How to stop making self sick with anxiety?
January 13, 2006 4:42 PM   Subscribe

How to stop making self sick with anxiety? So today I found a file from my boss among the stacks of paper on my desk. It had a sticker on it referring to a very fixed deadline for an important application. A deadline that had already passed!!!

I spent all day in an emotional tailspin. My boss is traveling, but I was dreading telling him about overlooking the file (I can't understand how I did it). I called my mom and told her all about it, I placed an emergency call to my shrink to ask to talk it over with him if he had a few minutes and I left a message for my sister. In my mind, I've made "another huge mistake" and this proves I'm "incompetent" "stupid" "will never be successful" etc. Basically, I was feeling like my life and future were now "over."

So when my boss finally calls I tell him about the missed deadline and he's just like, "no worries, I decided not to apply because there wasn't enough time."

I am so sick of being so stressed out all of the time! I overeact about everything. Then I irritate my friends, family and doctor, who are always privy to my latest crisis. I have a hard time finding a boyfriend, and I wonder if it's because anxiety isn't a very appealing quality. I just wish I wouldn't overreact about things, but the feelings just take on a life of their own. I find work SO stressful because I have a lot of responsibility for scheduling, prioritizing and tracking priority items and deadlines. I also work for a perfectionist, so that just plays into my "stress response." I feel if I could just RELAX every area of my life would improve: friendships, romance, work, etc. Please tell me I'm not the only one dealing with such issues. I feel like a freak. Also, do you have any advice for me?
posted by mintchip to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
I know it sounds really flippant, but get another job.

Seriously, it sounds as if you just aren't cut out for your line of work, and need a job either with less responsibility or with more relaxed deadlines.

I've found that stress tends to follow people, so if you are more relaxed at work, you are more relaxed at home and vice versa.
posted by madajb at 4:47 PM on January 13, 2006

Hey mintchip - I could see myself writing the same post last year. I was a total mess, I was anxious about everything, and everything was always a major crisis & catastrophe. I did decide to try anti-depressants (at my dr's recommendation) to treat the anxiety and it's really made a world of difference. It sounds like you're already talking to your doctors & therapists...have they ever suggested anything like that for you? You may want to ask what they think about it. It's not for everyone, obviously, and IANAD.

Also, do you get any exercise? I think adding some tiring exercise and also some meditation to your daily schedule might help to channel your feelings into something better.

And if you're addicted to caffeine, you might want to taper off. It does nothing for the anxious personality. Try some chammomile tea.

Feel free to e-mail me (in bio) if you need to vent. Feel better!
posted by tastybrains at 4:51 PM on January 13, 2006

I make no warranty about the quality of this advice:

First: Deal with the problem -- Fix the situation in the best way possible so that when you talk to your boss, you can tell him what you've done to mitigate the situation, and tell him that everything is fine, taken care of, and not to worry about. Do not turn your boss into the solver of the problem you created unless absolutely necessary. Mitigate the "incompetent moron" factor by following the mistake up with a heroic rescue that shows that you're not an incompetent moron.

Second: Chill out. Everyone makes mistakes. Sometimes big ones. But you've fixed this one. It's going to be alright, one way or another.

Third: You're not alone.
posted by JekPorkins at 5:04 PM on January 13, 2006

Does your shrink do cognitive-behavioral therapy? This is exactly what it's supposed to be best at. Many MeFites have recommended the following books on the subject:

Feeling Good
Learned Optimism
Thoughts and Feelings

I've started the first one. If you can get past the somewhat cheesy prose style, it could be quite helpful.
posted by expialidocious at 5:05 PM on January 13, 2006

This seems to be a variation on a common theme on AskMeFi recently, so I'll advance the following suggestion again: consider what would be the worst thing that could happen if you totally fucked up, realize it's not actually so bad, plan how you would handle it, and thereby get past the anxiety.

For example: suppose your boss had been incensed that you'd failed to send in that application on time, yelled at you, called you the most terrible names you can imagine, and then fired you.

Well, you've presumably been yelled at and called names before. Everyone has. So you should be able to handle that. It'll hurt but it's by no means fatal. Same for getting fired. Getting fired merely results in you needing a job, which is a situation you've handled before successfully. You found a job before -- the one you have now -- and that means you can find another if you have to. Sure it'll be inconvenient, a hassle even, but is that worth getting worked up over? Not in my book. So what is really to worry about?

