Anxiety and the ‘fuck budget’

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

This post has everything to do with anxiety and nothing to do with sex. Except, of course, for the fact that both sex and anxiety are woven so tightly into the fabric of my life that they touch on everything I do. Except for that.

A while ago, someone sent me a link to this old article on stress and anxiety, and it made me stressed. But the good kind of stressed: annoyance that prompts me to write a long blog post about something. That kind of stress I like. It’s a refreshing break from the other kind of stress I have, which is a constant low-level hum of worry that I have done or said something howlingly awful, which at some point will be revealed to me via the medium of a friend or colleague telling me to get fucked.

The author of the piece has written a book, “The Life-Changing Magic Of Not Giving A F**k” – I actually have a copy which a mate of mine gave me, most likely because of my aforementioned perma-stress. I will read it soon, but I haven’t read it yet, so please don’t take this as book criticism, her ideas as expressed in the article are simply a pocket-sized version of things that a lot of people have said to me throughout most of my adult life.

Anyway. She says: the secret to living a happy life is to stop giving a fuck about everything. You make a ‘fuck budget’, in which you have limited fucks to give, stop giving a fuck about things you shouldn’t, then revel in how amazing your life is now.

Except she ties it to anxiety. And that’s not always how it works if you have anxiety. As I have had to explain to relatives and friends when I’ve failed them in any one of a thousand ways: anxiety is not like an M+S jumper – you can’t get rid of it by just deciding that you don’t want it any more. It would be like preventing the flu by simply deciding never to get the flu. Or solving a transport problem by deciding that you’ll learn to fly.

So: totally unrelated to sex, here are some questions on anxiety, and my answers. Be aware that I’m not a doctor or mental health professional, just a random slag with a bee in her bonnet.

What does a panic attack feel like?

Few people have ever asked me this, despite the fact that anyone who writes an article on anxiety will usually include a description of some sort. I suspect because they want to see if they can outdo each other in sheer horror, and that’s why I’m annoyed that more people do not ask what one feels like, so I can try and give them a proportionate answer.

The Woman Who Does Not Give A Fuck describes a panic attack like this:

“It feels not unlike drowning in a sea of hot lava while attempting to swim away from a lava-impervious shark with ninja-throwing stars for teeth.”

Far be it from me to tell someone else what they feel: she may well feel exactly like this. But a panic attack is not, for me, a lavashark situation. The best way I can describe a panic attack is to ask you if you’ve ever had a genuine, horrible shock: you’ve found out you’re being made redundant, for instance. Or perhaps something a bit more creeping and nausea-inducing: you think you’re being chased by someone on the walk home late at night. A panic attack starts with similar symptoms to a genuine fright: your body tells you something bad is happening and you need to get ready to fuck that something up. If you’ve ever done CBT, as I did for an achingly long time, they will bang on repeatedly about the ‘fight or flight’ reaction. It feels a bit like this – shaking a bit, things go blurry, your body is flooded with adrenalin that you’re not really able to use.

But then instead of breaking, it keeps building. You struggle to breathe and all your thoughts are things which feed more into the panic attack, and your limbs are tingling and you feel sick. Sometimes you are sick and then you can add the worry that people think you’re drunk to the worry that you’ll never be able to get out of this weird breathing/tingling/trembling/curled-on-the-floor vicious cycle into which you’ve fallen.

Except it’s not ‘fallen’ really: it’s ‘leaped’, because deep down you know it’s all your fault and you’re stupid and useless and you could just stop having a panic attack if you actually tried, you pathetic attention-seeker.

That’s how it works in my head, anyway. For you it might be lavasharks.

I say this because I think there will be people with undiagnosed anxiety, who are wondering what the hell is wrong with them, who are put off seeking help from a doctor or mental health professional because they read one of these kinds of descriptions. They may think – as I did – ‘oh I’m not that bad really. I have never felt like I’m in a pit of lavasharks. I just have this unspecific, gnawing fear which sometimes crashes over me in waves of abject terror. But that’s normal, I think.’

