How can I shut my brain up and enjoy my life?
October 12, 2007 9:38 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone else live with the constant feeling things are about to take a turn for the worse?

I run my own web consulting company and have had stable revenues for the last two years, with clients I (mostly) love, making much more money than most 23-year-olds I know. I'm happily married, have just rented a great new apartment in Portland, OR, just bought a new Jetta, have several hobbies I enjoy, great friends, etc. Basically, things are going pretty swimmingly in my life right now. However I'm constantly plagued with this creeping fear that things are about to go horribly wrong. This usually relates to contemplating the future - the end of the year, thinking six months ahead, etc. I always feel that the ground is going to fall away from underneath me, and it keeps me from enjoying the moment and my current accomplishments and pastimes. I don't have a lot of specific fears - perhaps that I'll get sick, or that my biggest client will be hit by a bus and stop sending those fat retainer checks every month that support my lifestyle - but generally it's just this unsettled feeling. Am I just being neurotic, or is there something I can do to focus myself and stop worrying so much?
posted by hansbleep to Work & Money (32 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Yes, lots of people feel this way. It's no fun. Lots of good advice in this related AskMe.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:54 PM on October 12, 2007

A couple of things:

1.) Based on your descriptions of your life: I hate you. Purely out of envy. Don't take it personally.

2.) You are 23 and are married with a serious (and, ostensibly, successful) career. When I was 23, I was fighting my way through a mediocre college by working 3+ jobs. And partying a bit too much.

I have no formal training to diagnose what is causing your malaise, but if I were a betting man, I would lay odds on you being nervous about being very successful when most of your peers are, like I was, just getting started.

Don't freak out. Smart people look for way that things can go wrong. This is where the term 'Ignorance is bliss' came from. You are going to spend the rest of your life looking for the car that is going to t-bone your life.

Don't fret about it, it becomes easier as you get older.

Am I just being neurotic, or is there something I can do to focus myself and stop worrying so much?

If your stress is preventing you from enjoying what you have, seek help. And that doesn't necessarily mean 'find a professional'. Sometimes just talking to a buddy is enough.
posted by quin at 10:00 PM on October 12, 2007

I would second two of the books mentioned in the other post: Feeling Good and Learned Optimism.
posted by metahawk at 10:02 PM on October 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: quin: That's an interesting point about nervousness. I think there is a certain element to my thoughts where I feel like I don't deserve what I have in my life - a well paying job compared to most of my peers, in a career I enjoy and working from home, a happy stable relationship, nice possessions, etc. - and that I'm somehow going to f*ck things up because I didn't really deserve to have things so good in the first place.
posted by hansbleep at 10:07 PM on October 12, 2007

I don't know much about it, but your last addition compels me to mention that you ought to Google "Imposter Syndrome."
posted by dragstroke at 10:10 PM on October 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

You need to accept change. You need to accept that things may go horribly wrong but you will rebound, because that's what people usually do. Do you do Buddha?
posted by Camofrog at 10:16 PM on October 12, 2007

Does anyone else live with the constant feeling things are about to take a turn for the worse?

Yes, I did (and still do sometimes) until I started taking anti-anxiety medication. It has "calmed my brain" and let me focus on the "now" for the first time in years.
posted by amyms at 10:17 PM on October 12, 2007

Make sure you feel comfortable with the decisions you make before you make the decisions. Save as much money as you possibly can. Be frugal for a few years. Knowing you have money in the bank to get you through a year of unemployment, medical emergency, etc. will really help you fill more at ease.
posted by HotPatatta at 10:36 PM on October 12, 2007

I think you can expect a lot of lengthy "your feelings are accurate thanks to [Bush, peak oil, impending collapse of economy and society, etc.]" answers.
posted by booksandlibretti at 10:53 PM on October 12, 2007

What you described has a good old-fashioned name and there's a good old-fashioned book that addresses it very well. What you describe is WORRY. I have read countless books on the subject and (still) the best is How To Stop Worrying - And Start Living by the late Dale Carnegie. It's a solid 5-star book at Amazon and read by millions since it was first published in - 1948(!) Pick this book up at any good bookstore (still a big seller) and pay special attention to the "airtight compartments." You are describing a kind of existential, non-specific dread that is just simply ---- worry.

