I have read quite a bit lately about how to cope with one’s anxiety and stress. God Knows, I have plenty of both.
Reading about it actually helps somewhat, and I am hopeful that writing about it will prove more helpful to me as I share some things about stress and anxiety in general and ways that I have been working toward overcoming them.
I suppose that I was born a worrier. I am the oldest of three and grew up doing what I could to help out with my younger siblings. I am the breadwinner for my family and am employed in a highly stressful field in an even more stressful community.
I am hardly unique in experiencing a high level of anxiety and stress, but my own stress has increased rather than decreased this year and I have been forced to confront some of my own shortcomings of late and admit that things have not headed in the direction that I would have hoped and expected them to for Yours Truly Middle Class Guy.
My worry is like a deep-rooted weed. I did not worry about things very much while growing up, largely because I always enjoyed the benefit of my family including my very supportive parents, both sets of grandparents living within a few miles of one another about twenty minutes from our house, and aunts and uncles galore. These were actually mostly my mother’s aunts and uncles, thus my great aunts and great uncles. Her mother was one out of nine children who grew up poor and with an abusive alcoholic father in a working class Jewish neighborhood.
My worry weed began to grow during my high school years, when the pressure was turned on in sports and academics, and then a lot more during college. Having completed my undergraduate studies at the UW a quarter century ago, I can vaguely recall worrying a lot about making it through college, and worrying at least a little bit about what one does with a Communications degree. My father-in-law often asked me that question years before he officially became my father-in-law.
Coming out of college, my worries grew a little bit more. I could not land a “real job” and soon gave in to my mother’s insistence to attend graduate school. Soon after commencing my graduate studies, I was hired for a highly stressful job as an Adult Probation Officer for Crook County, Illinois; however I laugh at how low stress that job was now as a long-time economic developer.
Paying off my graduate school debt along with other payments that I really could not afford, like car payments and rent, caused me some worries in my early twenties. Looking back at that $6,000 in debt seems laughable now when many students borrow amounts like that every year or even every semester.
I could go over the many long years of stress and anxiety as a breadwinner for a family of four, but jumping ahead to the current one, my stress and anxiety was turned up several notches this past June when I learned of my unplanned and unasked for transfer to another department with a new, inexperienced and not so great boss.
I thought that I was already under a lot of stress due to financial and family situations, but little did I know that the stress knob was about to be cranked from about a four to about a seven.
I have experienced restlessness, fatigue, difficulty concentrating at work, irritability, tension in my muscles, headaches and sleep disturbance throughout the last three months. However, I have been suffering less of all of the above as the weeks pass and this is not just about why I am feeling a lot of anxiety. It is about how I am dealing with it and planning on overcoming it.
Don’t Stop Worrying About Tomorrow
Fleetwood Mac’s song urges us not to stop thinking about tomorrow. Me, I cannot stop worrying about tomorrow. Yes, yesterday’s gone. I survived yesterday, remained employed, paid my bills, and my wife and children were okay yesterday.
But you, me and Lindsey Buckingham do not know what tomorrow brings. As we have recently witnessed, you can be mowed down by a crazed lunatic while attending a concert in Las Vegas. If you live on the east coast, your home could be wiped out without warning, not necessarily tomorrow, but by this time next week it could. Heck, driving through Chiraq you could be struck down by a stray bullet at any time.
The pink slip could show up on my desk or yours. A health problem for you or a loved one could be found. Cancer could start growing in your body. There’s a lot of shit that could go wrong!
With a difficult and sometimes tenuous job, I often prefer to avoid thinking about what would happen if I lost my job. I know that things would go south fast, so to speak. I wonder how quickly my family would have to give up our middle class status despite me having tried to do everything the “right way” since I was a young boy.
When I wake up to use the bathroom in the middle of most nights due to my enlarged prostate, it is hard for me to put those worries out of my mind as I try to fall back asleep. A few weeks ago, I would not have been able to, and often told my wife and sometimes a few others that I have been up since 3:45 AM or 4:25 AM or whatever time the urge to go woke me up.
I must be doing a bit better now judging from the fact that I have been able to fall back asleep, although not right away, for the past several weeks including last night.
It Hits You Where It Hurts
I have a chronically injured ankle. It hurts me every day and has for the past four years and four months, but who’s counting?
Like kicking me in my most vulnerable spot, anxiety hits you and me where it hurts. It seeks out our weaknesses, insecurities, fears, vulnerabilities and needs.
In my case, and perhaps in yours, my weaknesses often revolve around my work life and the pressure of supporting a middle class suburban family that always costs a bit more than what I can make.