Onto questions I actually have been asked about anxiety…

Can’t you just chill out?

This is a tricky one. I know that people always mean well when they say it. I have often been advised to:

  • take on less work
  • stay off Twitter
  • take a holiday

and other similar things. My answer to all of these is ‘I have thought of that.’ I really have. I do sometimes ditch bits of work if it’s all getting too much. Unfortunately that comes with the stress of having to apologise to people I can no longer work for, thus risking more panic that those people now think badly of me. Likewise holidays (but what will happen when I’m gone??!) and staying off Twitter (what if I don’t reply to people and they start thinking I’m a bastard?!?). It also, incidentally, rides totally roughshod over what I actually want. I am not a chilled-out person. I hate meditation. I am happiest when I have a full life and a long to-do list.

Yes, those things are also sources of worry and stress. But, crucially, when I think about tackling my anxiety, I do not envisage a future-me who lives in a calm and tranquil world: I see me doing exactly the same things that I love, but being able to deal with them without collapsing. Writing blog entries like this without trembling a bit in case the lady who wrote the book ends up reading it and I may hurt her feelings and Oh God what if it makes her sad? Or choosing NOT to write blog entries like this and having to worry that I’ve stayed suspiciously silent on something that I should really be outspoken about. Or what I actually did, which is leave it for a few months thinking ‘Christ no one will want to read this shit’ then whack it up in a panic because I’ve run out of drafts and the idea of not publishing a blog on a scheduled day sends me into the aforementioned non-lavashark-attack.

Which leads me neatly onto the next question:

You know that particular worry is irrational though, right?

I.

Know.

Trust me, if there is one thing I know without a doubt: which I hold aloft before me like a beacon of reason even while I cough and splutter and cry my way through another thumping panic, it is that the panic is irrational. There is no reason to care that one of my good friends invited me out for drinks and I can’t make it because I have the flu. Nothing bad will come of my turning down the invite. And yet, as I sit at my computer trying to compose the ‘So sorry, I’m ill’ email, the words do not come. Usually I go anyway.

The most irrational thing – and the thing I hate most about me – is the spark of pure rage I get when a friend I love texts me to say ‘can I come over?’ if I was looking forward to a night alone. It’s incredibly unhealthy to be mad at your friends for wanting to hang out with you – especially when you really really want to hang out with them, it’s just that you’re tired and stressed and there’s so much else to get on with.

It’s all irrational: I know.

Telling me to ‘stop caring’ or, like the book says – “Stop Giving A Fuck” – makes it feel like I have chosen, in all these instances, to give a fuck. I have not: anxiety has. And it has then rather sneakily colluded to make it feel like I’m a twat for caring. Anxiety tells you to give a fuck about everything, then makes you feel pathetic for giving a fuck. So when someone comes along to agree with your anxiety – telling you that you can ‘just’ stop giving that fuck – it does not feel like they’re on my side.

Have you tried therapy/medication?

Have you had the appropriate training to be suggesting either of those things?

Have you tried speaking to a doctor?

That’s a good question, if asked at the right time. If asked when I’m trying to explain to you why I’m feeling bad, it may well hit the wrong note. Sometimes I just need to explain to you why I’m being weird, because it is ridiculously important to me that you know whatever weirdness I’m doing is not meant as a personal insult to you. If you respond by telling me how you think I should fix it, again: panic ensues.

So what can I do for my mate who has anxiety?

Well, there are plenty of professionals who could answer this question better than me (find out more at Mind – the mental health charity).

BUT if you want my personal view on what works for me, then I will tell you to embrace the power of two good words:

“That sucks.”

Not ‘fix it’ or ‘chill out’: that sucks.

When I am having a particularly shitty time of it and everything feels like it’s wringing me dry, I would love more people to embrace ‘that sucks.’ A phrase which simultaneously offers empathy, acknowledges that shit things are happening to you and – crucially – does not offer unsolicited advice.

