For any of us suffering with anxiety, the ultimate goal in life is to get to a place where your anxiety is no longer present – imagine the luxury of waking up every day with a clear mind, happy, with the promise of an exciting new day full of possibilities? What a treat! However, what do you do if you get to that place and suddenly discover you can’t function without the anxiety?
I have always struggled with anxiety – some days I would wake up and the prospect of pouring a bowl of cereal would be too overwhelming. I always tended to attribute this to some external reason – an overload of university work, a long weekend working shifts in retail, a difficult relationship. So when I finished my second year of uni with a 6-month stretch of Summer days to enjoy I was excited. What a joy! I can flop around on the sofa watching Friends re-runs, I can lie in and go to the gym and sit in a beer garden and walk the dog and all these glorious things that were hard to fit in around busy days working and studying. However, a month in and these luxurious days of freedom started to wear thin. I had nothing I needed to do, and nowhere I needed to go. This in itself began to be a problem. When you don’t needto be anywhere, or needto do anything, how do you get it done? I’d love to think I was some pro-active goddess who just gets things done without any prompting – but I’m not, and I bet there’s not many of you who are either (if you are I fully commend you and demand you tell me your secrets).
After 6 months of a downward spiral, I reached a point of rocking on the sofa sobbing with those Friends re-runs playing in the background. But somewhere, at rock bottom, it is possible to get to the route of the problem. And I realised that my problem was that I needed the anxiety. I was addicted to it, if you will. In the same way, people can be high-functioning alcoholics or can be top lawyers with a cocaine addiction, I was a high-function anxiety addict. (To clarify, I neither endorse nor encourage addictions. But admitting is the first step towards healing, after all.) If I didn’t have pressures to do things, I didn’t do them. The house stopped getting cleaned, my hair stopped getting washed. I was a greasy mess of a once over-achieving human being.
UCLA professor Judith Orloff, M.D. wrote an article in Psychology Today about how easy it is to become addicted to anxiety. Whether you’re obsessively reading/watching anxiety-provoking news, or you’re relentlessly fretting about potential negative things that the future might hold, it’s easy to become compulsive and addicted to the feeling that anxiety gives you. While she provides some useful tips on how to erase these thoughts and the addictive cycle, I think it’s always helpful to remember that it’s possible to use this addiction in a positive way while you’re trying to work through it.
Once I’d recognised that I needed pressure and stress to function, I tried to set myself tiny goals. Something that had to be done that day, or even that week. 4,000 dishes in the sink? They need to be washed and dried before my partner came home from work. Mountain of clothes that hadn’t been hung up since they were washed 3 weeks ago? They needed doing before the weekend. Once I was back at university, the pressure was real (final year is no joke) and suddenly legitimate deadlines with genuine consequences appeared. And yet these strict, harsh deadlines meant everything else got done, too. Yes, I needed to have written a dissertation by January, but I also needed to wash my hair and vacuum the stairs and take the rubbish out. They always say the only thing you need to get a date, is another date, and it appears that the only thing you need to hit a deadline, is another deadline.
Once I’d accepted that stress made me function, it actually quietened the anxiety-fuelled discourse in my head. By recognising what made my anxiety worse (ironically, the lack of stress), it became easier to manage. And somehow I’ve settled into a positive catch 22 of using stress to manage anxiety. If you find yourself spiralling, consider this; are you addicted to your own mental health? The answer is probably yes. Work out how you can use this addiction to your advantage, and you might just discover that part of the solution, is embracing the problem.