Life works better when you worry about things you have a reason to, rather than worrying about things until you find a reason to stop.
posted by kindall at 5:07 PM on January 13, 2006

I hope your shrink is a cognitive therapist. If not find one who is. Cognitive therapy helps you to recognise dysfunctional patterns of thinking and reacting and replace them with more realistic and productive thoughts and behaviors. Unfortunately it sounds as if everything at work is setting off your anxiety alarm. Try googling cognitive therapy and you'll find hundreds of sites with useful information. A good place to start is "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" by Beck and Burns.

We all have our inner demons and we all struggle. You can learn how to combat them. It's not easy and for some it'll be a life-long struggle but the nice thing I've realized as I've gotten older is that people are capable of change.

Alos, meditation might be something for you to consider - practioners talk about calming their "monkey mind".
posted by TorontoSandy at 5:11 PM on January 13, 2006

i can totally see this happening to me. i too tend to freak out and freeze up over things i messed up on at work and get really really anxious, only to have them turn out fine. some people say it helps to find something outside of work that you're good at and enjoy, so that your whole sense of self isn't tied up in how you do at work. i've found that doing so only makes me sit at work wishing i was off doing that other thing. anyway, i'm here if you want to email.
posted by nevers at 5:15 PM on January 13, 2006

Go to your doctor and explain how you feel. Your doc can recommend some lifestyle changes that may help (Do you exercise, how are you sleeping, are you eating healthy, etc.). I'm not a fan of pharmaceuticals, though I wouldn't object to anyone who used them. I would suggest learning more about alternative solutions first, though.
You may find doing something artistic helpful. Playing music is very cathartic (And it doesn't matter if you aren't very musical; You can get a lot out of your system with only three guitar chords, for example), and writing is therapeutic as well. I recommend writing because in addition to the relief of expressing your feelings (Without feeling like a drag on your loved ones), you can reread what you wrote and maybe gain some insight into your situation that you may not have realized.
This may not be feasible, but have you considered a career change? Rather than starting fresh at a completely new job, find out if there are opportunities within your current company that interest you. Are you doing what you want to do?
Relationship-wise, look into joining an adult sports program. In addition to getting exercise, you meet a lot of people in a much more relaxed setting than in a typical meat market night club. Avoid workplace romances, at least for now; the mixing of business and pleasure will only make your stress that much harder to manage.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 5:16 PM on January 13, 2006


Worked miracles for me.
posted by blogrrrl at 5:27 PM on January 13, 2006

I think I speak for the whole internet when I say: I'm very disappointed in you.

Just kidding! Everyone makes mistakes. Not everyone admits them, so you're already ahead of the game for not blaming someone else or pretending everything's fine or lying or something.

The problem isn't the mistake though, which wasn't even a mistake, the problem is the freaking out about it. Everyone does that to a certain exteint. I try to keep things in perspective. People can recover from almost anything. I know a vietnamese guy who spent 11 years in solitary confinement, eating 250-350 kernels of corn a day! Now he's living in Minnesota publishing the poetry he wrote in his head during that time, and generally is pretty happy. Conclusion: No matter what anyone does, life goes on. (Disclaimer: this may not apply to world leaders)
posted by aubilenon at 5:30 PM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Getting Things Done by David Allen

This book cut my stress level in half by the end of the first chapter. It's really a wonderful system, and there are many people that feel the same way. It's consistently one of the top 100 sellers on Amazon.
posted by mr.dan at 5:32 PM on January 13, 2006

I suffered a major bout of anxiety after my husband was in serious motorcycle accident and ended up spending 2 months in the hospital. I was determined to beat it without drugs, though, so I did a lot of research, and this is what I found:

It sounds stupid, but the advice that worked best for me was to learn to immediately recognize the rash ideas when they start — before they spiral out of control — and put an end to them by putting them out of your head. I knew my husband wasn't really going to have to have his foot amputated (he broke a small bone in his foot during the accident and after surgery the incision became infected). I realized this was pretty irrational, but it still kept me up at night because it was a possibility (however distant). Once I finally learned to say "Alright, you nut, just get over it," I was much better.

The advice I read said this: if you are worried about something you have no control over - get over it. There's no use worrying about something that's out of your hands. If you're worried about something you DO have control over, then stop worrying and start making changes.

I'm doing much better, and have never even seen a doctor.
posted by Brittanie at 5:32 PM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

This will sound like it conflicts with a good work ethic, but in some cases (such as yours) it helps - a work ethic that burns you out on everything is not good for you or your employer.

You want to get to a point where, at the end of the day at work, you walk out the door and don't give work another thought until the next day when you're getting ready to go in. No matter how bad it is, work problems are for work hours and only work hour, and you will never bother to think about them, let alone worry about them, when you're off. When you find yourself thinking about it, you do your best to think of other things.

