Hello anxiety my old friend
On a lifetime of worries and what injections of experience can do to help
Do you feel a bit more anxious after going through the COVID-19 pandemic?
I certainly do, but for me, it's not that unusual to feel anxious. But I wanted to see what other people thought (click to see the poll results…)
I wonder what is behind this? I later felt the need to caveat that there may be a bunch of people who don't relate to the idea of being 'anxious' be it more or less than usual. I believe that’s normal and good. However, I am not one of these people. I've always experienced anxiety, even in my early years.
Like, before I turned 10 I remember being quite distracted, pre-occupied and deeply concerned about the presence of mad cow disease in our beef. It really got to me the thought of a fatal, horrible disease transmitted by the innocuous eating of a McDonalds. I would think about it a lot. It led to some unhealthy behaviours around food.1
But it wasn’t just about food and disease. I would worry about what would happen if nuclear bombs went off in my hometown. I had nightmares and vivid imaginary moments of blast waves and burning buildings. I ruminated on it. Planned for it. Tried to get on top of apocalypse by thinking about it a lot.
I was born in Edinburgh in the mid-80s, when it was the epicentre of the AIDs crisis in Europe. Even as a small child, I recall the conversations and tone of neighbour family friends who were AIDs nurses, and this pervasive feeling that was everywhere. A horrible, silent killer stalking the streets, ripping communities apart. As a result, I was convinced that I had HIV, for no reason other than the fact I wouldn’t know and I was surrounded by it growing up. It remained a pre-occupation into my teenage years, when I became sexually active and got tested. (It was always negative).
The pre-occupation is what makes living with anxiety so tiring. No space for anything else but ruminating, cyclical thoughts. Trying to catch a tail on an animal that doesn't even exist. As a result, all this roundabout thinking has impacted most of my relationships, especially my early romantic ones. I was such a worrier. Coupled with poor self-esteem it made for a sad and debilitating set of behaviours: jealously, envy, controlling behaviour, acting defensive, being emotionally closed off.
I was always worried that girlfriends were always on the cusp of leaving me, going somewhere else, with somebody else. The reckoning that as another sovereign person, they had thoughts, feelings, dreams of their own outside of my influence and control. It was this lack of influence that terrified me. They were not me, and could act in any way they wanted, but I always assumed that would be in a way that would affect me negatively.
Losing one’s sovereignty
I think that was due in part to east life experiences at home. Some half-remembered but bodily-held memories of my parents splitting up and separating, caused some deep rooted unbundling of feelings and attachments. Watching your two gigantic life totems break apart, being powerless to do anything to bring them back no doubt had a huge impact on me. I struggle sometimes now decades later with relationship worries but I’ve done the long, hard work to stop negative thoughts, build self-esteem and maintain loving trust in romantic partners.
Side note: dear reader, they came back together after what I understand was a brief seperation, and are very happily together and celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary next year. Which is great, but does leave me with some big, disenfranchised emotions. What do you do with the feelings that your parents are - or were - quite unreliable rocks in your early life?
The experience of having to brutally experience other peoples actions outside my influence came again when I was a young teenager and jumped by a gang of lads outside our school. It was a terrifying moment of early teenage conflict - moments of pent-up hesitation, pulses of adrenaline, taunts and insults preceding kicks and punches to every part of my body. I broke my nose, bust my lip, bruised some ribs but otherwise got away without too much damage. But it did give me long, deep lasting anxiety about groups of boys and men: hyper-aroused to the prospect of being attacked, turned on, surrounded, I felt a complete lack of safety and control over my ability to traverse my home town, to get from school to home, to go places after dark. To exist without being put upon by forces out of my control. I felt like I was walking around with a target on my back like every other group of lads knew I was vulnerable. That I couldn't hold my own against a gang.
All these things gave me the intense feeling that I barely had any sovereignty in my life. That I was barely in control of things. That I had little to say in how things would pan out. It's a deeply debilitating feeling. But I internalised this entirely. I just thought that is how people feel: unable to feel settled and at peace with the world. That to live was to be nervous.
You spin me right round baby, baby right round
This is a roundabout way of saying that anxiety is something that I’ve always lived with. As an experience it's something I've happened to be centred around, and it continues to grow around me, even today. You may have your own experience of anxious thoughts and feelings, you may not. The thing is, that this has changed, or rather deepened since becoming parent. Like my early girlfriends, I've had to outsource my worry about another being: Is she developing OK? Is she sleeping, or is she... Is she healthy, is she happy? Is she this... is she that...
On and on and on.
All this does is create a constant struggle to be present. I can get distracted literally, eyes turned away, glazed over distracted by a worry that doesn't exist as I play with my daughter.
And that's just being with her and what’s going on with her. Then you throw in what's happening around us. COVID-19, the Russia-Ukraine war, the inflating economy, the desertion of our politicians, climate change.
Climate change… What a deep, all encompassing existential worry.