My work situation has greatly exacerbated my anxieties over the past few months, as I strive to adjust to working for a boss who understands little to nothing about the nuances of what I do and was hired as an intern eight short years ago when I was already a highly experienced certified professional in the field of economic development.
A family-related situation increased my stress and anxiety to an even greater extent this past July, when it peaked. Since then, I have been trying my best to overcome it through blogging, my recent realization that I can add value to others and income for my family by doing what I enjoy the most and am best at: writing this.
Whatever vulnerabilities and weaknesses that my anxiety is going after, I am going to play some defense and then throw some counter punches of my own.
When anxiety takes hold, things can look bleak and, in my case, it is hard to turn off my mind with the “what if?” scenarios. Sometimes I toss and turn most of the night grappling with the “what ifs.”
When anxiety begins to take hold, it expects us to back away or give into it. It does not expect a counterpunch. If we decide to step forward and go toe-to-toe and give back as much as we receive, we can courageously take on whatever it is that is causing us the anxiety directly. No pussy-footing around with it, no avoidance or denial of it. No Sir. It is time for us to take it on headfirst, not only because that is what the anxiety gurus tell us to do, but because it works.
Since anxiety thrives on our resistance to insecurity and discomfort, our job is to act in the opposite manner. Changing our strategies and point of views while accepting that we feel challenged and uncomfortable is possible.
I have been attempting to embrace this concept, myself, so I am not writing this as someone who has already successfully overcome my anxieties, but someone who is moving the ball closer to the goal line of reducing them. I do not harbor the notion that I will ever be completely free of worries and anxiety, but I do want to have a greater ability to enjoy my life, enjoy my family and become more successful this coming year and in following years without suffering from anxiety at some point most days.
It is not so different from grit, which is to say that if you become single-minded and determined to succeed and prevail, you can overcome your anxiety bit by bit like I have been doing.
It would be nice to just be able to write “Have Less Anxiety” or “Reduce My Anxiety” as a New Year’s resolution. But I am a middle aged Middle Class Guy and have spent nearly forty-seven years feeding and reinforcing my present mind-set. True, my mindset has slowly begun to change as a result of my avid reading of nearly every financial and otherwise self-help book that I could get my hands on over the past two years.
I do not expect to instantly change my mindset or yours just by writing it, but by constantly reinforcing it by what I read, think and write about. If we can set clear goals and Resolutions this coming New Year, I believe that together we can become better versions of ourselves.
I know that there is a better, less anxious, grittier person inside of me who can create more and consume less. I could, would, should and will increase my confidence and reduce my anxieties.
I am embracing several strategies that have helped lead me down the path of breaking the cycle of my anxiety, and the following are a dozen elements of it. I cannot say that these are all elements of it because coping with my worries is a constantly shifting thing and differs from one day to the next depending on what is going on in my workplace, in my home life and with my family’s finances. But there are some general commonalities that have helped. Here goes:
I Try To Leave Work at Work
Honestly, I am not so good at this. I often think and talk about work-related matters when I am at home. Some nights, I think about things that I should have done or how I should do something or about something that I forgot to do.
I think about things that I should not have said at meetings and also come up with brilliant things that I should have said. I am doing all of the above more now than I have in the past several years, since the pressure cooker has been turned on at work. Now that I am basically being measured by how many businesses I bring into the town, it leaves less time for me to build the foundation that I have been cultivating with many prospects and forces me to go straight for the throat.
Even now it causes me anxiety just writing about it. What I need to do is to learn to leave work at work. Especially when I drive away from the Village Hall on a Friday afternoon.
My previous boss, who I greatly admire and has been through just about everything development-related, used to tell me that by the time he was a block away from Village Hall every day, he could not even remember where it is that he works.
My new boss lives, breathes, thinks and texts work 24/7/365. I want to do the opposite and leave it at my place of work and no further. No need for my family to hear about every stressful thing that I am involved in. Telling my wife about some of the most stressful things usually helps me feel better a bit when I get some sympathy, but it still does not change what it is that I need to do or how my colleagues, bosses and the businesses, themselves, feel about my performance.
I Try To Sleep More
Inevitably, my stress and anxiety builds up even more when I am not sleeping well. Because of our worries, we do not sleep as well and, in turn, we are less able to cope with things and get what we need to do done when we are not well-rested.
If you have ever experienced a few days in a row with little to no sleep, you know that it is hard to function at your best, think clearly and achieve peak performance in anything. During my stressful July and somewhat through August, I had some sleepless nights followed by nights with only two or three hours of sleep.
