On anxiety and makin things

This is about me. But it will eventually be all about you, too. Bear with me.

I have anxiety, which is for me an illness that comes in two forms.

Most of the time, it’s like… have you ever been out for the day and had the disquieting realisation that you left the back door unlocked? The thought nags at you while you eat your ravioli, while you spread out your beach towel, while you reverse-park the car:

dammitthedoordammitthedoorwhatifsomeonebreaksindammitthedoor

But you can still do all of those things. You might leave a bit earlier because you’re worried about the door, and you might find you’re more tired that night than you expected to be (“I’m a nervous wreck!” you exclaim to your glass of red wine). But you still function, still laugh at jokes, still Get Shit Done. That is my anxiety most of the time.

Then, sometimes my anxiety spikes. This is exactly like the feeling you have when you lean back on your chair and for one terrible second it feels like it’s going to tip over and your whole body goes into FLAIL WILDLY FLAIL ALL LIMBS MAYDAY MAYDAY mode.

Except that feeling can last for hours. Hours of heart racing chest tight skin too present hypervigilance with a side of please-hold-me-tight-agh-when-will-this-be-over.

The only two positive things I can say about it is this:

1. It’s an incredible workout.
2. You will sleep like the dead that night.

Otherwise, it’s all bad. Even worse than you’re thinking.

That’s what my anxiety is like: low-level most ev’ry day, plus the occasional spike.

Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
No, not that Spike. More’s the pity.

Now, for a long time the anxiety didn’t get – much – in the way of me still making things. It was like a permanent case of the mental sniffles: a little distracting, but not disabling. I could still write, still do Cash and Joy work, still crotchet a blankie for my new niece, all of that. A bit of my brain kept worrying about everything and nothing while I did it, but I could still work past it.

And then… I couldn’t.

The anxiety was pretty much the same (except for the extra level of why-am-I-getting-nothing-done ruminations), but my productivity levels plummeted. Flatlined. Died on the tarmac.

I’ve spent a lot of the last (completely unproductive) months trying to figure out why. What changed to convert me from makerer-with-a-managed-mental-illness to couch-monkey-with-a-mental-illness.

I think I’ve figured it out, and this is the point where you come in. Also, graphs.

Whee, graphs!

This is a Catherine-ised version of a concept my psychologist shared with me.

arousal vs productivityMakes sense? When you have very little stimulation, your brain doesn’t work very well. When you have too much stimulation, your brain doesn’t work very well.

Now for me, all my problems are in the excess department. (Everyone who knows me is nodding their head sagely at this point.) The spike looks like this:

anxiety spikeAnd the low-level looks more like this:

anxiety pile-onDo you see the most interestingest part? The anxiety itself is not the thing that pushes me out of productive and into panicked.

IT’S ALL THE REST OF THE BULLSHIT THAT DOES IT.

Some of these are related to the anxiety, true. (Money woes are a not-unexpected consequence of long-term illness.) Some of them are, well, parts of being Catherine. (I have the completely useless and problematic “talent” of being the person who can hear a tap dripping from the other end of the house, and who can’t ignore the noise once they hear it.)

But included in this list are things like:

  • that phone call I need to make that will only take five minutes
  • cleaning off the coffee table
  • refusing to shave my underarms
  • still being self-conscious about my unshaven underarms
  • worrying about past events (‘cos that’s a useful activity!)
  • whether The Dude will put the computer case back on soon
  • will anyone like this article?
  • perhaps I have forgotten how to do this
  • baking soda to clean out stinky gumboots
  • haven’t had breakfast yet
  • when will the internet get fixed?
  • book car in for servicing
  • etc
  • etc
  • etc

So the difference between the functional and non-functional anxiety levels is, quite simply, whether I have been diligent in dealing with my other crap.

Right now one of the larger blocks is my illness. At other times the larger blocks have been creative projects.

And they are identical.

In fact, creative projects can be worse, since they often carry bigger loads of brain-space than my medicated anxiety does. But I’ve done both, and the process is the same.

If you aren’t ruthlessly goddamn diligent about reducing, removing, and minimising other stimuli, it’s so so so freaking easy to find yourself in the territory of AGHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Once I had this realisation, I knew what I had to do.

I got out my machete, and went berserker on my stimuli.

