Say yes to saying no: a tale of anxiety-driven consequences (or what happens when we glorify busy.)

This is a story about being busy and being anxious.

I wish it was a story about how I over came anxiety. But instead it’s an interlude between the good parts and the bad parts of living your life through gritted teeth. The soaring heart rate as your all too familiar ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in because your brain has stopped working and begins dribble out on the floor…

That sort of anxiety.

Occasionally I like to write about anxiety. Like the voices from the podcasts and ebooks I use to doze off to, when my mind races with ideas and to-do lists about mundane things like forgetting to buy porridge, suggest, writing about things like anxiety gives it a name, a presence. And as they say, when you give it a name, a presence, it’s much easier to manage.

Because it has a reality then, it’s not just a something that is driving your behaviour unwillingly. It’s much easier to put in a box when it has a written reality, and doing that allows you to get on with all the other things you need to do.

Things have been pretty good recently. So good in fact, it would be easy to forget that anxiety is a circumstance that requires maintenance. This may be because I’ve started to be more explicit in the internal acts that some would call ‘self care’, exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, documenting progress and goals— or perhaps it is external factors such a work identity, bringing with it current financial security, a nice flat, living in a community I love, a stable relationship & a phd strategy for completion. Needless to say, there has been less bumps in the roads as usual, or at least, there has been less bumps in the road — today. All of the above, factor into the maintenance, and when they are all good, it is much easier to manage anxiety.

Thoughts are moments— they come and go, passing through you and reacts to what is directly in front of you. This is why, despite what I’ve said in the above paragraph, I’m still capable of having a panic attack when it comes to particular circumstance, sometimes it is a trigger, sometimes it is purely because I’ve worked up it up in my head. Sometimes it is out of the blue. And people don’t know why or what to do with me, a reluctant extrovert, capable of standing in front of 100s of people, teach workshops, travel and meet loads of people for work, having a meltdown over something banal like chatting to people at a wedding or paralysed with fear over trying to chose a place to go for lunch with friends.

And those panic attacks feel fiercer, stronger, more crippling (and more out of the blue )— because the contrast between the pure fear and feeling of wanting to run away before anybody sees, lashing out when approached and wanting to go somewhere quiet, to be left alone to stare at my phone, or to hide in my hotel room, or to not have anybody speak to me incase I start saying things that outside of my control, out weighs any of the generalised good, relaxed feelings that comes from sitting in my lovely kitchen, drinking an espresso and typing thoughts into my laptop.

I’m unsure if these will go away at this stage — however, when I reflect on the source of the panic, much of which has came from my own making — or even a reaction to that making.

I lived in a heightened state of panic for the majority of my PhD life. This was made up from collective strands of experience. Much of which I’ve felt fitted a narrative with those external factors that I mentioned above: money worries, imposer syndrome, academia itself, relationship woes, displacement (wanting to come home but hated being there), which grew into me having a lack of boundaries, people pleasing, paranoid, depression, self-harm (through not looking after myself), and general self-loathing, despite things on the surface looking ok.

It is easier to teach yourself to how to do things on a surface level in order to keep afloat, and in fact, when I type this now, it is retrospective, I don’t recall feeling as bad as I felt at the time. But I do remember that all the good bits that I am reminded of through applications such as Timehop and Facebook memories were the sun shining through the darkness.

For instance, I’ve always documented on Instagram for my own benefits rather than anyone else. Like a photo a day of something to remind myself of what we did — and I recall somedays that the only time I could find something good was the first cup of coffee in the morning. Understanding my patterns of how I use social media, now, I actively seek out and look for positive reaffirmations and aim (try my best) to only include positive things in my feeds. That’s why I relentless post pictures of my dogs.

Picture of my dogs

This is where it stops being uncomfortable. Because anxiety is uncomfortable. And when I think about it, I was permanently uncomfortable.

Sometimes, you can get rid of the uncomfortable feeling using very quick fixes. I’m not a neuroscientist, but I’m sure it has something to do with dopamine. Some of these quick fixes include:

  • Going out and having a few (several) beers;
  • Going out for dinner and spending lots of cash;
  • Going shopping and treating yourself to stuff;
  • Posting an epic rant on the Internet about something you are outraged and enjoying that people agree;
  • Allow yourself to get annoyed about things that are outside your control — media, politics, photographs, videos on YouTube.
  • Posting an epic dialogue about something that you intend to do but writing about it makes up for actually doing it;
  • Agreeing to volunteer, help out, contribute to something;
  • All other activity that involve potentially quick wins and treats, Haribo, cakes, scratch cards, buying several pairs trainers in the sale, online shopping etc

Now I’m not saying that these things listed above are necessary good or bad things and that in order to quit being anxious and uncomfortable, that I need to resort to longer term plans by abstaining. I’m not. But I am aware that these short term dopamine rushes to avoid addressing other things often result in the build up of other stresses.

