Bullish Q&A: “My problem is that I am scared of almost everything”

Dear Jen,

First of all, I’d like to thank you for the Bullish articles, they are so insightful, honest, and truly inspirational.

My problem is that I am scared of almost everything. Somehow I manage to do the basic things, such as going to classes, but I can’t stop worrying. It’s fucking exhausting. I don’t want my life reduced to this, it’s distracting me from working towards my goals. I want to become a doctor and move abroad (and possibly stop being afraid of talking to people), but I know that I won’t be able to do any of this with my current mindset. There are steps I managed to take; I got into med school and passed last year’s finals; I have travelled to several countries – including a solo trip to Sweden. Yet, no matter how hard I try, I can’t help feeling that I’ll never be good enough.

Do you think there is a way I could keep the overly emotional part of my brain from ruining my life?

Thanks for writing.

First of all, anxiety disorders are absolutely real things.

I have some ideas for you, of course. But I wonder why you wrote to me instead of seeing a doctor? Is it somehow easier or better to think of a having a serious life problem that can maybe be managed with the kinds of strategies I can offer than to think of having a serious life problem that is a diagnosable mental illness?

You might enjoy reading the work of Esmé Wang, who writes about coping with mental illness. I actually get quite a few questions from people affected by depression and other mental illnesses. Wanting to be bullish despite mental illness is common, at least around here.

So, please do consider at least a consultation with a medical professional. Oh, and I don’t know what country you’re in. Some countries take mental health more seriously than others, and some primary care doctors are better with (appropriate) referrals than others. The reason I mention this is to encourage you to talk to more than one doctor if the first one gives you an inappropriate response. (“If you’re afraid, find a man to protect you! Why do you want to do all those things anyway? Do you like babies?”) Stay strong. Be assertive and unrelenting in getting the help you need.

That said, I do have some suggestions.

1. Meditation. Possibly with a private teacher.

I am personally, as you probably know, not very new-agey, nor do I happen to be a Buddhist. I am attracted to meditation, though, because I am interested in how the brain works and how we can control our minds.

So much of the Western intellectual tradition (for instance, everything I read in my philosophy program at Dartmouth) seems to ignore the elephant in the room — we can sometimes manage to write books in a very precise, linear, dispassionate way, but everyone’s mind inside is a mess. A stream of wild thought, much of it random (or random-seeming), unproductive, and even sabotaging. Meditation (and Buddhism) make that a central concern.

The idea of a clear, calm mind appeals to me very much, as I imagine it would to you. Here is a classic book that I have read and enjoyed, and which I was initially attracted to based entirely on the title: Turning the Mind Into an Ally.

2. Recalibrate.

You did manage the solo trip to Sweden. (Me too!) Good! Now go jump out of a plane. Or go bungee jumping. Something physical.

If you have an interest, find a group you can train with for triathalons or long cycling tours or something else that is very physically demanding and, preferably, outdoors. These aren’t my personal favorite things to do, I admit. But I find that healthy physical stress tends to put all that “other” stress in perspective. And exercise and the outdoors just seem to reset the brain.

We weren’t meant to sit still and stare and computers and care so much about intangible things. That life makes us neurotic.

3. Lump it all together.

You have a lot of worries, right? Try writing out a list. Get it all out. (Do this as often as needed.) If there’s something you really need to do something about, go do it. Ask for help, or email someone saying asking for an extension of a deadline, or apologizing and saying you won’t be able to get X done after all. Sometimes you can just write an email that begins “I’m worried…” and then shares a mutual concern, and asks the other person what you, or the two of you together, should do. If you have bosses or managers, some of this is actually their job.

Once you’ve completed the tasks related to the concerns you can actually control, you’ll have a bunch of irrational worries left, right? Or sometimes worries aren’t irrational so much as that their probability is so low it’s irrational to think about them. Those worries.

Mentally lump them all together. It’s not 35 worries. You have 1 Big Worry. (Sounds like the worst Jay-Z parody ever.) Next time the worries start to gang up on you, don’t engage them, elaborate on them, or give them brain space. Think to yourself, “Oh, that’s just my Worry acting up again.” If you think of new worries — of course you will — mentally add them to the 1 Big Worry.

35 worries can dance around in your head and interact and keep you occupied for hours. One big, nebulous ball of worry is easier to see for what it is — an unfortunate aspect of the human condition that can be managed and often just dismissed from your mind.

I hope that helps! But please don’t hesitate to find a professional to talk to. You want every tool you can access to build the life you want.

Sincerely,

Jen

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