The Order of a Mental Disorder: How to Control Worry
I wonder what I should worry about?
This has been a common theme in my life for as early as I can remember. Whether consciously or subconsciously, I was always either worried about something or looking for something to worry about. If I couldn’t find anything to worry about, I would start to worry about my lack of worry.
Do I Exist Without My Anxiety?
I want to be clear, I do not like worrying all the time. I would prefer to live without anxiety. It creeps up at the most inopportune times, creating an unsettling environment and causing my reaction to be both unflattering and at times, embarrassing, but I feel attached to it.
I liken anxiety to a pair of glasses. I don’t like that I have to wear them, but if I don’t I cannot see. Equally, I don’t like that I have anxiety, but without it, I am not sure I feel like I exist.
Worry has always been a part of who I am. My story is not my story without it. Letting go of anxiety would feel like losing my vision, and without sight, I would be bumping into everything.
Can you relate?
The Habit of Worry
From as young as I can remember, I was a worrier. I worried about everything that I could not control.
- I worried that the water in the community pool would be too cold.
- When I sat for the ACT, I worried my #2 pencil was not the correct #2 pencil.
- I worried about whether I would be asked to prom
- I worried that if I did something wrong, people would think I was dumb.
- I worried about the weather ruining my vacation.
I could go on and on, but you get the idea. If you are reading this right now, you can probably relate. Anxiety is not discerning. It attacks all of our thoughts; from the absurd (a #2 pencil is a #2 pencil) to the personal (being judged).
Worrying became a habit. It got to the point that I didn’t even think about it before I found myself worrying about the most benign things. But the thing is about habits is that they can be broken. So I started to investigate.
What I found is that my language revolved around the word if.
IF is A Four-Letter Word
- What if I don’t get married?
- What if I can’t have children?
- What if I can’t afford the house I want?
These are some of the questions that would roll through my mind. Everyone worries about these things at some point, right?
What set me apart is that I worried about whether I was going to get married when I was 15 years old. I worried about whether I was going to be able to have children even though I had no evidence at the time indicating that I couldn’t. I worried about being able to afford a house before I was close to being ready to buy one.
The problem with this excessive worry at times when there is nothing you can do to control it is that it changes the way you run your life.
You might marry someone wrong for you because you just want to be married.
It’s possible you may never go on vacation because you are worried you won’t be able to afford a house.
You may never be able to enjoy life without children for fear that you will never be able to conceive.
Get where I’m going?
My whole life was controlled by the word if, which is the worst word in the English language. Think about it. If has no absolute. It is completely dependent on something else happening.
I’m only a complete person IF I get married
I am only a real woman IF I can have children
I’m only successful IF I have a nice house to show off
My life was lived in the bubble of the words “can’t” and ‘if.” Rarely did I ever think about what I could do. A can-do mindset was in opposition to the way I did life.
Along Came the DSM
In my early 30’s I was diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder (to keep this in perspective, I am in my mid-40’s). Great. So now I was a label straight out of the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (DSM). MENTAL DISORDERS!
I didn’t want to think of myself as someone with a mental disorder. After all, I was a well-functioning individual. Aren’t mental disorders saved for people who cannot manage life?
The word that threw me off was disorder. I am not a disorder. I am a person who manages my life in a very orderly way. In fact, when that order is challenged, anxiety takes over.
So I feel like I have a mental order, not a mental disorder
I mean, right?
Not really. What I realized after being handed a label to explain my excessive worry is that most people do not ruminate over whether little things, like whether the water in the pool will be too cold. My thoughts were on the proverbial hamster wheel; constantly running but going nowhere.
I decided that this way of thinking was no longer serving me. It was time to change. So I did what I knew best, I analyzed.
I Am Not a Disorder
I analyzed my thoughts, the origins of my thoughts, my fears.
The steps that follow are a result of many months of processing. Below are some things that I find have worked for me, as well as for the people I serve in my profession as a Counselor.
If You Don’t Know What to Do, Do What Others Do
One thing that I have always been good at is observation. I grew up in a home with substance abuse. In my experience, children who come from this type of environment often develop a keen sense of surroundings. We become hyper-aware of the littlest changes in behavior in those around us.
This is probably one reason why children who grow up this way are likely to become adults with anxiety. We are always aware of how people are acting and are constantly telling ourselves a story about why someone is behaving as they are. For me, the story was that I must have done something wrong.
In any case, I decided to start paying attention to how other people behave in situations that typically caused me great anxiety.
Turns out other people don’t think once, much less 5,000 times about the temperature of a community pool. They also don’t define their entire character by one set back.
Other people are able to compartmentalize.
Now I Have to Re-Write My Entire Narrative
Ugh. Gross. I don’t want to re-write my entire life story. This seems like a lot of work. Like, A LOT! I’m sure this is what you’re thinking too. Let’s be honest, we all just want to be able to rub the genie bottle and wish our anxiety away.
We can’t. We have to do the work.
I cannot live my life in a world of unsettled thoughts surrounded by misguided narratives.
I need to re-think how I approach situations.
A Comfort Zone is a Beautiful Place, But Nothing Ever Grows There
Anxiety is Comfortable. I know that sounds weird, but think about it. Anxiety is both comfortable and uncomfortable. When it arrives, it makes us feel like we cannot breathe. But because it is there most of the time, it becomes the one thing that we can count on.
This constant state of worry stems from fear and lack of control. Oddly, the excessive worry that morphs into anxiety is something that has become a constant. So while we might feel out of control in its presence, without it we feel entirely unraveled.
We need to step out of the dysfunctional comfort that anxiety provides. Step into situations that were previously avoided. The more you do this, the better it gets.
Flipping the Script
I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be without anxiety. This is big for me. After my initial diagnosis, I tried everything to get rid of anxiety. Nothing worked.
It wasn’t until I changed my mindset and realized that maybe getting rid of anxiety is not the goal. Maybe the goal is learning how to manage it.
It’s not easy, managing anxiety. It sometimes catches me completely off guard. But, looking at it differently is helping me to manage it much better.
The first thing I did was change my language. I used to define myself as an anxious person. Then I realized that by putting anxious before person, I was giving anxiety the control.
So I flipped the script.
Now, I define myself as a person who struggles with anxiety. I am a person first. Anxiety is just part of my story, not my entire book. It is surprising how something so simple as changing our language can change our perspective.
I also try to challenge my thoughts and avoid using words like can’t and if. When I do, I ask myself to provide evidence to the fact that I can’t do something, or that if something does not happen then it means there is something wrong with me. This has helped me to look at things differently.
I am 100% Not Absolutely Sure
I don’t live my life in absolutes anymore. I am not absolutely a horrible person if one thing does not happen. Like the people I observed without anxiety, I am learning to compartmentalize.
I am also learning to understand my triggers. Knowing why I may carry my anxiety around is essential. The why behind anything is crucial to its defeat.
Just Keep Going
I have not figured it all out yet. I am a work in progress, we all are. There are some days that I am still that 3rd grader worried about whether the pool will be too cold. But now there are also days when I tell myself that even if the water is cold, my body will acclimate to its temperature.
I am not a success story of someone who figured out and defeated anxiety. Not yet. But I no longer allow my self to surrender to its death hold on me.
The thing we all have to remember in this life is that we just need to keep on going. When we don’t get the results we want, we need to re-think the situation and come at it from a different angle
If you suffer from anxiety, stop allowing it to be the definition of who you are. You are so much more than that, and you deserve to live in a world where you control your anxiety, not where your anxiety controls you.
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This article is an expansion of an article I wrote for mental health talk,