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Most Problems Never Have To Be Solved
May 3, 2014 9:06 PM   Subscribe

Your mind tells you there is a problem whenever it detects a somewhat possible unpleasant future experience, which it can do all day, and it happily will if you don't call its bluff. Of course there's an infinite supply of potential disasters. These are just thoughts, but they seem like realities, and any one of them can create an emotional pitfall now no matter what actually happens later.
posted by paleyellowwithorange (29 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

 
Being stuck in that moment, torturing yourself with the near endless parade of 'what ifs' that all herald imminent disaster that you can never deal with is a big part of clinical depression for me.

That moment of sinking stomach, when you realise some unpleasant task is coming your way, or momentary sweaty panic when you think you've forgotten about a deadline, or the sheer enormity of what you have to deal with for some new crisis - feelings we all have sometimes - becomes a permanent state of affairs you can't escape from. Everything becomes a battleground demanding your full attention, and you spiral off into disastrous thinking about how it will all end in your downfall. Your stress response to a hard workload that should take 3 people, or a shitty home life, or even for no reason at all becomes pretty much permanently stuck on on.

Someone said something slightly critical of something you did -> they hate you -> you suck at your job -> your boss will be complained to -> you'll be fired -> you'll lose your house -> your family will desert you for being worthless and incompetent -> nobody loves you -> you'll never work again -> you'll end up living in the gutter -> you'll end up dying of hunger and exposure -> you're now stuck thinking about shivering under a piece of cardboard, lying alone and unloved in some dark dirty alley at night, not having eaten for days, knowing that your death will come soon and rats will be the only ones to enjoy eating your corpse that won't even be found for weeks.

Then you snap back, and they're already on the next sentence where they're praising something else you did, and you're confused and don't accept their premise, as you're still stuck in the aftermath of your inevitable painful and lonely death. It's disorientating, and can lead to pretty bad mood swings. Every stressful moment gets drawn out into an eternity of inevitable consequences. Sleep eludes you, as you lie awake at night, with nothing to do but try and escape the disasters that are coming and you can do nothing about.

Eventually, your own disaster-imagining brain wears you down, the stress response becomes somewhat neutered due to overwork, and you just enter grey-fog land where nothing matters, nobody cares, not even you. Then you start having to fake emotional responses for other people, because your own are just worn out from taking them to negative extremes so much in the fantasy prison you constructed for yourself without even realising that's what you were doing.

So when your life becomes a mess of disaster theatre taking place at breakneck speed, a grey fog that saps your emotional will to do or feel anything at all, and every molehill becomes a mountain to climb, is it any surprise that one day, checking out of the whole mess and leaving life behind becomes kinda attractive? After all, it's not like anyone would miss you. And it's all your own fault, you tell yourself. If you worked harder, were nicer, excercised more, looked better, tried more, did more, then you'd feel better, your brain whispers. But you didn't, and you can't because you're exhausted all the time due to no sleep, so really, it's all. your. fault, and nothing anyone tells you will change that.

Thank god for modern pharmaceuticals, is all I can say.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:12 PM on May 3 [65 favorites]


As a counterpoint: Problem Solved.
posted by angerbot at 10:17 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


"I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." -attributed commonly to Mark Twain (though probably not actually Mark Twain).

I am an anxiety suffering person, and when I have these thoughts, one thing that has helped me is to like really obsess over them for a few minutes, like let myself get super worried about it, until I'm actually bored of worrying about it, and realize how silly or inconsequential it is. I think I learned that trick from AskMe, and it's really pretty effective.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:27 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]


I help my kids learn not to do this, as consistently and diligently as I help them learn how to brush their teeth. Just naming the source of their anxiety and helping them consider the difference between their worries and the reality they experience seems to help a lot. Of course, I have a lot of practice doing that with myself, so that probably doesn't hurt.
posted by davejay at 10:33 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]


Your stress response to a hard workload that should take 3 people, or a shitty home life, or even for no reason at all becomes pretty much permanently stuck on on.