Getting to that point involves some self confidence - you need to know deeply enough to truely believe that the worst thing that can happen (getting fired?) isn't the end of the world, it not even worrisome, merely a hassle you could do without but can clearly fix. It's another hurdle in life that you'll jump like every other, even if it takes a few tries.

If you were fired tommorrow, ideally you would simply take it in stride and Just Fix It (ie find another job) without being too bothered by it, because the reality is, if you were actually fired, you would get another job. You'd just stress out about it, but you would get a job either way. Same outcome either way, regardless of whether you stress or treat it as a major chore but no big deal, so don't stress.

This doesn't address that you fear the indictment of you as a person of being fired (or whatever your worst case scenario is). And it's BAD advice for anyone who doesn't drive themselves nuts trying to do their best at work.

But basically, worry less on the undeniable grounds that you've managed to somehow get over EVERY SINGLE hurdle in life so far, and tomorrow won't be any different - you always find a way, the problem at hand is just more of the usual chores that life throws at us. It's just unwanted hassle, not disaster. Sometimes it creates more hassle (such as getting fired), but it's still just hassle so your life will go on, it's just not worth anxiety.

Also, the behaviour you describe is, as you mentioned, very indeed hard on relationships, (from both firsthand and secondhand experience), and many people learn to simply run from those signals.

I don't actually think this advice will help you much, but the system works very well for me during stressful times.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:33 PM on January 13, 2006

Please tell me I'm not the only one dealing with such issues.
1.) You're not the only one.

2.) "Chill out" is not constructive advice.

3.) Yes, this quality may be hampering your social life. Guys aren't into drama. (Straight guys, anyway...)

If you can afford therapy, try it. If you're OK with the idea of medication, try that. Find a few self-help books in the library. Locate a local support group for anxiety. Eat well, exercise, and meditate.
posted by cribcage at 5:33 PM on January 13, 2006

Regarding the indictment issue, I sometimes remind myself that it's ok to be human. It's a condition true of even the best of us.

(Related to that, I won't take shit from myself or others for making wrong decisions or mistakes based on limited information that made it a reasonable choice at the time. It's easy to criticise yourself with the benefit of hindsight, but it's sometimes worth thinking "y'know, that was the right choice to make given what was known at the time".

posted by -harlequin- at 5:42 PM on January 13, 2006

I find that most stress and anxiety come from unrealistic expectations.
posted by any major dude at 5:51 PM on January 13, 2006

I trust you know that all who are responding here probably have similar experiences to yours. My entirely anecdotal responses (as someone who has occasionally ended up in a tailspin for reasons that could be eliminated by merely asking a question):

Improve Your Job: Is this really the kind of job and boss you want? There are lots of places to work in this world, and many of them won't suck for you. If you can, do not quit your current job before finding your new job or being very sure about it materializing in a short amount of time--your anxiety will be lower if you don't need the job you're interviewing for. Take joy in the fact that you'll soon be leaving your current job.

Improve Your Chemistry: From many points of view, anxiety is related to depression and can be treated with the same meds. Certain antidepressants (e.g. Wellbutrin / bupropion) have an antianxiety effect and may be preferable to seratonin-focused meds, which can mute emotional responses and prevent your growing from experiences. Regular exercise (cardio) can also have some huge systemic benefits.

Improve Your Neural Connections: Find ways to undo or modify whatever nature or nurturing has led to your tendency to reach these stress-singularities. Experiences of many kinds can affect how you deal with the unexpected and the unknown. I wouldn't recommend it, but going to law school caused such a high and continual degree of stress that it forced me to find new ways to think that eventually led to less stress.

Improve Your Knowledge: There's a lot of good books out there. Some might have been suggested here, some you might just have to find. A few years ago, I read this book and thought it was great, and the same author recently published a very interesting book, Undoing Perpetual Stress, which hopefully I'll get around to reading soon.

Above all, don't stress about the fact that you're stressed. Practice accepting the fact that you're stressed and be okay with it. Let yourself off the hook more often--whatever it is, it's probably not that important. When you find a calm perspective, remember what it feels like and it will be easier to get back there when you're anxious again in a new situation.
posted by bafflegab at 6:12 PM on January 13, 2006