This is how the first few quick fix examples work and have a knock on effect to the bigger picture:

  • Going for a few beers the night before, not many, still results in a fuzzy head for me. It makes me cancel going to the early-doors gym so I can sleep a little longer, or eat something rubbish for breakfast (because I convince myself deserve it) then I can’t think with a clear head because I’m not prepared, making me a little late for everything, rushing around, feeling sluggish because I’ve ate rubbish and I eat more to counteract, resulting in a general blah feeling when I get home;
  • Feeling tired, instead of doing a shop that could cover the entire week, I spent my money on going out for dinner, one meal, that I didn’t really need — and it was so much of a spur of the moment thing that I wasn’t really thinking about where we were going, so don’t really enjoy it but it serves a purpose and it looked nice in a photo;
  • Somebody said something stupid on the Internet that doesn’t fit within my impeccable moral standards, I must correct them;
  • “Why is this person not seeing my point of view? Idiot.”
  • Feel anxious and jittery because physically feeling like crap, then mentally feeling like crap because disagreements and arguments are rubbish.

And so on.

That all seems quite obvious — don’t drink on a school night, try and get an early night, do not attend every argument that you are invited to. That’s the sort of advice that sits with “you should try exercise!” when you are feeling so down, hair stuck to your face, the thought of taking the dogs outside feels like a tough mudder. It’s shaming — and it makes you feel worse. We all know what we should do but sometimes it is easier to just not.

The next part is actually more tricky to navigate — and harder to make sense of on the surface. I believe that partly some, or indeed all of my anxiety related issues (and the subsequent reactions to it) can be amounted to one thing.

Feeling like you should be doing something and doing more because of it. And because you feel you should be doing more of a thing, you let yourself cut back on the things that don’t seem that important, but they truly are.

This point here:

  • Agreeing to volunteer, help out, contribute to something;

We know this point is rife in academia (and other workplaces). You can be an early career researcher into your 40th year and people still ask you to do things under the premise that it’ll look good on your CV. We know this. In some regard, this is a learning experience, the ability to know when an opportunity is right & benefits all parties (co-authoring a paper with a colleague) and wrong (agreeing to do things that do not fall within your current job description, or as a PhD student, and not being able to deliver it) You can find yourself agreeing to everything and not earning or achieving a cent.

It is also rife when you work in a digital related field or have web related interests. The internet is ubiquitous, right, and all these tools and platforms are there to be seized and used to their ultimate advantage. You are the gate keeper to the knowledge, you use it lots, and you do things, and get a name for yourself. Unfortunately, somebody failed to let everyone know the theory behind digital does not equal free, or building things will not exactly bring boys to the yard — and although you can self-publish anything you want, and developing a digital thing doesn’t take you as long as others, it still costs you time and human resource to make that happen.

Furthermore, add the third banner of civic and political engagement. If we want a revolution, we have to expect people to volunteer their time to make it happen. And that takes up 4–5 days a week after work.

All three of the above, combined into a vicious cycle of uncomfortable anxiety and quick fix dopamine rushes, peak and trough as the opportunities permit. And as the tension builds, it becomes harder to say no — or step away from obligations and expectations that you’ve given yourself.

A self-made prison, a crippling cave where you are simultaneously worrying what people think whilst making yourself vulnerable to letting them down.

That shit needed to stop.

The practice of saying no is an interesting one.

You have to do the thing that you have been avoiding for all this time, and keep doing that thing until it becomes louder and firmer.

You need to find a way of saying it so that it means what you feel and is not about the other person, it is about you setting boundaries.

You have to say no in an attempt to tune into what your boundaries were. If you’ve allowed your boundaries to be crossed so often, it’s hard to listen to what you feel comfortable with.

There will be a period where it will feel uncomfortable, where you want to go back to the point before you started to realise that it hasn’t been working out so well. You need to stick with it, trust that sometimes that feeling of anxiety is actually trying to tell you something.

— —

And you know what, the true benefits that emerge from saying no — and making time for those things you’ve sacrificed as not being as important, like protecting your weekends from email, like turning down chances to contribute to a website as a guest post in order to write your own blog post, like being able to make use of good and efficient time for writing and focusing on your own wellbeing instead. It can feel disarming. It can feel uncomfortable. It’s like your brain and your body is looking for the thing you didn’t really need to do.

And I was thinking, rather than this being about me, about how I got a little better at prioritising for a while (it’s open for change, as is everything) what can we learn from how we feel when being busy is glorified.

How can we help others say no? How can we support our friends and colleagues who might have taken on a bit too much? What are the signs that this is happening? Are we guilty of taking advantage of people and their good will?

The way I see it, what I’m trying to say is that when I’m say I’m busy now, I’m busy protecting my time — and in turn, protect my wellbeing. Because if I don’t, I can’t do all the other things that I need to do. The really important things. So instead of being busy as a badge of honour, something that I might have previously associated with martyrdom, I’m using it as a forcefield to keep me out of harms way.

And that’s what I think about that.