Nuts. I orginally wrote that as a general comment on depression, then edited it to be more personal, and left that in by mistake as a general thing. My trigger was over-work, my home life was actually the only thing keeping me sane, though I'm sure the opposite is true for some others with depression.
posted by ArkhanJG at 10:34 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]


That person should probably learn to meditate or, failing that, consider medical treatment for anxiety.

It's one thing to plan for the future, it's another to live with a constant stream of worst case scenarios running through your head. You don't have to.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 10:45 PM on May 3


I thought this and the following link about the asteroid "close shave" were the same post.
posted by mecran01 at 12:01 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


The worst is the deja vu. Where you "remember" sitting on the couch, watching TV, and browsing MetaFilter on your phone right before some terrible event. The fact that the other 99,999 times you "remembered" something similar didn't mean anything doesn't change how you feel for those several moments.
posted by ob1quixote at 12:14 AM on May 4


Stupid Brain.
posted by mikelieman at 2:04 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


Ruminating endlessly around your worries is a useless, destructive process. But dismissing the funny noise your car has started making, failing to check your financial position; these are not good, either.
posted by Segundus at 3:16 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


The most notable thing I've learned in my five years with Buddhism is this: the terrible thoughts that arise during panic attacks are almost always a consequence of an underlying physical experience. I can watch worst-case scenario thoughts arise and pass away in my mind without ever really panicking, since they're really just thoughts. They're not a problem. But if I'm becoming ill, or even if I'm just dehydrated, if I'm hungry, if I'm tired, my mind will interpret these kinds of physical discomfort as a mental problem that needs to be solved, and those worst-case scenario thoughts arise. The intersection of this (often barely perceptible) physical discomfort with ruminations about terrible things happening is generally where my anxiety occurs.
posted by jwhite1979 at 3:26 AM on May 4 [13 favorites]


Segundus: "Ruminating endlessly around your worries is a useless, destructive process. But dismissing the funny noise your car has started making, failing to check your financial position; these are not good, either."

I often go from 'hm, should check the tyres' to 'remember that time the tyre blew out while the car was sitting in the garage remember that remember it what if that happens again but while you're driving because remember that time you crashed remember how much it hurt and all the money and except what if this time the baby is in the car and the tyre blows or you aren't paying attention and you're dead but she's not or she's dead but you're not and remember the tyre blew once randomly with no reason it could happen again' ad nauseum. This can in and of itself manifest as dismissal - if I refuse to think of the tyres, I'll not go through the actually physically painful thought processing ending with death.

I'm better at it now, and have the code ("we'll end up in a box on fire") for when my thought processes are running on their own steam rather than logic, but this sort of well-meaning 'well, worry is normal' is not actually applicable. I'm much more likely to obsessively check tyres, to constantly check the financials, than to ignore them because I'm dismissing things.
posted by geek anachronism at 3:27 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]


Ha, I read the first paragraph about the tiny Post Its and I was all excited, like when I saw a cup similar to the one I have used by a character on a TV show: "Hey, those are my sticky notes!"
posted by discopolo at 3:29 AM on May 4


"In those moments, it can be easy to forget (assuming you realize this in the first place) that most of these apparent problems will never have to be solved."

Rounding a curve at a lowered speed, I heard a funny noise from the car and immediately started running down possible diagnoses: Okay, it could be an axle, or a low-pressure tire plus the angle could be causing that sound (bear in mind, please, that I know nothing about cars), and oh my God, how am I going to get the car to the mechanic and I am about to do a high-speed drive and.... I was delighted to realize, a few moments later, that the funny noise was coming from the dog, who was trying to whuffle my shoulder.
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:45 AM on May 4 [2 favorites]