But it’s not just a worry is it? It's a real, genuine threat. It's like that gang of lads, but the lads are in the air, the soil, the water, the ice. Ready to break apart and batter us, turn leaf to flame, ice to water. Turn the future to dust and our hopes to ash.
But it is also an anxiety: a highly aroused, distracted thought-loop that threatens to overwhelm my ability to think clearly about what is going on in front of me. But it does affect my life, stops me from enjoying the moments that have nothing to do with it.
Not an occupation for the light minded
This state of worry and pre-occupation does not suit itself in many ways to my work. I work around end-of-life care, which is not your averagely calm and cheery world of work.
But the irony here is that I have found it a liberating realm to work in. One of the lasting positive impacts of my work is that I have to some small but meaningful extent managed to inoculate myself from some of the things that used to anxiously run around my head around illness and death.
For example, working in end-of-life care has enabled me to ask the question: how will I be when I am gravely ill? Answer: same as I am now but probably too poorly to actually worry that much.
Morbid jokes aside, working in this sphere has enabled me to learn from others, to see their mettle, to see how the mind and body of a person responds to the worst thing happening to them.
I’ve seen that some people are incredible. They are as noble and self-reliant as you'd hope the Stoics of old would be. Other are just like you'd secretly imagine: scared and worried. Many struggle with feelings of hopelessness in their situation, some people just flat out denying that anything was happening to them, keeping a facade that everything was alright.
I’ve also learned that none of these are the 'right' way, it’s just their way.
But this fear of illness, of disease, of dying is not something I worry about so much anymore. I say this as a person who was - prior to joining the Helix Centre at St Mary's Hospital - totally averse to ever stepping foot in a hospital. Now I am very comfortable around them. Their sterile corridors, their distinct smell and clangy noise. The presence of doctors, nurses, surgeons is now familiar, even comfortable to me.
But lets be clear, I still get small health scares from time to time. I am a mortal. I have moles I need to keep an eye on. I had a bad turn of covid last Christmas and I did not enjoy one moment of being ill. I realise that I had months of long covid that hugely negatively impacted my life. It’s not that I am impervious to threats to my life, but the fangs of anxiety do not pierce me as deep anymore.
Exposure and inoculation
I took this inadvertent inoculation one step further when I spent time in a mortuary. I wrote about it here if you are morbidly curious. By exposing myself to death, to confront a dead body, I overcame a deep anxiety about the last ‘taboo’.
I looked at the cold, dead body of a stranger, and saw myself. And suddenly it was gone. The barely conscious but often hot-necked prickle of fear about how I will ultimately end up. It was there, in front of me. It was an accidental recreation of Buddha’s experience of the Four Sights.
But by exposing myself to death - real, bodily, physical death - it helped shape my anxiety into something else. It transmuted it into a different feeling. I turned some part of me from a fearing, closed, denied space, to something more open, alive, in flux. It was rare, and really quite intense, but helped me enormously. And it has made me think about other existential experiences since.
Here's a quick experiment: Can you place yourself back to March 2020, when were first given the orders to stay at home? How did you feel at the time?
I have to say the whole experience in those first hours, days, weeks made me very anxious, as I am sure you were. It deeply affected me. I'd previously been silently preparing for a No Deal Brexit, and had been (against my wife's protestations) stockpiling a lot of things in our basement. I had long, twisted worries about collapsing supply chains and closed borders, all blown out of proportion by hysterical media. But by March 2020, worries turned to a reality, unfolding in front of my eyes. Shops running out, the taste of panic in the aisles. A really, really uncertain time ahead. Can you remember - dare to remember - the kind of feeling of the 'worse case scenario' of those early days. It was crazy.We had absolutely no idea what was happening. That was just the beginning of a long haul experience of isolation, uncertainty, disruption and disconnection. We’ve come a long way. But I believe this pandemic - like the tweet at the beginning shows - has likely created something in us: a deep, embodied, existential anxiety. I know I feel like that, and I suspect I am not alone.
The World Health Organisation reported that there was a global increase of anxiety of 25% in 2020. It’s a phenomenal increase. However it was tempered by the fact that for many millions, it crested and fell to more reasonable levels in 2021. For many, the experience of covid became some sort of of everyday worry that is fitting and easy to deal with. But not for many, many others I think.
Anxiety feels like a normal state of mind to be in nowadays, and that leaves me in a quandary about how to move forward. In myself, but also as someone who lives in the world and experiences the effects of other people’s anxieties. It’s not a life I wish for anyone and my adventures in tackling it, I hope give me some sort of rudimentary experience to try and make sense of it.
I’m left wondering about the treatments we collectively created to tackle something like covid, and the things we have kind of left untreated. If the path to safety from a novel, potentially life-threatening virus is to rapidly create vaccines to inoculate us from the worst effects of it, what is the way through so we might inoculate ourselves against the deep, terrible anxiety that such a pandemic causes?
In other words, what is the vaccine for existential anxiety?
In writing this, I looked up the stats and only 28 people died from Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) which was the human variant of mad cow disease. Not quite the global epidemic I was convinced it was.