Good luck!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:01 PM on October 12, 2007

When everything is awesome, the only direction things can turn is for the worse. The trick is knowing (not just rationally, emotionally knowing in your gut) that you're not dependant on your current sweet setup to lead a fulfilling life - that this good stuff is excellent icing on the cake, but the cake is lovely with or without it. But in the meantime, the cake has icing, so enjoy it.

You're 23 and grew up during prosperous times, so chances are you don't know that you're not dependant on your situation for your happiness. Have you lived poor before or faced other hardship? That helps, as then you know firsthand that life can go on regardless of what shit hits the fan.

You already recognise that your enjoyment of your good fortune is being curtailed by your worry you might lose it. That's useful :)

So I think the thing you should do is accept that things will change, and that things won't always be this good. I know it seems counter-productive, but (for me at least) accepting it kills the need to worry about it.

Life is good. Even when it's bad. The rest is gravy. :)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:09 PM on October 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

"I'm somehow going to f*ck things up because I didn't really deserve to have things so good in the first place."

This is some kind of Karmic reasoning. If that's how your worry works, take it and run with it. Maybe you don't deserve these things - maybe you've got them for some other reason. Maybe you are a pawn a great game and it is necessary for you to have these things to be able achieve the role you are needed to fulfil.
Or maybe you have things good because you're not an asshole, and the world needs upwardly mobile people who will make it a better place to live, instead of worse. (I don't know you, so for all I know you might be asshole. If so, perhaps go with the chess metaphor instead :-)

Or, make yourself deserving of it :-) Be magnificent.
posted by -harlequin- at 11:22 PM on October 12, 2007

I think there is a certain element to my thoughts where I feel like I don't deserve what I have in my life - a well paying job compared to most of my peers, in a career I enjoy and working from home, a happy stable relationship, nice possessions, etc. - and that I'm somehow going to f*ck things up because I didn't really deserve to have things so good in the first place.

Yes, that's me as well, slightly different specifics. Reasonable friends of mine point out that I did work hard to get where I am and that while there is a random element to bad luck in many cases, there is also a poor planning aspect to some disasters that I can do a fairly good job of avoiding (financial ruin, abject lonliness, etc).

I found that doing a lot of exercise tires out the self-nagging part of my brain so that I don't worry so much, but there's still a small part of my mind that is absolutely certain that I am going to die whenever I get behind the wheel of a car, or in an airplane, or whatever. I focus more on learning to ignore that voice (while taking reasonable precautions) rather than spending any time reasoning with it or using my controlling tendencies to try to overplan to avoid all unforseen circumstances (which is craztyalk anyhow).

So, yeah you have some low level anxiety probably. There are lots of good ways to still be successful and keep some of that at bay, but it may also be true that you're successful BECAUSE of some of it, so don't go overboard with it.
posted by jessamyn at 11:42 PM on October 12, 2007

First I would ask.... are you worried about your situation specifically (such as : clients will stop paying, you'll fark something up, and/or your lifestyle will have to be drastically curtailed)....... OR... are you worried about some greater/larger more ambiguous fear (economic collapse, world events, zombie apocalypse)...

For the former... my only advice would be what others have said. Be a little more frugal.. make sure you save up enough money so that if everything caves in, you have 6 months of savings to live on while you "rebound".

For the later.. I'm not sure there is alot you can do. prepare a portable survival bag (duffel bag, suitcase,etc) with the necessities and have a plan if the proverbial stuff hits the fan.

Me personally..I live with feelings like this every day. Sometimes I do pretty well managing it by simply getting enough sleep, and making smart decisions so that I'm prepared atleast a week in advance. Other times I just drink heavily and do bong hits. Your mileage may very. Dont take life to seriously. The only constant is change. You're only 23 and odds are there will be several times in your life when the rug is pulled out from under you and you'll find out what you are made of (or not made of). Thats what makes it fun. Also remember. Its not the THINGS (possessions) that make us who we are. Its what we contribute to society at large. Ever heard the phrase "You cant take it with you" ?... you'll find more happiness by centering your life around beauty and love than possessions and monetary accomplishments.
posted by jmnugent at 11:43 PM on October 12, 2007

"Worry is interest paid in advance on a debt that never comes due."
--David Mamet, The Spanish Prisoner
posted by Afroblanco at 11:51 PM on October 12, 2007 [3 favorites]