Try testifying in a public hearing that is being recorded with developers and audience members listening after sleeping only three hours in two nights. You would not want a truck driver on the road, an airline pilot in the air or a surgeon performing under those circumstances. Not that my job is quite that concentration-intensive, but I know that I was feeling the strain of being even more anxious than usual while less rested than ever.
Funny thing is, after a six or seven hour sleep night, I came into work the next day feeling like a new man and proved more adept at dealing with stressful situations that came my way.
I Read A Lot
As they say, reading takes me away for the hours that I do it, whether it be for an hour before going to sleep, during my lunch break or over the weekend or on holiday.
Last week, I read Daniel Silva’s latest book, The House of Spies. As I told my wife before going to bed one night, “I’ll see you later, I’m going to the Cote de Azur for a meeting to recruit the wife of the biggest drug lord in France.” While reading it for a few hours that night, I really did find myself in countries where I have never been and in situations far stressful than my own.
Currently, I am reading Jonathan Kellerman’s latest, Heartbreak Hotel. Even though this book and the last one that I read comprise a definite break from the self-help books that I have favored since the beginning of last year, it calms me greatly while reading it and I can always return to reading things that help me.
Regarding those books in the genre that I have coined “Change Your Way of Thinking/Improve Your Life/Become Wealthy,” they have helped me change my way of thinking and, in one important instance, have changed my behavior.
My wife and I went out on a very rare, perhaps once per year, “double date” with a couple that we are friends with. The husband is a certified financial planner, so we mostly talk finances. When I told him that I always Pay Ourselves First with every paycheck after reading Start Late, Finish Rich by David Bach last year, he commended me on changing my behavior rather than just reading and thinking about it.
That made me feel pretty good, and I am looking forward to Paying Myself First next week a few days before payday.
I Reframe My Thoughts
Reframing my thoughts is the hardest challenge of all. If you have been brought up as a Middle Class Guy like I have, it is nearly impossible to change the way that we think of things like money, work, time, energy, consumption, expression, obligations and many other things.
Although my expenses are considerable for a family with our income, I have made some strides toward thinking of our money as a source of energy that sustains what we need and where we want to be. True, it is not required that our daughter go on two Disney World trips in three months or that my wife and son go along for the first one, but it sure is nice. It is not required that we foot the entire $100,000-plus price tag on our son’s undergraduate education at a private college, but it sure is nice. It is not required that our daughter take private music lessons every week on top of everything else that she does, just as our son did for quite a few years, but it sure is nice.
I could stress out over the eleven or twelve grand that will have left our checking account last month and will again this month in October of 2017. But I am not. I am reframing my thoughts to be grateful that I have the ability to pay for all of these, and I am thinking more about earning additional income instead of fretting over the constant outflow of our funds.
I walk a one-and-a-half mile loop around the downtown where I work about half the time. I would like to say most days, but I have many days where I travel somewhere for lunch meetings and many days when I just do not feel like it.
I take my lunch hour within minutes of 12:30 most days and, much of the time, the pressure has mounted throughout the morning. My boss looks at me like I am nuts many days when I leave for lunch and, reading his young, tactless mind, I can read the thoughts of “How can you go to lunch now when we have so many pressing issues to attend to?!”
“Well,” I think to myself. “If those issues have to wait for an hour, they will still be there and I will have some renewed mental focus when I return.”
I walk past him as he texts somebody from his office and head out for my walk.
Lo and behold, I feel much better when I return. Many times, I have come to a reasonable strategy on how to handle something that seemed too difficult to deal with before lunch, and many days, I leave my work behind me and think of the bigger picture when I walk.
My 1.5-mile loop takes roughly half of my lunch hour, and I normally spend the second half reading.
I get home around 5:00 PM most days and typically take my dog for a long walk after dinner. We say to some neighbors, I let her sniff around a bit, I pick up her poo, and she pees about twenty-five times. Sometimes my wife or one of our children accompanies us, but that is perhaps only one out of ten times, so it is almost always just my sweet baby and me.
Like at work, I feel better about myself and life, in general, when we go on a nice leisurely stroll.
No matter how much stress and anxiety I am experiencing, going for a nice walk and contemplating nature, the state of affairs and life, in general, helps me cope better with it.
I Recognize My Anxiety
This seems simple, but are you always able to recognize when you are feeling especially anxious?
For years, I would go from one thing to another, drop what I am doing for some seemingly urgent assignment, and then drop that one when something more urgent comes up. Like an emergency room physician or detective responding to a murder scene, but for local government issues. Believe me, they never end. Ever!