Unsolicited advice can sometimes be helpful, and I know it’s always tempting to offer it. But remember that if you’re neither a professional nor someone your mate has come to for specific help, then you telling them how to fix themselves may well sound like the person who tells them to ‘just’ get on and fly.

Help can be nice. Advice can be nice too. But sometimes neither is desirable, or even necessary. Often you just need someone to nod along while you tell them your woes, and bite back solutions or questions or plans.

Not to try and fix you, just understand you.

17 Comments

  • rare deeds says:

    I guess the thing with stress & panic & anxiety is – they’re not rational – they don’t come from that part of ourselves that we understand to operate rationally. Therefore, any attempt to respond to stress, or panic, or anxiety – or their “causes” – rationally, is doomed to failure.

    Similarly, they’re all fundamentally subjective – & how they are subjectively just doesn’t map on to how they appear “objectively” to others.

    The only thing that seems significant is that build up of pressure you describe – the fact that it doesn’t *break*. That’s why, I guess, talking to/at others who are, as you say, willing to nod along whilst listening, is so important – it’s the basic, maybe one of the only, way(s) in which it’s possible to release some of that building pressure.

    By contrast, what is useless is turning away from others, hiding away & bottling everything up whilst finding, or trying to find, myriad ways to ignore what you’re trying to hide from.

    Which is my default way of failing to cope.

  • Eleanor says:

    Unnervingly my experience of CBT is really similar to this: ‘Oh you’ll never be cured of OCD, but to manage your symptoms what you need to do is just stop it okay good job’ :I

  • Charlie says:

    Yes, absolutely, ‘That sucks’ is the best possible response. My best friend has mastered this now (without being told it’s the best thing to say) and I’m eternally grateful for it.

  • Kate says:

    I’ve never commented but love your writing so much. I suffer from anxiety and depression but not panic attacks. Yet anyway.
    Just wanted to share this video I saw recently. Your post today reminded me of it and I thought you might like it. Maybe not.

    http://m.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

  • RB says:

    Hate, hate, HATE this all-encompassing, faux-edgy, ‘you don’t have to give a fuck if you don’t want to’ philosophy. Even if it comes from people with anxiety. I had some horrible episodes earlier this year because my job was awful; I was panicky, shaking, in tears, found it hard to breathe, barely did anything outside of work – I couldn’t NOT give a fuck. I was there 8 hours a day, it was my livelihood, and even though I was applying for other jobs I wasn’t getting any, so even making positive steps wasn’t working. You can’t compartmentalise something like that and just turn it off. People think that your level of worry should be proportional to the apparent scale of the problem – and although that would be great if it was achievable, any empathetic person knows that that’s the case, rather than trying to tough-love you out of it.

    I’ve seen you interact with Ella Risbridger on twitter before and she writes brilliantly about it as well. She had anxiety far before her partner was diagnosed with cancer; obviously that intensified it and made things horribly scary for her but that didn’t STOP the anxiety about the ‘little’ things, nor I imagine will it have stopped now he’s in remission. Would anyone dare say to her ‘stop giving a fuck’?

    *sigh*. Things like this infuriate me. Coca Cola have that ‘choose happiness’ slogan and even though it’s obviously chosen as some kind of shallow, meaningless bit of fluff, it makes me feel similar.

    ‘That sucks’ reminds me of this, after Chris is given a talking-to by his friends for trying to fix everything…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mCIiPk_Qicc

  • Charlotte says:

    Thank you for writing this. This is exactly how I feel, regularly. You are so brave.

  • Jo says:

    I had to look up CBT, because to me it’s always stood for cock and ball torture… and I was *pretty* sure that’s not what you were talking about!

    • Eusa McScottish says:

      In order of my processing;
      1. Compulsory Basic Training – “Probably not”
      2. Cock & Ball Torture – “Possible… Weird in context though…”
      “Oh…”
      3. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – “Probably”.

  • Yes. So much yes.