When I was 23, I was just out of college and living on my parent's income on a bad job at ABC Sports in New York. It barely covered the rent. I envy that you've done all this. I think the only thing you are really worried about is the common (for my parents, it almost came to blows) "Is this it?!" "Is this it?!" is a common phenomenon, but it passes with endearment, happiness and self-determination. You must let nature take its course. If a great depression happened tomorrow (wait until Monday) would you poison your wife and child and throw yourself from the rooftop? I doubt it. Life goes on. If it doesn't, then get a mistress in Southeast.
posted by parmanparman at 1:54 AM on October 13, 2007

I think the best thing is to do some time planning ahead for when (not if) your work/income starts fluctuating. Make the assumption that your main client does get hit by a bus and start a savings plan to deal with that. You might also start building up some connections to ease the task of attracting new business. I think having a plan down on paper may neutralise some of the nebulous worry.
posted by zemblamatic at 2:54 AM on October 13, 2007

1. I am 23, and I know exactly what you mean.

2. I think harlequin's advice is prone to just feed this, and it's unnecessary.

3. Seriously do look up "imposter syndrome".
posted by blacklite at 3:37 AM on October 13, 2007

Is anyone else human?
posted by lee at 5:14 AM on October 13, 2007

I am with zemblamatic on this one. I live in FEAR. Mostly, because I love her so damn much, I am afraid that my partner will die. Also, you know, loss of job(s), etc, all that good stuff.

One thing that has helped has been to go to a financial advisor and sort all this stuff out. Now I know that we are saving for retirement (and we are mid-twenties), have long- and short-term disability coverage lined up, and are working on an additional life insurance policy. I feel a little better day to day knowing that we have at least planned for the worst possible scenarios. That might alleviate some of your worry.
posted by fiercecupcake at 7:23 AM on October 13, 2007

Echoing HotPatatta, who wrote "Save as much money as you possibly can. Be frugal for a few years. Knowing you have money in the bank to get you through a year of unemployment, medical emergency, etc. will really help you fill more at ease."

I echo these sentiments precisely because I think that your fears are totally rational. The best things that you can do are to minimize the probability of bad things happening (by producing quality work, looking for new business, and treating your clients well), and to be prepared for the worst (by being flexible and adaptive, keeping your skill set up to date, and by being financially secure enough that you can pay the bills should the worst happen). You can probably buy disability insurance very cheaply, as well.
posted by Kwantsar at 9:12 AM on October 13, 2007

I think HotPattata has some good advice. Since you are worried, spend some time making some contingency plans. Start setting aside money in retirement funds (if you are not already) for yourself and your wife. Make sure that you are setting aside a sort of "rainy day fund" so that you can make it through any dry spells with your clients. If you work primarily with sub-contractors, they will really appreciate it if you can honor their contracts even if your clients do not. And, maybe even make a plan for continuing education and training -- taking classes to hone your skills or expand on your skillset will make it feel like you are doing something for your future. And then make a plan for a good vacation or a really nice treat for your family and honor that.

And, like someone above said, be frugal for awhile. Make sure you know how to responsibly manage your finances (not just fritter away on expensive toys) and you'll feel so much better about what you are doing. A few good money blogs for learning about personal finance are Get Rich Slowly, Stop Buying Crap, I Will Teach You to Be Rich.

You've had a lot of fun now start getting it under control and I think you will feel better.
posted by amanda at 9:13 AM on October 13, 2007

hansbleep, are you my sock puppet?

I just read "The Black Swan," which is a really challenging book about unexpected events. It's premise is that we tend to ignore the unexpected and assume that things will carry on the way they've been carrying on. Yet history's strings are pulled by the unexpected: plagues, world wars, financial collapses, etc.

I learned (at least) two things:

1) I'm not insane for worrying about catastrophic events.

2) There are catastrophes worth worrying about and others that aren't worth worrying about.

Actually, there's nothing worth worrying about, because worry just wastes time and causes pain. But their are things worth planning for and taking action against. On the other hand, if there's no reasonable way to plan for something, it's a waste of your time to worry about it. Also, if you HAVE planned for something, and you're still worrying about it, you're wasting your time. Think about this every time you start worrying: "Can I plan for it? No? Case closed. Yes? Okay, what can I reasonably do? Have I carried out that plan? Okay, case closed!"

