Recently1that’s a relative term, I wrote about the ways in which my brain betrays me, and questioned what a “normal” emotional experience was. Today, I’m going to continue talking about what it’s like in my head by sharing one way I disarm anxious thoughts–with the help of something I call Anxiety-Bot.
Please note: This post is most emphatically not advice. I’m not saying this is what anyone should do, because I’m not in a position to provide that sort of advice. All I’m doing here is sharing my own personal experience.
The Noise in My Head
Like I mentioned before, my relationship with my mind is typically a good one. Sure, I have a perfectionist streak, but I’ve been working to tame it over the years. Yeah, there’s some stress now and again, but I’m in grad school–that’s par for the course. Generally speaking, my day-to-day life is one of contentment and curiosity, thanks to my mind’s cooperation.
Generally speaking… but not always. Occasionally, rather than running smoothly, my mind gets caught on something. I hit a misfortune–or even just some mild source of concern–and I’m snagged. My thoughts start to loop in tighter and tighter spirals. A runaway train barreling down a mountain, a forest fire blazing out of control, or a rapidly unraveling sweater: take your pick of metaphor to describe the onslaught of self-critical thoughts.
For example, I might remember halfway through a day that I am months overdue on responding to a friend’s letter. On good days, I’ll curse, add it to my to-do list, and pull out the stationery as soon as the opportunity presents itself. But on bad days, that realization might trigger a cascade of anxious thoughts:
“What kind of a friend am I?”
“Oh my god, they probably hate me for not responding sooner!”
“Why would anyone even be my friend??”
At this point, rational thought has gone out the window. I’m too flooded with anxiety and stress to calmly reason with myself. From the outside, my anxious thoughts might seem easy to dismiss, but within the panic spiral, logic holds no sway. I’m doing what cognitive behavioral therapists call “catastrophizing”.
I need a way out of the loop, and I’m not going to get it from logic.
Better Living through Technology
The brilliant tech-and-humanity podcast Reply All pointed me toward my solution. Their eighth episode, The Anxiety Box, profiled Paul Ford, a programmer with anxiety. Every day, Paul was greeted with intrusive anxious thoughts, so he programmed an unlikely solution: a program that, several times a day, sent him an email with a randomly-generated anxious thought.
Here’s an email from June 2nd, in the afternoon. Here’s the subject. “History will forget you because history forgets people who are unable to finish anything.”
“Everyone’s really curious to see if you can finish your book. Is there anything you can do to keep this from being a total disaster? I don’t want to doubt you but inform me. Are you just going to screw this up? I mean the thing that matters is are you actually ready?
Paul’s strategy sounds strange at first–if your brain is already overwhelming you with its anxious thoughts, why would you program a robot to add to the noise? But as he described it, seeing his anxiety spelled out robbed it of its power. Those automated simulations of his anxiety were spam in his inbox–empty garbage that he had no obligation to consider. As he got better at dismissing his digital anxiety, his ability to brush off his mental anxiety improved as well.
This was my inspiration. There was only one problem: I’m no programmer.
Birth of Anxiety-Bot
I found myself turning to Paul Ford’s idea of an anxiety program one evening as I was taking a shower. For the past half hour, my head had been racing with endless self-criticism, and I really wanted it to stop so I could get on with my night.
Programming wasn’t an option, so I searched my brain for something else I could create that would allow me to externalize my anxiety, and I found it: a blog post! It was perfect. I would write and illustrate a post all about the experience of living with a jerk brain. I could see the illustrations–there I was, trying to go about my business, with a tiny panicked robot on my shoulder screaming my anxious thoughts at the top of its lungs. In the first panel, it would be screaming directly in my ear, but by the end of the comic, I would have gently placed it in a tiny box and closed the lid over it to muffle its histrionics…
I never had to put pen to paper. By the end of my shower, the sheer act of imagining my anxiety as a malfunctioning robot wailing at the top of its lungs had defused my stress.
Talking to Anxiety-Bot
Here’s how it works these days.
When my brain gets stuck in a particularly nasty anxiety loop, I turn to a blank page in my journal and I draw the robot. He’s a boxy portrait of panic, his eyes wide, his mouth screaming, hands clasped to his head, and he’s screaming all the things I’m worried about.
Sometimes, that does the trick all by itself. But if not, the next thing I draw is myself, responding to the robot’s panic. If the robot is wailing, “What kind of a friend AM I????“, then my avatar responds calmly, “A friend who forgot to write a letter for two months.”
The page goes back and forth like this, the screaming robot and my avatar, until eventually–and this happens every time–the robot runs out of steam. Both on the page and in my head, the screaming stops, and I can get on with my life.
Why (I Think) It Works
I didn’t know it when I first started drawing Anxiety-Bot, but the idea of putting words in his panicked little mouth is squarely in line with the theories of narrative therapy. Narrative therapy says that we live our lives according to stories, and if we want to change, we can do so by choosing new metaphors for our experiences.[ref]You could also interpret this via a cognitive behavioral model, and likely other models as well.[/ref]
My choice of metaphor reframes my experiences in important ways. First, it externalizes my anxious thoughts. They aren’t meaning-laden reflections of my True Inner Self, they’re simply… thoughts, no more a part of me than the breeze blowing on my skin. By externalizing, I remove my immediate investment in the panic spiral’s content.
Second, the metaphor reflects how I want to interact with my anxious thoughts. I don’t imagine them as a hulking eldritch horror who sweetly whispers its ever-knowledge into my brain, because how do you argue with a horror older than the stars? How do you dismiss the shadowy monster in the corner? You don’t, which is why I instead think of my anxiety as a small, malfunctioning robot. It’s loud and incessant, but it’s also the size of a housecat, which means (unlike a housecat) I can easily put it in a box and tell it to shush. My metaphor affirms my power over my anxious thoughts.
It didn’t have to be a robot, of course. I know bloggers who have preferred to think of their anxious thoughts as obnoxious troll commenters. Over on Tumblr, I’ve seen users who think of their intrusive thoughts like an annoying friend who always shouts out his inane thoughts as they occur to him. For Paul Ford, it was email spam. Those could have worked too. The trick was to pick a metaphor that I could dismiss instead of engaging with… and Anxiety-Bot is really easy to dismiss.
What It Means
Here’s my most important takeaway from this: My anxious thoughts only have as much power over me as I give them.
This is, crucially, not true for everyone. Different people have different relationships with their brains. If you go to one of your friends who experiences anxiety and say, “Dude, just get over it and stop giving your anxious thoughts power over you,” then you’re being a dick. Don’t do that. Mental health is most definitely not a one-size-fits-all sort of deal.
But in my case, as I’m learning, there are ways to draw a boundary between myself and the occasionally faulty processes of my brain. When the whirlpool of anxiety starts spinning, I can step out of the water. I haven’t attained superhuman mastery over my emotions by any means–and never will, because hi, that’s impossible-but I’ve added a section to the user’s manual for my brain. No longer totally at the whims of a jerkbrain–now that’s a development worth shouting about.