I used to feel like, I don't know, like I was "faking it" all the time or something, like someone was suddenly going to find out that I'm not all that smart and not all that together, and that OHMYGOD SHE MAKES MISTAKES! It was really bizarre, and made me really anxious. I mean, I'm not faking it. I'm good at my job. I'm smart. Objectively, I know this. What I realized about myself, though, was that I'd really warped my own world, because for whatever reason, I'd decided to fixate on this one aspect of myself as the only thing that anyone at work could see and I'd convinced myself that it was the only thing that mattered. I, too, would castigate myself beyond all all normal bounds. I had to learn to exercise some critical thinking with regard to myself -- which is what cognitive behavioral therapy sort of is, recognizing your own destructive, irrational thought patterns and then thinking your way out of them. This quote, which is from this speech, which is an awesome read and was reallly a wake-up call to me, sums it up for me:

learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

There's already a lot of good advice here. Good luck.
posted by Medieval Maven at 6:19 PM on January 13, 2006 [1 favorite]

Ever considered a bit of a change in scenery? It sounds to me like the urban system is grating you down a bit. There are many areas of the world which just don't have the same culture of urgency and stress. Much of the Caribbean, parts of South America and parts of Southern Asia come to mind in particular.
And it might involve a career change. If you ever wanted to teach, open a bar, become a professional clown, now's the time.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 6:48 PM on January 13, 2006

Improve Your Job: Is this really the kind of job and boss you want?

I agree with this suggestion. It took me a while to figure out that I *hate* having the sort of job like it sounds you have, being responsible for arranging all the details, administering, coordinating, multitasking, etc. etc. etc. Especially scheduling -- that's the worst! That kind of job is bound to make you anxious, even if you're doing everything perfectly.

So, besides taking all the other good advice on this thread, start thinking about whether it's possible to find work where you have longer-term, bigger projects with more autonomy.
posted by footnote at 7:18 PM on January 13, 2006

You sound very responsible, if not a bit neurotic. Honesty is the best policy in these things and being up front about it. Tell your boss, before your boss finds out. If it it a career ending move at this business, then you are at the wrong place and needed to find another job anyway.
posted by caddis at 7:25 PM on January 13, 2006

Mod note: added the more inside to this post, hope that's okay
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:30 PM on January 13, 2006

I had a job like that. The problem was actually that my boss was very inexperienced and unable to say "no" to her boss. So she'd pile way too much work on my desk and want me to do award applications and things at the last minute. I thought there was something wrong with me, but a more senior member of the company pointed out the problem. After that, I was better able to deal with letting my boss down sometimes.

BTW, what kind of applications? Through the above experience, I discovered that sometimes a call to the awards coordinator could result in an extended deadline. By doing this, I saved my boss a few times!
posted by acoutu at 9:12 PM on January 13, 2006

Definetely think about getting a new job, one where you have a more relaxed type of work environment. But overall don't worry- missing deadlines is not an impediment to outstanding success. Most of the successful mucky-mucks I've worked for have had an extremely casual relationship to time and rules. If you dont want to get a new job talk to your boss and tell them that you tend to stress and can they keep you updated on the status of all your projects so you can sleep at night. Maybe schedule a weekly meeting where you quickly run over everything and get them to yay or nay it for you.

I used to worry myself sick over getting stuff done on time when I was a consultant and I drove everyone else witless demanding their cooperation. I recently found out that when I worked there was the only time the consultancy EVER got anything out the door on time. Drove me nutso that they were so slack but it didn't hurt their business one bit.
posted by fshgrl at 12:38 AM on January 14, 2006

I'll second the recommendation for David Burns' book "Feeling Good", it worked miracles for me.
To whet your appetite, here's a list of his "Cognitive Distortions". I keep this list in a doc file on my Palm at all times.
I truly hope it helps you and maybe others.

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING: You see things in black-and white categories. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure.

2. OVERGENERALIZATION: you see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

3. MENTAL FILTER: You pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively so that your vision of all reality become darkened, like the drop of ink that discolors the entire beaker of water.

4. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE: You reject positive experiences by insisting they "don't count" for some reason or other. In this way you can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by your everyday experiences.

5. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS: You make a negative interpretation even though there are no definite facts that convincingly support your conclusion.
a. Mind reading. You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you, and you don't bother to check this out.
b. The Fortune Teller Error. You anticipate that things will turn out badly, and you feel convinced that your prediction is an already-established fact.

6. MAGNIFICATION (CATASTROPHIZING) OR MINIMIZATION: You exaggerate the importance of things (such as your goof-up or someone else's achievement), or you inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny (your own desirable qualities or the other fellow's imperfections). This is also called the "binocular trick."

7. EMOTIONAL REASONING: You assume that your negative emotions necessarily reflect the way things really are: "I feel it, therefore it must be true."

8. SHOULD STATEMENTS: You try to motivate yourself with shoulds and shouldn'ts, as if you had to be whipped and punished before you could be expected to do anything. "Musts" and "aughts" are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When you direct should statements toward others, you feel anger, frustration, and resentment.

