Whether It’s ‘Rational’ or Not, Anxiety Has Its Own Logic
by Ellen Judson
1 September 2016
The first question you get used to when you have anxiety is: “Why on earth are you worried about that?”
It’s often something so inconsequential or ridiculous that people cannot comprehend why you would even deem it worrisome in the first place, let alone dwell and ruminate on it and turn it over and over and round and round and smash it against the wall of your mind to try to find a way through it.
But the next question – once people have accepted you’re ‘a worrier’ – is: “Why on earth aren’t you worried about that?”
People get really confused when they learn I’ve been vomited on and coped with it, but can shake someone’s hand and spend the rest of the day panicking that I’ve contracted an illness. I’ve managed visiting hospitals in developing countries, but still object to touching the door handle at my local GP. I have clothes I haven’t worn in years because they got dirty one time five years ago, but I don’t mind wearing the same pyjamas for weeks on end.
“But why?” comes the clamour. “You get anxious about everything! Why not about this?”
For me, it just doesn’t work like that. I have developed anxiety in response to certain triggers and not others – perhaps not for any reason I can ever know for sure, but due to the kinds of things I worry about and the psychological reasons behind those specific fears; not due to what you consider reasonable or not. My brain does not obey your rules.
The problem is that people expect you to conform to their own personal standards of what is considered rational as if those standards were objective. In other words, the expectation is that I should either only worry about the things other people worry about, or if I worry about things other people don’t worry about, it should only in proportion to how potentially fearful they can conceive of a situation as being.
One problem is that people take ‘normal’ to be the objective standard of ‘rational’. Alternatively, people also project what they personally think is reasonable onto what they think is ‘objectively’ reasonable – it is very hard for anyone to admit their own subjectivity. Everyone has their own quirks, anxiety or not. Some worry about exams, some worry about relationships, some worry about whether they locked the front door. Everyone weights things differently.
My anxiety does follow logical rules in its own way – there is some kind of internal coherence to it all. Explaining the entire map of my mind would take a while, so let me give you one brief example:
In the past I’ve had anxiety about accidentally telling untruths, so I would say “I think” after answering questions, just in case I had got something wrong – the thought being that even if I was wrong I wouldn’t have been deceptive. (My brain amuses me – as I type this, I have started worrying that this is in fact an elaborate false memory and I am lying to you, my reader: you have been warned.)
Pretty odd, right? But if you spell it out, it does follow a certain kind of logic.
- Memories aren’t perfect.
- You can’t always be 100% sure you are telling the truth.
- In general it’s better not to deceive people.
- If you say something that isn’t true, you (albeit unintentionally) deceive someone.
I think most people would agree with these statements. But the conclusion – that you should add “I think” to the end of your sentences, in order that the listener knows what you are saying may not be 100% accurate – is where people get lost.
They say: “Oh, but you don’t need to be 100% sure, your memory is pretty reliable, or even if you do accidentally lie it doesn’t matter.” But the key thing is these are all people’s individual interpretations. They assign different weights to different aspects of a situation, so they come up with different recommended outcomes. But that’s not being more rational, or more logical – it’s just giving things different values, which is an inherently subjective process. When I worry about germs, I know that scientifically it is very unlikely I’ll catch something horrible. But my mind thinks I should worry anyway – not because it overestimates the factual probability, but because my mind’s fear of the outcome means it assigns great attention to even tiny probabilities.
So what? So everything is subjective and we should all just worry about everything? No, of course not. Anxiety is a disorder. But, I think, it’s not a disorder because it’s not normal – it’s not a disorder because you don’t understand it. It’s a disorder because it’s disruptive, because it causes pain and distress.
The therapy I’ve found most helpful hasn’t said: “Here is what normal people think – think like that.” It has let me decide the outcome. It said: “Is your worry helping you live your life, and if not, what do you think would be helpful? How can we get there?” I actually don’t want to worry about things the way ‘normal’ people do. I find some value in worry – just not at my current levels. So I’ll be happy when I reach my personal goal – not necessarily when I meet anyone else’s standards.
Listen to people. Let them tell you what worries them, and if they haven’t asked for your input, don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t be worried by. Of course you might try to pre-empt someone’s fears – but be aware you might get it wrong, and if the other person is happy to talk about it, it’s probably better just to ask them. And don’t act so surprised when someone tells you about their fears. We’re already fighting with ourselves in our heads everyday about what we should fear. We just need someone there beside us, whose presence alone tells us everything is going to be OK.
The author wishes it to be known her words here are a personal reflection on her own experiences.