This is not a thing that is an issue for me, but it is a big problem for my boyfriend, who is a pretty anxious anxious person. Talking him down from the problem he imagines 15 steps ahead of the information he actually has is really hard because he is so firmly convinced in that moment that the worst thing is the only one that can happen. I winder if the post-its would be a helpful solution, or if writing them down would make things seem evem more likely to go down in the worst possible way that he is imagining.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:06 AM on May 4


ArkhanJG, do you live in my head? You and Allie Brosh? ... Guess I ought to be hospitable then. You want some coffee?
posted by GrammarMoses at 8:02 AM on May 4


All hail the Monkey Mind
posted by Monkeymoo at 8:30 AM on May 4


Worry is paying interest on a debt you don't yet owe.
posted by Freen at 9:38 AM on May 4 [3 favorites]


Working in Quality Assurance is basically adopting the mindset described in TFA professionally and having your performance judged on how few of your Post-Its are binned, while always suspecting the developers and managers have secretly adopted angerbot's counter-strategy.
posted by Reyturner at 9:50 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]


jwhite1979: "The most notable thing I've learned in my five years with Buddhism is this: the terrible thoughts that arise during panic attacks are almost always a consequence of an underlying physical experience."

Cheri Huber lays it out as a five-step process:
First there is MOVEMENT: Something happens in our lives, something shifts, slips, advances or evolves. It may be a big event, a tiny incident, someone’s passing comment or a nearly imperceptible change in the environment.

Second, there is SENSATION: We feel or experience something physically – a twinge of pain, a flood of heat or cold, a clenching or emptiness in our body, a vibration or fluctuation we can’t name.

Third, we have A THOUGHT: We consciously or unconsciously identify the sensation and assign some kind of reason or meaning or value to it.

Fourth, we have an EMOTIONAL REACTION to the thought: It may be a flash or wave of a certain feeling or it may be a combination of them – grief, fear, anger, irritation, shame, nervousness, hurt, desire, relief, etc.

Fifth, there is BEHAVIOR: We take some kind of action or reaction, verbally, physically or attitudinally – either to stop the feeling, escape it, or to do something else about it.

Of course, in real life, this evolution is not so neat and ordered. All these events may seem to occur at once, or in a confused jumble. Also, the impacts of our behavior invariably set up new movements and new sensations, thus initiating new cycles.
posted by Lexica at 11:03 AM on May 4 [9 favorites]


I've recently found it helpful to remind myself that when I am worrying about things I am imagining the worst of all possible worlds, and even if there is a non-zero probability of each individual worry coming to pass the probability of all of them happening is so infinitesimal that it can safely be dismissed (in fact, it may very well be zero if some of the worries are mutually exclusive!). Thus the real world will definitely be better with respect to my worries than the dystopia my imagination paints for me, even if how much better is not yet knowable.
posted by beryllium at 6:07 PM on May 4


I am an anxiety suffering person, and when I have these thoughts, one thing that has helped me is to like really obsess over them for a few minutes, like let myself get super worried about it, until I'm actually bored of worrying about it, and realize how silly or inconsequential it is.

I am also an anxiety suffering person, and when I have these thoughts, I smoke a doob.

Thank god for modern pharmaceuticals, is all I can say.

Let's also thank her for the ancient medicine as well. ;) (Meditation/mindfulness helps too.)

The most notable thing I've learned in my five years with Buddhism is this: the terrible thoughts that arise during panic attacks are almost always a consequence of an underlying physical experience.

As I have gotten older, I must concur. Carbon dioxide can also be a major trigger.

Worry is paying interest on a debt you don't yet owe.