Getting rid of every ditchable thing on that list became my first priority. I made the phone calls, cleaned out the fridge, took care of the thousand tiny items on my mental list. I worked on issues like worrying about what people will say about my unshaven underarms. In five minute increments, I chipped away at the foundations of my over-arousal.

And slowly, gradually, I found myself back in Functional Land.

Talking to people again.

Enjoying things again.

And O thanks to the gods above and below, making things again.

The anxiety levels reduced a tiny bit due to lack of ammunition, but they haven’t gone away. It doesn’t matter.

I AM BACK.

*ska band flourish*

Good news, everyone!

This is where we both get to be smarter!

We will always have life-related blocks on that arousal graph. They might be an illness, or a sick grandmother, or moving house, or a new baby. This stuff is vital.

We will always, we creative darlings, have blocks we want to add: a new skirt pattern or a painting or an article or a spice rack. This stuff is creative.

And fortunately(ish) we have blocks that are neither vital nor creative. And this is the bullshit we jettison over the side with a maniacal laugh. This is where we get the reputation for being an art-creative weirdo.

Because the more of the non-vital, non-creative crap we abandon, the more room we leave to be creative and still sane.

This is SO FREAKING IMPORTANT I want to tattoo it on us both.

This is the one simple shift that changed EVERYTHING for me.

If your creative work feels like it’s breaking you, take some time to write out a long-ass list of Fixable Shit.

AND THEN FIX IT AND FEEL INSTANTLY BETTER.

It is seriously that simple.

Was it worth having five fucking months of complete torpor to gain this realisation? I don’t know yet. Perhaps averaged out over all of you that read this AND DO IT YESSSS it will have been a more-than-worthwhile sacrifice.

I goddamn hope so. I really want this broken to have meant something.

Tell me your thoughts below, dearest.

[EDIT: Clearly I have written a useful thing here. From the first THIS IS THE THING I NEEDED RIGHT NOW OMG THANK YOU response, here is something created by the adorable Leena:

YESSSSSGo forth with love, Leena and everyone else.]

  • Kate Jones

    YES YES YES THIS YES

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      *hugs and vigorous nodding*

  • evanhadkins

    Hi Catherine, very glad to hear you figured out how to handle the anxiety. I am very thankful I don’t have a problem with anxiety.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Yup, it is made of sucks when it gets too high. It’s pretty useful when managed well, though, which is a different story for another day.

  • http://www.colouryourlife.net/ Kerryn Hewson

    Argh. I hate, hate, hate that background hum of anxiety for no good damn reason that itches across my shoulder blades. I’ve also found that an intense bout of fixing the fixable things helps.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      *high five*

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  • Jennifer Coots

    YES YES YES!!! Just starting 2 days ago I’ve been decluttering my house (thanks to some little feng shui book I happened upon)…. like serious ‘I’m going to throw it away and not think another thing about it’ decluttering…..and now even thinking how to incorporate those ‘ditching the bullshit’ ideals into my business as well as my finances. I am stoked to get started. This came as big support to what I’m planning to do and I thank you! I went through that anxiety ‘why the hell am I doing this’ phase not long ago too, but thankfully the light on the other side is so much brighter and less cluttered. :) Now if I can get my mind to focus on 1 thing instead of 5, that might make me unstoppable….

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Ooh, I didn’t get to the awesomeness of improving your physical space, but you’re dead on the money. It MATTERS.

  • Virginia

    The bit about not being able to ignore the dripping tap made me laugh out loud in “oh boy can I relate to that!” solidarity. I’m like that with the TV volume when I go to bed and my partner stays up. Or with people talking in the street when I’m trying to sleep…

    I was wondering where you’d gone and I’m glad you’re back! Sorry about the prolonged anxiety spike, but what price epiphanies, sometimes, eh? I don’t think my anxiety has had me in its grip for quite that long, but I too have the daily underlying fret-fest going on, so I can more than empathise.

    I will attempt your suggestion of lightening the load of the “to do” list to make way for a more creative space.

    Thanks so much for the email in my inbox. I LOVE your writing style and your quirky, unique positivity.

    All the best to you!

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Thank you very kindly, my lovely.