    Thank you for sharing.

    *from the girl who once spent two hours in the a cubicle in the cinema toilets (wearing only underwear – with clothes piled in the floor) due to a panic attack.

  • Kate Evans says:

    Thank you for writing this. It reflects my experiences in so many ways – especially the being stressed or annoyed when people text me wanting to hang out. How I wish I could do all the things I want to do without them being so bloody difficult.

    I stopped listening in my CBT course when they asked us all to write down the thing that we are worried about, and then they will teach us strategies to stop worrying about that thing. I have no idea what I’m so worried about. I’m worried about EVERYTHING, and sometimes, nothing at all. It’s really not that simple.

  • Elmo Prankster says:

    Ugh… I know exactly what you mean! For me it’s as if somebody tied cement blocks to my feet and threw me in deep water and I am down there realizing that I can no longer hold my breath and that the next inhalation will be my death. It’s just sheer terror. And the worse part… the sexual disfunction; the anxiety keeps me from getting turned on and hard and/or the meds do that and of course that makes me more anxious which leads to greater disfunction.
    All in all? It fucking sucks.

  • Hazelthecrow says:

    Yes! all of this! Thats completely what its like, and all the advice is THE WORST cos then you feel bad about kind of wanting to scream at otherwise nice people who are only trying to help. Anxiety is a bastard, and it sucks. You’re great anyway though, you know. We love you GOTN and are terribly grateful that you keep bestowing excellent blog posts on us even when you feel like this. The world won’t end if you have to miss one. We’d hate for you feel bad on our account, but if you’re ever going to anyway then at least imagine, as preferred or is most helpful: huge internet stranger hugs; all you fans going ‘nice work GOTN, how about a nice cuppa/jaffa cake/cider?’ ; a big easter egg with ‘that Sucks’ written on it, that you can then imagine smashing cathartically. Inside theres a cookie that says ‘you’re great though’ xxx

  • Sean says:

    For me, a panic attack is like a phobia. I’m afraid of heights – maybe you’re afraid of spiders, or snakes, or skeletons. For now, I’ll stay with heights.

    Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant. Gradually you realise that the restaurant is actually on the 40th floor of a skyscraper and there’s an open door right next to your table. You can tell yourself that you’re sat down, you’re safe, and there’s nothing to be afraid of. But your phobia isn’t rational – you can’t control it.

    A panic attack is like this, except there’s no external trigger. There’s no spider to be vanquished, or edge to move away from. I had situational anxiety for years before realising that this was what was going on, as the result of a chance comment in an unrelated conversation.

    I don’t think that there is a single universal coping strategy. I tried a few. What worked for me was anchoring – visualising previous times I had been in a situation when it went well. And once things started to go well, the fear associations decreased further and became a virtuous spiral.

  • Lacrymology says:

    So, from the friend’s point of view:

    does it help at all if I try to make sure that don’t worry, saying no or taking a rain check is ALWAYS acceptable, and I love you and we’ll hang another time, and even (in the flu eventuality) do you want me to come over and brew you some tea?

    Does that kind of thing help at all?

  • Siobhan says:

    My CBT has been really helpful. I now have the approach of “okay this is me and how I react and respond to things. There are things I can do about it but if it is happening right now it is happening right now” which (FOR ME) stops the spiral of “OhmygodIamsobrokenIwillneverbeokayorenoughandthismightnotberealandthatmeansIamacrazyandnoonewilleverlovemeandeveryonewillleave” Instead I think something totally irrational and am weirdly okay and not at the same time. But I know that is just what works for me. Fuck budgets not that helpful but I do try to give less of a fuck about having psychosis!

    • Girl on the net says:

      That makes total sense, and I think I am similar having had some CBT. It’s kind of easier if I’m having a panic on my own, because I can do the ‘yes this is irrational but it’s me’ thing, whereas one of the things that pushes me into the spiral is seeing other people react with shock, or go ‘OMG OMG you need help what can I do’ if that makes sense.

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