Good evening, friends and neighbors.
I’m pretty sure I’m incapable of actually being on vacation. Moving the body doesn’t necessarily move the brain.
Emily and I finally managed to get nine days of vacation together, spending most of them in Corvallis, Oregon and being hosted by an old high-school friend of mine and her husband.
For the first time in three years, I am on a trip where I truly have nothing to worry about… except for the fact that I have nothing to worry about. It’s hard to beat a habit of a lifetime.
“I’ve finally got all the time in the world to write… why can’t I focus?”
“Why can’t I whomp up the will?”
Those are the words that bother me every time I crash out in a comfortable chair in my friends house. Even on days off, I still tend to get up early. I like wrapping myself in the quiet and serenity of the morning- an easy stillness shared between me, my book, and a cup of tea.
Until my friends’ dogs wake up, of course.
All the same, as I do my best to look over my manuscripts, flip through notes, and try to put words on a page- I stare at the empty screen and come up dry.
All day to write. All the space and freedom and lack of demands…. and the fact that I can’t always take advantage of it drives me mad.
Emily reminds me, “Matt, don’t stress about it. You can always write tomorrow. You’re supposed to be resting anyway.”
Somehow my anxiety-riddled brain can’t handle that fact. It whispers to me:
“You wanted to write this blog. You should be working on our book. Why are you just sitting there? This is a vacation- you finally have time! You should be doing things on vacation!”
“WHAT’S THE MATTER WITH YOU, MATT? YOU’RE ON VACATION. You can’t work, you can’t rest… you can’t even vacation right! Stop wasting time!”
So I pace the room.
I play with the dogs.
I scroll through social media and wait for people to wake up and distract me.
Nothing gets written.
Not Quite Ennui
The Oxford English Dictionary defines ennui as “a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.“ It’s used as a synonym of “boredom,” but that context doesn’t quite fit here.
Believe it or not, living with depression or anxiety is exhausting. It takes a lot of energy and focus to constantly control your thoughts. Even without being aware of it, anxiety can send your body into overdrive on a comparatively minor trigger. In the space of an hour of getting some future warning or bad news, I find myself muttering “Jeez, I just got really tired all of the sudden.”
Imagine feeling that when you are already burned out and desperate to rest. That isn’t just emotional energy you are suddenly drained of- it’s physical and creative energy as well.
Anxiety gasses up your fears, revs you up- and gives nothing back.
“What’s to be afraid of?” You might ask. That’s the sick thing:
Anxiety and depression have a knack for making their predictions come true.
In a previous blog post, I wrote about the phenomenon of “high functioning anxiety“- and why those who suffer from it make ideal kitchen workers. It’s a series of behaviors where anxiety manifests as overachievement, boundless energy, and emotional connection to one’s work.
When you work to drown out anxious thoughts, burn yourself out, and your anxiety is revved up even worse because you were scared of not getting enough done, and you are now too tired of even focus on relaxing… it forms a feedback loop that just leaves you even more burned out than you were before vacation.
The famous excuse for this restlessness is the idea of adrenaline addiction– that after spending so long in the rush and surge of a kitchen, a cook finds themselves at a loose end with an empty to-do list. If you know for a fact you don’t deal with anxiety, this may very well be you too.
Either way, you can’t relax. Work is difficult. And you get nothing out of any of it.
Breaking the Loop
For most of this vacation, Emily and my friends have done an admirable job of distracting me from myself and my restlessness. “No time to write today, we have a dance party at a brewery to get to! Then tomorrow, a game night, distillery tours, and tubing down the Willamette!”
Calling these things “distractions” is doing them a disservice, really- they were fun. It was fun standing on a rooftop, pounding interesting whiskeys, and bobbing down a slow river with literally nothing to do but look at nature and dodge debris in the riverbed.
That’s not enough for Anxiety Brain though- for anxiety brain, if it’s not working towards one of my projects, it’s a waste of time and I should be writing.
Last night, as I was wrestling with my will to write, my friend Merrill popped in with this observation:
As long as I’ve known you there’s been an undercurrent of “I MUST DO OR I WILL LOSE ALL PROGRESS.” It’s similar to when you hadn’t found a job. You equate idleness to the failure of living up to your potential.