There are a million ways to put it, but that doesn't make it any easier to stop doing it. Worrying is the biggest possible waste of our time--yet we all do it.
posted by mrgrimm at 9:36 PM on May 4 [1 favorite]


As a highly anxious person who has spent a lot of introspective time trying to understand the source of it, I can say that I think worry is about control. 99% of situations/problems we encounter allow us minimal control of the outcome but worrying makes us feel like we have an element of control over the situation. It's a false feeling but it salves the human need to feel 'in control'.
posted by spicynuts at 7:04 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


Obligatory
posted by ian1977 at 8:31 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]


A close friend and I used to play The Catastrophe Game. It starts with whatever it is I'm obsessively worrying about, (What if a helicopter lands on the roof?) and gets bigger from there. The game ends when the chain of imagined consequences reaches the End of the Human Race and Global Ecological Collapse and then one must sing 'And the wolves will gnaw my bones....'

Done right, the last word encourages an 'aaaroooo' kind of howl which is very satisfying.

(If you're going to try this at home, remember it works best if you can make the whole thing your fault. I don't advise howling in public unless you do it very quietly.)
posted by merelyglib at 9:22 AM on May 5 [2 favorites]


I can't tell if I'm an anxious person because I'm a nihilist or if I'm a nihilist because I'm an anxious person. And yes, I know how absurd it is to use a form of the verb "to be" in a sentence declaring nihilism.

Basically I just mean it seems apparent that the worldview of anxiety and depression — the nagging sense that one is hurtling toward a disaster incomprehensible in its magnitude — more accurately describes the human condition than does the worldview associated with non-pathological thought.

The mistake of anxiety is to correctly piece together that our condition as humans is thoroughgoingly, pervasively, everything-ruiningly fatal, but to incorrectly ascribe the direness of this condition to objects or events in the world — to that work email that didn't get sent or that you might have worded wrong, or a looming bill, or what happens if the car breaks down, or whatever — rather than to the nightmarish flimsiness of what passes for existence itself.

Good mental health, at its core, involves clearly separating the transitory illusion from solid grim reality, and then diligently choosing, moment by moment, to live in the illusion.

Or something like that.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:51 PM on May 5


Nietzsche wrote:
However, with the smallest and with the greatest happiness there is always one way in which happiness becomes happiness: through the ability to forget or, to express the matter in a more scholarly fashion, through the capacity, for as long as the happiness lasts, to sense things unhistorically. Anyone who cannot set himself down on the crest of the moment, forgetting everything from the past, who is not capable of standing on a single point, like a goddess of victory, without dizziness and fear, will never know what happiness is, and, even worse, he will never do anything to make other people happy. Imagine the most extreme example, a person who did not possess the power of forgetting at all, who would be condemned to see everywhere a coming into being. Such a person no longer believes in his own being, no longer believes in himself, sees everything in moving points flowing out of each other, and loses himself in this stream of becoming. He will, like the true pupil of Heraclitus, finally hardly dare any more to lift his finger. Forgetting belongs to all action, just as not only light but also darkness belong in the life of all organic things. A person who wanted to feel utterly and only historically would be like someone who had been forced to abstain from sleep or like the beast that is to continue its life only from rumination to constantly repeated rumination. Moreover, it is possible to live almost without remembering, indeed, to live happily, as the beast demonstrates; however, it is completely and utterly impossible to live at all without forgetting.
posted by mbrock at 5:26 AM on May 6 [3 favorites]


I was aiming for Werner Herzog, but I guess Nietzsche works too.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:48 AM on May 6


"Someone said something slightly critical of something you did -> they hate you -> you suck at your job -> your boss will be complained to -> you'll be fired -> ...

Then you snap back, and they're already on the next sentence where they're praising something else you did, and you're confused and don't accept their premise, as you're still stuck in the aftermath of your inevitable painful and lonely death. It's disorientating, and can lead to pretty bad mood swings. "
Wow, you got deep inside my head there.
I tried to explain my obsessing over the old slights (that only I heard) in this way, "Those slights hang around my psyche like bricks, stacked up high in the corner, too heavy to move - always there. But the praise is fleeting like a cloud, intangible and if I try to hang on to it, it slips through my fingers and is gone."

Sigh.

Thanks for a great post.
posted by drinkmaildave at 12:23 PM on May 6


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