9. LABELING AND MISLABELING: This is an extreme form of overgeneralization. Instead of describing your error, you attach a negative label to yourself: "I'm a loser." when someone else's behavior rubs you the wrong way, you attach a negative label to him: "He's a goddam louse." Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded.

10. PERSONALIZATION: You see yourself as the cause of some negative external event which in fact you were not primarily responsible for.

posted by willmize at 2:48 AM on January 14, 2006

I used to work at an intermittently stressful admin job, and what worked for me was to balance such anxious feelings with occasional moments when I reflected on all the stuff that didn't go wrong today because I did x, y or z. Of course, one doesn't tend to get recognition for preventing cock-ups, so I'd allow myself to feel proud of me. Perhaps try that?
posted by altolinguistic at 3:00 AM on January 14, 2006

business is business ... it's not your emotional life ... and unless you're very fortunate, it's not your real life or your passion ... it's what you do to get a paycheck

you need to cultivate the art of keeping an emotional distance from your work and a realistic perspective of it ... to tell yourself that 10 years from now, no one will remember it, and right now, there's a billion chinese who don't know and don't give a shit ... this doesn't mean slacking, or not caring, but not to let it affect your view of yourself to the point where if your job isn't going well than you aren't well

i make it sound simple, but it can be very difficult to do for someone who's dedicated to doing good work

you're not there to be liked, or affirm yourself, or improve your self-image, although it's fine if those things happen ... you're just there to do something well enough to get paid for it

i don't know that prozac and stuff like that is necessary ... (i'm not qualified to know) ... but if you have trouble keeping an emotional distance from your job, perhaps a counselor can help ... it takes time and a lot of effort, but it can be done
posted by pyramid termite at 7:26 AM on January 14, 2006


Personally, I think understanding this problem is a big step toward dealing with a great many psychological problems. Ironically, I think that antidepressants and similar drugs help a person to understand emotions as an experience as opposed to a presumed accurate description of reality. You are not your anxiety, you are apart from it. Even though this is happening in your brain, this emotion is a filter through which you are experiencing your sense of self, it is not yourself. I don't know if this helps, and I'm not sure that I've taken my own advice with regard to the very severe depression I suffer from—but I did learn this with regard to an anger and irritation I used to regularly feel and from which I would lash out at people. That irritation and anger had its own logic, it completely remade my reality, I thought about the anger in terms of "I am angry!". But when I begin to see that in a very real sense, the anger was happening to me, not being me, I had a good foothold on the path to ridding my life and relationships with that poison. Without the aid of antidepressents. Of course, the antidepressents I take are very effective at eliminating the anger and irritation in the first place, so I don't need that coping skill in this context as much as I once did. Anyway, while I certainly am not encouraging you or anyone to alienate themselves from their strong emotions, I do think that it's helpful to realize that they do not recreate you in their image as it seems. And in no way am I claiming this is a problem easily solved. But what I suggest is probably one part of a effective toolkit for dealing with your anxiety.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 9:27 AM on January 14, 2006

In the moment when you start to have that awful stomach-churning feeling, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Will anyone die from this?

2. Will anyone get hurt?

3. Will anyone get arrested?

If the answer to any of those questions is Yes, then you have a Big Problem and can start making phone calls. Otherwise, don't borrow drama. Give your body 20-30 minutes to stop dumping adrenaline into your system (you may have to keep reviewing your "no" answers during that time), drink some water, eat a little protein, and then address the problem once your body is back under your control.

One of the symptoms of depression is narcissism, where the universe and all its disasters revolves around you. That's the mechanism driving you to call your mother, sister, and shrink instead of working the problem, and it's helping you manufacture a case for your own incompetence - which you're not, of course, you're completely human and normal, but the disease will grasp at flimsy evidence - so that the issue centers around you instead of the problem at hand.

The trigger for all that is your brain chemistry playing shenanigans, but you've probably also developed a habit of reacting disproportionately by now, and it's a tough one to break. That's what cognitive-behavioral therapy is for, and why so many people are recommending it.

And no, you are very much not alone. But it can get better.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:53 PM on January 14, 2006

not sure if you're open to spiritual advice, but when i am stressed and depressed, i pray. more often than not it helps my world slow down just a bit.
posted by roaring beast at 10:12 PM on January 14, 2006

here's my mantra when things start to really get to me and make me miserable:

"so what"

it's amazing how much this phrase seems to help me let go of obsessive angry and anxious feelings.
posted by macinchik at 3:45 PM on January 17, 2006

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