As others have suggested here, you can save money in prep for financial disasters; you can buy good insurance packages, etc. You have to strike a balance here: the POINT of buying insurance is to mentally cross stuff off the worry list. If you buy insurance buy STILL worry that a medical emergency might ruin you, then something's wrong. You either bought a bad policy or you're worrying has reached neurotic levels -- in which case you need therapy or drugs of some kind (or relaxation techniques or whatever). Think of worry itself as something you need to plan for and fix -- not as something that just happens to you.

I'm currently evaluating two insurance plans: one has a reasonable deductible: $200 a year, I think. But there are extreme cases where it won't adequately cover me. If I have a medical emergency that costs $500,000 to fix, under this plan, I'll have to pay 20%, which would be a problem.

The other plan has an absurd deductible: $3000 a year. But after that, it pays everything. I could need two million dollars worth of medical help, and after the $3000, this plan would cover all of it.

I'm a healthy person, and I've never needed more than a few hundred dollars to cover medical expenses in a given year. That second deal seems sort of like a sucker deal to me, but I'm seriously considering it, because I'm such a worrier. Three grand WILL hurt, but maybe worrying hurts more. And so I'd be spending three grand to check something off the worry list. It might be worth it. I'm still thinking it over.

I exercise and eat well. I don't do drugs. If I buy that plan, I'll be doing EVERYTHING in my power to stay healthy and deal with medical emergencies. IF -- after all that -- I STILL worry about medical expenses, then my worry is pathological. At that point, I definitely need help. Some might say I need help before then (at the point that I'm considering a sucker deal). In any case, after doing the best you can, if you're still worried and there's nothing further you can do to assuage that worry, that should be a red flag.

Having read "The Black Swan," I'm trying to change some things about myself. I'm planning more and worrying less. While making a reasonable effort to fix what's under my control (and hence check things off the worry list), I'm actively trying not to worry about things that aren't under my control (hence checking those thing off the list too).

That can be hard, and I'm far from perfect at it. Here's what I do: if the train stalls in a tunnel and I know I'm going to be late for work, I pull out a book and start reading it. In the past, I would have sat there in a panic: "Oh my God. I'm going to be late! Please move. Please MOVE!" But I can't make the train move faster. It's out of my control. It's a waste of my time worrying about it. (However, it IS reasonable to assume that sometimes the train will break down, so I prepare by bringing a book.)

Current events: I read about local stuff that I can work to change (e.g. electing a new mayor). I spend a LITTLE time reading about other stuff. There's ARE little things that I can personally do to help solve global warming, but there's not much I can do. So here's the rule: I either THROW myself into that cause, going on marches, running for office, etc. Or I do the little things I can do and then leave it alone. I don't obsessively follow news about stuff that I can't control and that will only make me worry.

Finally -- and this is very hard to admit -- there's a pathological pleasure to being a worrier. People who don't worry seem shallow: they just live in the moment. We worriers are more thoughtful. We see the big picture, etc. (As a Jew, it even seems part of my cultural inheritance, and it's fun to lampoon myself in a Woody-Allenish way for being "so neurotic.)

That stuff is tempting, but it's not worth it. I need to TOTALLY give it up. Worrying is not good. Worrying is bad. I am not superior because I worry. No I need to piss or get off the pot!
posted by grumblebee at 9:43 AM on October 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I have the same thing hasbleep. My life is great and basically nothing really bad has ever happened to me and I'm always waiting for the other shoe to drop. When am I going to get sicker? When is something awful going to happen to my daughter? When are all my savings not going to be enough. When is the earthquake going to hit? (we live near San Francisco) When is...?

I went on Lexapro-it's specifically for anxiety disorders. It worked for me-somewhat. I still have anxiety about stuff, but it's not nearly as pervasive and bad. I've also read some books about accepting fear...but they didn't help me much.

I wish I had a better answer, but the lexapro worked well for me, to an extent.
posted by aacheson at 9:49 AM on October 13, 2007

I was self employed at your age too. I was for the next 28 years. The is a certain amount of built in fear that comes with relying on yourself and customers for bread and beer. I found what cured that feeling for me was to save, save and save so that I had about a years worth of cash available in case it all collapsed around me. As time went on, I built a retirement nest egg, had cash and no longer felt it was all a house of cards. Then I got married and had kids and the feeling and pressure to make sure they were taken care of started the collapse feeling again. I set up trust accounts for the kid's college and things were back to not worrying. I paid cash for my house.