So when things start piling up, when I get an urgent email from the boss at the same time that my phone is ringing and someone drops in unannounced to take an hour of my time when I have a time-sensitive project due, I take a step back.
In those situations, that seem to happen at some point daily, I take a deep breath, recognize that I am feeling anxious, and employ some of these techniques to deal with them.
Learning to prioritize is key. When the boss needs something, or the Mayor, the guy who dropped in unannounced can wait for a bit. I can let the phone call go to voicemail if need be.
When it gets too overwhelming, I get up out of my chair and go for a walk, even if it is just around Village Hall. Maybe I will go to the bathroom, maybe I will stop by the break room. Maybe I will go outside for some fresh air for a minute.
The important point in all of this is that I am now able to recognize when my anxiety is peaking and then take a quick step back for a minute or two. Before I was able to recognize this, I would deal with all three things at once and sometimes bungle the handling of them.
I have become a believer in making your own luck, working diligently toward success and using grit and creativity to achieve your goals.
That does not stop me from dreaming of greater success or how I would like to be or how I would like our family’s life to be when I am going to sleep at night.
Yes, I dream of you purchasing this eBook, thus transferring some much-needed funds into my account. I dream of selling thousands of copies, of eventually creating a newsletter and/or podcast that people would actually benefit from and perhaps compensate me for. I dream of getting a bigger, better and more important job. I dream of my investment in NUGT shooting up in value rather than hemorrhagging my money.
Sometimes I even dream of all of it – getting a better and higher paying job, selling a thousand copies of eBooks per month and watching my triple-leveraged gold miner ETF shoot through the roof.
Those nights, I fall asleep with less anxiety than usual.
Sometimes I Zone Out
Self-medicate BAD. Self-improve GOOD.
Although the gurus all tell you about the evils of easing your anxiety with pills and alcohol, sometimes that is all that will work.
I have a lot of night meetings in which I testify on controversial items, such as a developer wanting to build a commercial project on a commercially-zoned lot that happens to be near people’s homes.
Never mind that the property has been zoned for commercial development since before the resident moved in, but they do not want “that kind of project” so near their homes. It does not matter if “that kind of project” is a restaurant, a car wash, a banquet facility, an office complex or a gas station, they do not want it near them.
After working a full and stressful day and then testifying at a public meeting, like I will be doing this coming Monday night, it is hard to come down. On those nights, I plan on popping a pill, which in my case is not a prescription narcotic but a Tylenol PM. It used to be Advil PM pills until they caused me stomach problems that led to my very shitty day a year ago.
A beer or two or a glass of wine or the occasional mixed drink also does wonders for me relaxing a bit and falling asleep at night. I am not talking heavy-duty drinking, but two maximum.
On those rare occasions where I enjoy a beer or glass of wine with dinner, and then take a Tylenol PM, those are the nights when I really lose track of my anxiety and sleep like a baby for a few hours until my prostate wakes me up.
It is not necessarily self-improvement advice, but it is the truth.
I Am Learning to Accept Some Failure
To get where we want to go, we are going to encounter some failures. In my place of work, and in my life, I have had a low to zero tolerance for failure. Thus, I have not tried anything “big,” instead settling for mediocre to good, but never really swinging for the fences.
In my preliminary list of New Years resolutions, I had written the goal of failing at something, but that is a bitter pill to swallow. After all, if I have a goal of publishing three eBooks, including the one that you are reading this in, is that an accomplishment in itself, or is it a failure if I only sell a dozen copies including one to my mom?
I have failed on a few occasions, including not getting the job that I truly wanted and my former best friend in the field of economic development got instead. I succeeded in becoming a licensed real estate appraiser many years ago, but failed after I only got a few assignments due to my not readily agreeing to appraise it for whatever the selling price was. Some may view that as a success due to my morals, but making a lot more money prior to the Recession would have been a greater success. Those homes would have been underwater with or without my appraisal.
I cannot say that I failed at being promoted to the job that my young boss now has because I was never on track to be an administrator. Long ago I made the choice to become an economic developer, and I am now stuck with that for better or worse.
I am not sure what I would fail at, but I suppose failing to sell more than a handful of copies of my eBooks would qualify.
I Take Heart from Those More Successful Than Me
I graduated from a well-known high school in the Chicago area back in the late eighties. Many of the graduates from my high school, and even more from the UW in 1992 have gone on to achieve great success.
Many of my former high school classmates have become multimillionaires, and one of them closer to a billionaire.
Many times when I compare myself to them, I wonder where I went wrong. Some of these were not even the brightest students around, but they sure did turn out to parlay their skills into long-term success.
