beyond that. I get to know a place really well rather than running all around, which gives me a deeper experience and reduces the anxiety caused by new - new - hurry gotta see something new.

- I developed organizational skills that make it unlikely that something bad would be all that bad. I spend more time preparing for a change than many people might but then it usually goes smoothly as a result.

- I reduce my exposure to emotional and physical stress. For example, I don't read or watch violent or thriller-type material; I use noise-cancelling ear buds when someone near me on transport or in a cafe is talking intensely; the TV is off unless I'm watching something I've chosen to watch; I dim the lights at night, etc.

- I keep an ear on unhelpful thoughts and acknowledge them without trying to stifle them or fight them. They're just little burps coming from the anxiety-machine in my brain.
posted by ceiba at 11:47 AM on December 8, 2014 [7 favorites]

yes I realized this post is how I am anxious about becoming... anxious

As long as we're being meta, another thing to be aware of (I say, as a person whose post history suggests I've done the exact same thing), is that your current line of thinking is also an attempt to find the Right. Way. To manage your anxiety. Thinking big picture is good, especially if you're thinking about what you want, vs. what you want to avoid (see LobsterMitten's advice above), but be really conscious that you don't get too caught up an intense theoretical exercise about how to optimize your behavior to prevent future suffering to the detriment of practical things you could be doing this week to reduce your stress levels (like Jessamyn says).

If your mind keeps circling back to the long-term question, maybe you could make a future appointment with yourself to think about new year's goals in a few weeks, and in the meantime, take some shorter term but no less useful steps to ratchet down your stress level. At least for my part, I've found my ability to plan realistically about changes I may want to make in my life is much improved once I take a few steps back out of High Anxiety Thinky Mode. I still pay attention to things I think when I'm really stressed - it can spur me to ask questions about the direction my life is heading, or to brainstorm some really out there solutions to problems that may or may not even exist yet - but I've learned to jot those thoughts down and then evaluate them later.

So basically, if you were me I'd say good on you for asking this question now, but go do some basic self-care for a bit and come back to think about the answers when you're feeling less intense about the question.
posted by deludingmyself at 11:49 AM on December 8, 2014

I actually caught myself getting a lot of travel-related anxiety once; I had a meltdown during a visit to Philadelphia because I was confused about what bus stop I was at, and after I got home I realized I would NEVER flip out like that if I was at home, so clearly something was up. What helped me with that was to really push myself to do something daring travel-wise - I found something that was safe enough, but still out of my comfort zone (hiking to the top of this mountain in the Catskills), and committed to doing it. Ever since, when I notice myself getting a little risk-averse, I try to do something similar.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:10 PM on December 8, 2014

There's a world of difference between what your mom and my mom do, and the garden-variety "moms are going to worry" moms.

Me: I'm donating blood tomorrow.
Regular Mom: Make sure you drink the juice afterwards so you don't get dizzy!
My Mom: WHY are you giving so much blood I think your vein is going to collapse from all of that and you're going to get ill by constantly (!) having less blood in you than you should. Make sure it's sanitary because X's cousin's husband's boss died from MRSA at a donation station take this hand sanitizer and wipe the clipboard with it. I really wish you wouldn't do these risky things...why you???

What I do is write down all of what she would say down on a piece of paper to get it out of my head, and toss it. I can't save her from her own worries, but tossing them away is getting her worries out of my head. I'll say to myself the wise words of my historical BFF Eleanor Roosevelt, "Do the thing you think you cannot do." And then I'll go and give blood, or go to happy hour after work, or get a pedicure or have a glass of wine, or whatever mundane and not-dangerous thing I was going to do before her anxieties showed up in my life.
posted by kimberussell at 4:12 PM on December 8, 2014 [5 favorites]

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