My advice is to stop spending on the material things now. Build up a nest egg. Then start buying the Jetta and the wife diamonds. The cure for the feeling is making money and saving money.

If the fear is simply about how can my life be so good, what is going to happen to me next that is going to be bad, then that might not be such a bad thing to have. Preparing for the worst case while living the best makes the worst case not so bad. A small amount of paranoia is good for you.

Good luck.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 12:09 PM on October 13, 2007

Ditto. While some worry is normal, I was dealing with a level of anxiety that was hindering my ability to function like a normal person, costing me sleep, etc. Now that I take medication, I still worry, because that's a part of life - it's just an average (ie, non-constant and related to specific situations) amount.
posted by lhall at 1:08 PM on October 13, 2007

Also it's normal for anxiety and depression to manifest in 20-somethings. A lot of my friends have experienced the same stuff. It's "Generalized anxiety disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by uncontrollable worry about everyday things" (check out some info here).
posted by lhall at 1:10 PM on October 13, 2007

"Events don't disturb us, it's the view we take of them that makes us suffer. I have to die, but do I have to die whining? If I'm put in chains, does it have to be in sorrow? If I'm exiled, who's to stop me from going with a smile on my face?"

posted by Faze at 1:25 PM on October 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

I second lhall's suggestion that you may be experiencing an anxiety disorder.

I probably have it, too. I remember when I was in my early twenties I used to hate going to movies because I would start to feel afraid in the darkness. I also remember that most of these feelings of uneasiness started after I began smoking pot.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:42 PM on October 13, 2007

I read a strategy somewhere that went something like this (although its from memory so I may be lousing it up - anyway)

Let your mind wander with the worrying thoughts. Don't fight what you are worrying about, just go with it. Imagine all manner of worst case scenario, indignity and every misfortune your mind wants to. Bring them to their natural conclusion. Imagine yourself at the end of these scenarios. Often you'll find that if you can imagine a you at the other end of a bad thing then the worry of the bad thing is less...well...worrying.

Example: Let's say you worry about losing your job. If, everytime that thought comes up, your instinct may be to fret, become agitated and quickly try to convince yourself that that won't happen. And because of that you never really come to terms with it. Instead, if you imagine losing your job, having to move in with your parents or going on unemployment, losing all your nice stuff and so forth...if you imagine that and realize that on the other end of it its still just you...then you won't have to worry as much.

I also think that a lot of worrying about stuff like jobs, girlfriends, apartments, etc is really just misplaced worrying about death. So at the very least, you could consolidate your worry into worrying about death, then the rest is just externals. :-P

Works for me (sorta)
posted by ian1977 at 5:04 PM on October 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

All the advice about doing some practical planning and considering that this may be a brain-chemistry anxiety issue is very sound. I'd add that no matter how rational we are, how educated, how technologically advanced, human beings are hard-wired to be superstitious, given to magical thinking and a fundamental belief in the whammy. And nothing brings it out like a run of good luck because if we relax and enjoy our achievements and serendipity, well, that's tantamount to boasting, isn't it?, to thumbing your nose at a malevolent universe/deity and saying, "Come get me."

We all have these impulses to some extent, some more than others. Americans, especially those of Midwestern and/or Protestant heritage or influenced by those cultural threads, seem more prone to it than members of some cultures (and probably far less than others). I know plenty of people from those backgrounds, myself included, who have this quietly batshit conviction that while it's fine or perhaps mandatory to strive and succeed, it's both unwise and morally suspect to celebrate, revel in, or take pride in accomplishments or good fortune.
posted by FelliniBlank at 6:55 PM on October 13, 2007 [2 favorites]

My feeling about this - after so many years living with it experientially and from a scientific perspective - is that the anxiety is a state of frozen energy that rears its head up when you encounter a trigger - i.e. an old memory associated with pain. So - the issue at hand is to rise above with rational thought, faith and soothing. It's something I am working on - but it is definitely a mind/body issue where all levels of consciousness are affected and so the level from which healing is being approached needs to encompass the wholistic body as well.
posted by watercarrier at 11:55 PM on October 16, 2007

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