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Nobody Isn't Anxious

I hear a lot of talk about anxiety.

I produce a lot of talk about anxiety.

I have personally been treated for anxiety -- with medication and therapy, individually and together -- intermittently throughout most of my adult life.

I've had two full-blown panic attacks, including one the day before my divorce hearing, triggered by my (very) soon-to-be ex-husband asking at the last minute to change our financial agreement. I ended up in urgent care with a blood pressure over two hundred.

So I know a bit about anxiety from a personal perspective.

I also know a bit about it from a professional perspective. My undergraduate degree -- waaay back in the 1980s -- was in a then-novel field of what was then called "Psychobiology." In fact, there wasn't even an established Psychobiology major. My advisors and I cobbled it together (thanks to a flexible liberal arts college education) based on my interests in how biology and psychology affect each other. (Interestingly, and not surprisingly, that major was soon adopted by the college and, since I graduated thirty years ago, has split into Neuroscience and Biological Psychology as established curricula. Maybe the first and last time I'll have ever been ahead of the curve.)

Of course, as a practicing veterinarian, I've veered away from the research track. But I still see psychology and biology intertwining every day in my animal patients. And also, alas, their owners. Clients regularly request care of their pets less for their pets' sake than for their own: "I simply can't bear the thought of losing Fluffy, Doctor! I couldn't go on living!" and of course "Emotional Support Animals."

And then the pets themselves are also stressed, for many of the same reasons we are: trying to cope in this ever-changing world, thrown into social situations they'd rather opt out of but have no control over, and living with anxious owners who sometimes "love too much" (or, more accurately, love in a way that fails to take into account what the pet might want for itself).

Just the other day, I fielded a phone call from a man who wanted to switch his cat's anti-anxiety medication (If that sounds like a joke, it's not -- for all sorts of reasons). He liked the "old stuff" better than the newer medication. Why? Well, because his cat used to let him pick her up and cuddle her on the old medication but not on the new medication. I asked him what the cat had been like prior to the old medication? "Oh, she never used to let me pick her up. She's very skittish and prefers to hide under the bed most of the time. She's always been that way. But with the old medication, I could pick her up and she would tolerate it."

Tolerate it. Not "enjoy it." But "tolerate it."

Soooo, then, the cat, who has always been skittish, was forced into (adopted by) an owner who wanted, more than anything, to snuggle his kitten, who didn't enjoy snuggling. But the prescription for a sedative medication (a benzo, for those in the know) essentially forced her brain to quiet enough that the owner could have the sort of cat he'd always wanted -- even though he put his foot wrong straightaway by adopting a kitten who was never that sort of kitten to begin with. And the transition to a true anxiolytic medication (prescribed for stress-induced urination behaviours) allowed her underlying personality to re-establish itself. Hmm.

The point is, a living organism can have anxiety. And stressors can be real (earthquakes, big barky dogs, losing one's job) or imaginary (fears of heights, social anxiety, public speaking). And, really, nobody can tell anyone else what they should or shouldn't be anxious about. I've spoken to plenty of people who express more dismay than admiration at some of my own life choices: hiking in the wilds of Alaska, traveling alone to foreign countries, and even this Next Thing adventure of quitting my job and trying something new without having a definitive plan or endpoint. I'm not saying I haven't experienced stress during some of those adventures, but it was an acceptable level, perhaps because it was self-chosen rather than inflicted on me by someone else. Ahh, that old illusion of control once again rears its head.

What brings this all to mind today is less the current stressors, of which there are MANY -- the first month of a global pandemic, a crashing stock market, lockdowns and sheltering-in-place, job cutbacks -- than about the seeming omnipresent boot of anxiety on the necks of modern society.

To wit, I was listening to an old episode of my favourite podcast, from some time last summer -- August, maybe. In the episode there was a whole section during which they talked about how "it'll all be alright in the end," and "these difficult times," and I had to pause and think, "What the hell were they talking about back then? What on earth was so awful about last summer that people needed reassurances about the future?!?" Thinking on it, it's probably Brexit, as the podcast is British (natch). But still, in hindsight, it seems to pale in comparison to what's going on in the world right now as I write this. But at that time, it was enough.

Anxiety. And we've all got it. Honestly I think you'd have to be a bit of an idiot to not be anxious about any of today's current affairs. Frankly, I think most of those people who claim to not be bothered are either delusional or whistling in the dark anyway.

I know others might disagree, but I find a great deal of comfort in taking the longview of human history and realising anxiety has always been there. If you could travel back in time four hundred years, a thousand years, ten thousand years, I'll bet you'd find humans fretting about something. Sometimes it's something truly horrible and unprecedented, like Plague. And other times it's not. Most of the time, let's face it, we don't know until it's all over. Sometimes not even then.

It's just part of Life, it seems. So what I think could be more manageable is being anxious about being anxious. I feel like I see a lot of that these days, especially on social media -- people working themselves up because they know they have anxiety issues so they're already anxiously prepping for their anxiety to go off-track. -- Also, comparative anxiety: my anxiety is worse than yours, that sort of thing.

I don't want to imply people are being wimpy. Not at all. Anxiety disorder is a genuine physical disruption in how brain chemistry normally works. I just think in these emotionally expressive times, it can be easy to enter an anxiety spiral. If I think back on my parents' generation, I'm sure they had anxiety as well -- my dad supporting a wife and four kids on a social worker's salary?, and my mom trying to raise her kids with a [Spoiler!] emotionally abusive alcoholic husband? -- but nobody talked about their feelings back then. As I said above, my dad drank his problems into submission, and my mother, well, my mother was just stoic about it but ate her body weight in sugar about once a month.

There's no point to any of this except to say that I think we could all relax about our anxiety. A bit. Take the long view. It's always been there. It will always be there. I do think there are genuinely groups and programs to try to help you learn to manage your stress. But maybe it's also important to never expect your stress to "go away." I don't think it does. Maybe it does, for a minute when you're out for a nice walk through a forest, or lying contentedly in your partner's arms. But there's always something new coming, big or small, real or imaginary. So enjoy the calm periods in between, but maybe -- just maybe -- try not to be stressed about stress.


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