Yesterday we had a birthday party for my five year-old boy.
Our baby girl is less than a month old, which made things a little more complicated.
But in all honesty it’s not the complications or the lack of sleep that makes throwing a birthday party difficult: it’s the anxiety.
I was anxious in the lead-up to the party, and of course I tried a number of things to reduce it.
Some of those moves involved “positive thinking”, and the most successful was to view the anxiety itself in a positive light…
You know the great thing about chronic anxiety? It’s really reliable!
You don’t have to worry about it, the anxiety will just be there in the background, doing its own thing.
When I’m busy planning a party, with a list of things to organise, it’s great knowing that anxiety can take care of itself.
It’s automatic. Like “Set and forget”, but it’s self-setting too!
Isn’t it comforting to know that you forget about your anxiety while you focus on everything else that needs doing, and it’ll still be there, plugging away in the background, ready for you whenever you need it?
Hurdles are relative
So that worked. What a surprise!
The party went really well.
And then the next day, I found my anxiety had reappeared, this time over the daunting prospect of…
…buying my son a sandwich on the way to school.
Well, I had to buy a sandwich, a banana, and pick up his drink bottle from his grandparents’ on the way.
That meant leaving home a little earlier.
Yet I was almost as anxious about this task as I was about organising the birthday party.
Or perhaps an alternative view: I was as uncomfortable with this morning’s anxiety as I was with the pre-party anxiety.
Anxiety tips its hand
Occasional situations like these are where anxiety reveals itself as a fraud.
Because it makes no sense that my anxiety should trouble me as much over this minor issue as it did over the relatively major one.
I mean, the party itself was not that big a deal either, but it obviously ranks far higher than running a couple of errands on the way to school.
What this suggests to me (and I’ve seen it a couple of times before) is that anxiety is a major con.
It’s a joke. It’s BS. It’s deeply suspicious.
It’s like a security system that can’t tell the difference between a home invasion and a stray cat crossing the front lawn, but still purports to protect you from danger.
What are you focusing on?
The underlying mechanism is still mysterious.
I think my focus in life is profoundly negative; such that instead of feeling better when stressors are overcome, I just feel temporarily less bad.
The way my anxiety behaves also implies that on some level I’m looking for things to feel anxious about, as if I’m getting some kind of reward from feeling anxious.
It’s even possible that anxiety itself is the reward. As weird as that sounds, it is a kind of excitement physiologically and mentally.
People like scary movies and scary rides; we enjoy thrilling games and stories; it’s plausible that anxiety itself is enjoyable.
It could also be familiar, or it could be a kind of “lesser evil” that promises to help ward off even worse experiences.
- Being anxious about the party could be seen as a way of avoiding embarrassing oversights or poor planning.
- Being anxious about running errands before school could be a way of avoiding being late.
It’s likely a combination of factors though, because in the many years of living with anxiety, no single answer has resolved it for long.
A positive alternative
I think what I’m missing is a positive alternative to anxiety – something to focus on and achieve that is more substantial than the mere absence of feeling anxious.
Taking a cue from “positive thinking”, one thing I did for the party was to give myself positive cues like “I wonder how much I’ll enjoy it?” “I wonder how many nice, funny, or enjoyable things will happen?” and “I wonder how much my son and his friends will enjoy the food and the games?”
I suspect there’s a global or baseline equivalent of those positive thoughts that applies to my overall focus in life.
In other words, just as I can shift my focus to positive cues on any given subject, I can probably shift my overall focus toward feeling good as a positive alternative to feeling anxious.
What might that look (and feel) like?