… Zen kinda teaches that suffering comes from our attachment to status, to productivity, to our roles in society. Existentialism teaches that the meaning we assign to activity (or lack thereof) is arbitrary and therefore absurd.
So maybe just lean into the grump as though you were going through detox. Like cutting back on sugar or kicking a nicotine habit. We’re always irritable when we aren’t getting our fix. It’s fine. You’re doing great.”
So if I consider myself going through a workaholic detox… what tools do I have to help combat addiction to accomplishment? I went poking around the internet for a few ideas, and some of these from Kyla Roma and BecomingWhoYouAre.net struck a bit of a cord.
In particular, I know that I need to reframe rest, use my time deliberately, “eat the frog,” and do what I feel, not what I think I “should.”
Rest is important. Resting is part of self-care. I need to train myself to understand that resting is not the same as quitting. Just because I’m not actively working on something does not make mee shiftless or a slouch. It all takes energy- and I need to take time to regain mine. So do you.
Use Time Deliberately
Relaxing is not wasting time… especially if you use that time to do things that actually help you relax, inspire or educate you. We all have time-sinks we turn to when we’re bored or anxious- social media, games, etc. Some of those- especially social media- can ramp up your anxiety or depression and drain your energy even further. It’s agitating you and gives you nothing back.
Instead, when you catch yourself chucking your downtime out the window, try and pick an activity that will actually add to your enjoyment- a book you’ve been wanting to read, calling up friends, or a specific game that you know calms you down to play. I keep this one and a few others on my iPad for just that purpose.
Alternatively, use the time to learn something new! I’m on Duolingo right now, trying to improve my Spanish and German. A simple, free app that’ll get me closer to my multilingual goals? Yes, please.
Forget the “Shoulds.”
This is a big one for me. I’m a writer, right? I should be writing, whenever I have the chance. I should always find writing comforting and enjoyable- that’s why I do it, right? I should always be working on the blog, or the next book. It’s what I want my full-time job to be someday, right?
Yes, to all those things… and also no. When I mean to rest, I need to make a point of resting. All those things are work- work that needs to be done. Resting is part of that work. It keeps me fresh and thinking of new stories to tell you and new ideas to write about.
“Eat The Frog”
There’s a difference between resting and avoidance. People engage in avoidance behavior to… duh, avoid dealing with difficult thoughts, feelings, and situations. “Difficult” is usually defined in that context as situations that might trigger an anxiety/panic attack or depressive fit.
“What’s to avoid about getting things done- especially something you know you do well?” Consider this:
Before I write a blog entry… that blog entry is perfect. It’s ideal in my head. Because it doesn’t exist, I don’t have to worry about editing it, or people liking it, or even people reading and commenting on it. I don’t have to pick the right words or worry about how it looks on the screen.
As soon as I sit down to the keyboard, though, I have to make it real. Making it real means thinking about all of that. It means my internal censor kicks in, and I constantly self-judge. Imagine any piece of work you enjoy- a book, a movie, a song, an album, anything. I can almost certainly guarantee that that thing you love is not as good as the creator imagined it would be.
This is where “eating the frog” kicks in. Popularized by Brian Tracy, the saying was inspired by this quote from Mark Twain:
“If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
In other words- screw avoidance, ESPECIALLY for difficult, tiring, boring things that need to be done, but you hate doing. Instead of stressing yourself out trying to dodge doing the task- just get it done as soon as you think of it. Remembered you need to write a blog entry? Sit down, smash it out, and just get it the hell done already.
As I write this paragraph, I am back home at my desk. Today is the last day of my vacation, and the early morning will find me once more in the bakery.
I can’t help but feel frustrated- the “shoulds” don’t just go away because you tell them to, and I can’t help feeling that I should have made more of my rare time off… but time off is time off for a reason- and I did have a good time.
Good enough. Back to work.
What do you do to make sure you rest and relax when you need to? Anything in this list calling out to you? How about techniques for beating that anxiety feedback loop- any that should be on the list? Drop them in the comments!
One thought on “The Comedown- Beating an Anxiety Feedback Loop”
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