  • http://www.webshop-academy.nl Gwendoline Teske

    Yess! You’re back!! Love your writing style and you’re so very right: ‘just’ do&declutter my stuff and start with my -from here to the moon-to do list will fix a lot for me. Or perhaps just burn the list. Ah, the peace…. Happy that you feel better again, must have been awful and beyond.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      1. Burn the list.
      2. In a week, make a new list.
      3. Anything that was lost between the two deserves to be lost.

  • Chrystal

    You’re the best! Great to have you feeling better. It is relevant – to me at least. I ruminate on the past and dwell on the stack and it can be immobilizing. Like you it builds until the discomfort of doing it all is less than the discomfort of, not. Wish I could bring you a big cup of tea and give you a hug.
    I just looked you up because I saw a conference on your side of the world that I was sure you’d be in and now I understand why it might not be on your radar – and that’s fine! Looking forward to hearing more from your clever mind – when you’re ready. :)

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      I miss doing All The Things, I really do. But at least the things I am doing I am doing pretty well.

      *hugs*

  • Jennifer Geib

    OH so true, all of it. Just the kick in the pants I need to get back on track – I think I learn this lesson, things go (more) smoothly, then one day I’m right back in anxiety AHHHH-ville and I can’t figure out why. So much useless stuff hanging in my mind (and my house) – just need to do it/find a home for it or chuck it.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Beautifully said! I am also finding in the months since I wrote this article that I need to be diligent in repeating the declutter at intervals. Entropy must be fought!

  • Angi Yates

    Thankyou soo much for making this public !!!
    Prioritisation is key ,
    Minimalise is more ,
    Creative weirdos Rock and Roll

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      *air guitar*

  • Beth

    THANK YOU! I have been tremendously anxious myself lately – it has been much more paralyzing than I could have ever imagined. My stimulation level is soaring because of all good things – but challenging things, for sure. The success of my craft business last year allowed me to take on my goal of rescuing 2 horses and left me eager to take the business farther. Now I have commitments beyond what I am comfortable with, new skills to learn / struggle with before feeling confident about and, well, 2 newly rescued horses to figure out. As the spring shows approach I am panicked about lower than planned inventory and am starting to feel like a fake (which I know I am not, but I am all thumbs lately!). Thank you for the commraderie I felt reading your article. It’s already helpful in getting me some clarity on moving forward instead of the tea-making, hand-wringing, fuzzy brain managing that has stopped me dead in my tracks the past month.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      RIGHT. It’s so super weird to me that the good things (horsies! success! growth!) can have the same stressor impact as straight-up bad things. But it’s kinda worse, only because we feel super shitty about it, like HOW DARE WE feel less than totally blissed-out about all the good things?

      Which is why it felt to liberating to accept that my stress levels really don’t differentiate between the cause of the stress and the impact it has. Stress is stress, neither good not intrinsically bad, just in need of management.

  • Rene Walkin

    So spot on! and there I was thinking it’s just me!

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      It is never, ever, ever just you. I pinky-swear.

  • Norma Bicknell

    I love it “Jettison All the Bullshit”. I not only get caught up in my own anxiety building bullshit shit but in others as well. Like I need more…DUH! Thank you for sharing your experience and Leonie Dawson for posting it in her newsletter. Love the simple, functional, OMG I get it for the first time, graphs.

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Thank you, sweetness! Please report in once you have done some jettison-ing. :)

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  • nurturedmama

    Thank you for this! I’ve been dealing with anxiety this winter and either I’ve never had it before or I didn’t recognize it for what it was before. I hit on the process of dealing with the noise accidentally and hand’t yet articulated why it felt like it was working. At least it was until I got to “schedule with the dentist” and “do taxes” which are both anxiety-producing in themselves! I’m also finding that getting rid of actually stuff – clutter, unfinished projects, papers left laying around – helps me settle, too. I’m so glad to hear it isn’t just me struggling with what becomes debilitating background noise!

    • http://www.CashAndJoy.com Catherine Caine

      Oh no, this falls under the category of “universally applicable wisdom”. Check the podcast episode going live tomorrow where Amanda and I talk about that in depth and hilarity.

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  • Rachel Elizabeth Penfold

    The last five weeks have been hell with my anxiety and depression… and I think you just gave me the key to fix it. You fucking legend :)