Most of the multimillionaires have gone into high tech, which I suppose is a given. One was not even in honors math or science courses, but has gone on to found a company that sells advertisements based on people’s location and purchasing history, the new big thing. Another was an early pioneer of artificial intelligence who sold his company to the giant search engine in the sky for a freakin’ hundred million smackers! Several are successful doctors and lawyers.
One of my closest friends growing up has become a high-tech millionaire and lives in an upscale suburb of Boston, supporting his wife and three children in a decidedly upper class lifestyle.
When I am faced with speaking publicly at a meeting where I know I am going to take some heat, it actually helps me to think of those fellow graduates who have become more successful than me. I think to myself, “If Joe Schmo is the CEO of a company and has to report quarterly to a corporate board or speak on a conference call to shareholders, I can certainly handle speaking at my town’s Economic Development Committee.”
I may be small potatoes compared to my more successful fellow graduates, but I can take heart knowing that if they can take the heat, so can I.
I Take Heart From Those Less Successful Than Me
Sometimes I forget that there are many people who would gladly switch with me and become an economic development professional with a (low) six figure salary, health benefits, vacation and sick days, a spacious office, a loving wife, two great children, a fantastic dog, an okay house on a one-third-acre lot and a few bucks in the bank.
One of my best friends recently retired at the age of seventy. I know, a lot of mid-forties guys have friends their own age, but one of my better friends who I still get together with about once per month is retired. He is one of the nicest and wisest people that I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and is a pastor of Mexican descent who grew up in an adoptive family in New Mexico.
My wise friend has listened to me grouse about my worries at work and at home, and has always dispensed advice. Going out to lunch with him is better for my mental health than any $500 per hour counselor or psychiatrist would be.
A few meetings ago, he told me that many people would kill for what I have: a solid local government job making over a hundred grand with twenty-four years into a defined benefit pension plan, an adoring wife and children, a few bucks in the bank, and some occasional vacations.
Those that he ministers to at his church often have far less than you and I do, and some of them toil in positions like landscapers, dishwashers, retail clerks, taxi drivers, house cleaners and such. My friend reminded me that many of them do not have any money in the bank or even use banks, let alone a pension in their future.
When I get down on myself and my lot in life, it helps to remind myself that there are millions of people less fortunate than we are.
Last but not least, I strongly believe in the quality of perseverance. Both of our children have faced numerous challenges, many of which are typical for kids growing up in today’s age when everything that someone says or does is instantly shared with many others.
It may sound corny, but I remind them that our family perseveres. Maybe not to the extent that my grandfathers did, but we remain steadfast in our efforts to overcome difficulties in our efforts to do something well.
Whether it was working my way through graduate school while maintaining full-time employment or working my ass off during the Great Recession to keep our community developing and, thus, retaining my job, I believe in the value of perseverance. It is not something that I am learning to embrace; it is something that I have believed strongly in since my father told me about his own philosophy many years ago.
Perseverance is something that I practice as well as preach.
Born a Worrier
Timeanddate.com just showed me that I have been alive for over 17,000 days, and sometimes it feels as if I have worried a lot for over 10,000 of those days. Maybe close to a million times I have worried.
I am a chronic worrier. I worry about my children all the time, I worry about my wife’s well being and about me trying to be a better husband, I worry about my widowed mother and the challenges that my brother is facing. I worry about a good many of my tasks and assignments at work.
I worry about my day when I wake up, and I worry about the next day when I am going to sleep. Worry worry worry. I guess that I am officially a worry wart.
Worrying typically involves persistent thoughts about a future possibility or event—whether your presentation will go over well with your boss next week, or what to wear to a party in which you know you’ll be seeing people who you would rather not see
Since the past is behind us forever, I will now worry about the future. Since everything from here on out after I write and then you read this is in the future, I worry that I will not be able to continue supporting my family in the Middle Class Guy style that we have become accustomed to. I worry about my two children in the present and the future as everything seems to be on its way to be completely automated or outsourced. I worry that my wife and I will be forced to subsist on Ramen Noodles after I toil in the public sector for thirty-plus years. I worry about the future of the country.
I do not harbor any illusions that I will ever be truly worry free, but it sure would be nice not to worry about things every day of this coming year and the years after that.
If you do not worry about things like I do, kudos to you and my hearty congratulations. If you do worry about things as much as I do, or even more, let us remember the twelve things that I mentioned on how to better handle our anxiety and whatever other way works best for you.
This may be my longest post on the topic of worry and anxiety, but it most certainly will not be the last.