Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Second-Guessing and Anxiety

One of the consequences of anxiety is that it often asks you to second-guess your decisions. Anxiety can get you wondering, "Am I doing the right thing? Is there something else I should be doing?" To look at it another way, though, anxiety can also get us to slow down, be more reflective, weigh all the options. When anxiety's second-guessing paralyzes us from learning to make and live with our decisions, we find that anxiety is taking up too much "thinking space" in our lives.

Like with any life change, it's good to start with small, attainable goals. Ask yourself: When have I made a decision without second-guessing? What factors helped me be successful? What's a small decision I could see myself sticking to? No decision is too small to practice keeping second-guessing at arm's length. What to wear, making weekend plans, choosing what to make for dinner are all fine places to start.

Once you have some smaller decisions unfettered by second-guessing under your belt, you can apply lessons learned to the bigger ones. And with any life change, it always helps to have some strong supporters who can help you stay on track when anxiety's second-guessing seeks to derail your progress.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Perfectionism Conspires With Anxiety

I was just thinking back to the night when I was about eight months pregnant and reading "Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn" by Penny Simkin and Ann Keppler. I came across the section on risk factors for post-partum mood disorders. They listed perfectionism as one of the factors that seems to contribute to ppmds. This memory got me thinking about mood problems in general--and anxiety, specifically--and how perfectionism conspires with anxiety to make one feel less than fine.

Perfectionism can be a terrific motivator. But it can also sabotage. What happens when "perfectionism's expectations" go unfulfilled? Can perfectionism ever be truly satisfied? If you knew perfectionism were satisfied, how would you know? If perfectionism went unsatisfied what would it do?

My guess is that when perfectionism goes unsatisfied (say, because a baby is demanding more from a parent than s/he feels able to give), anxiety finds fresh fuel. Thoughts of "I'm not good enough/I can't fix it/It's hopeless" creep in.

Unfortunately, our culture does little to quash perfectionism's claims. Every time I hear the Oprah slogan "Your best life now", I want to scream. What if one's "best life now" means rocking a crying baby to sleep at 3:00 a.m., or waiting for a new driver's license at the DMV, or just having a rather ho-hum day. Is this my best life now? Is there something else I could be doing to have a better life now? Is everyone else around me having their best lives now, while mine is deferred by doing laundry and sorting through junk mail? On the surface, this desire to live one's best life seems a fine goal, but further mining reveals some very dry kindling for perfectionism's--and thus anxiety's--fire.

I'm working on a new slogan for Oprah. "A great life some of the time, and a pretty okay life the rest of the time" isn't quite as catchy as hers. But it might just help keep anxiety and perfectionism quiet for a while. And maybe that truly is our best life now.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Year-End Intentions

Rather than make a New Year's resolution which, to my mind, sounds like an all-or-nothing proposition, I'm thinking about a different strategy for effecting life change. Talking about New Year's intentions brings to mind different gradations and nuances of change.

I've been wondering what New Year's intentions for anxiety could look like in a person's life. Rather than resolve to "attack" or "tackle" anxiety, what if one merely had an intention to limit anxiety's control of one's life? An intention might include an acknowledgement that anxiety will be present at times in one's life, but it doesn't mean that anxiety should choose one's life course. And if sometimes anxiety's influence feels overwhelming, acknowledging that anxiety may be more powerful in certain situations but less so in others may help to quash the idea that one must be in control of anxiety at all times.

An intention, to me, is a belief that helps guide our thoughts and actions. It is not predicated on a certain outcome, unlike resolutions.

In trying to live a life less affected by anxiety, we succeed in living out our intention, no matter what the outcome may be. It is in the trying where we might be most pleasantly surprised by our successes, be they great or small.