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  • Writer's pictureJessica McQuistin

A Self-Awareness Exercise: Identifying Chicken-or-Egg Dilemmas in Daily Life

Photo by Muhammad Syafi Al - adam on Unsplash

As someone who lives with anxiety, I am often trying to identify my anxiety triggers so that I can develop coping strategies. Sometimes this works. For example, if driving to work causes anxiety - Will I make it on time? I wonder what challenges I'll face at work today...Will I be able to cope? Did I shut the garage door? I have to go pee...Should I stop to go pee or will that make me late? I can't be late!!! - I can come up with ways of reducing my anxiety during morning drives. I can leave for work early so that I'm unlikely to be late, learn anxiety-reducing breathing techniques for in the car, listen to calming music, or put on a podcast to distract myself from the worries that could bubble up during the drive.

Other times, I can't distinguish my anxiety triggers from my anxiety symptoms, leading to chicken-or-egg situations where I just can't tell what came first.

The first one I noticed was that feeling hot can be a symptom of my anxiety AND feeling hot can make me feel anxious. It's like my brain has learned the formula:

Anxiety = feeling hot; therefore, if I'm hot, I must be anxious.

Unfortunately, thinking that I'm anxious also makes me anxious...But am I anxious because I think I'm anxious or do I think I'm anxious because I actually am anxious?...You get the point! When it comes to the anxious/hot situation, luckily there's a simple solution: Regardless of what triggered what, when I cool my body down, or avoid over-heating in the first place, I feel better physically and mentally. Ahhh.

After this first discovery of the anxious/hot causality dilemma, I started making a list of chicken-or-egg conundrums.

My Chicken-or-Egg List

Feeling hot - Feeling anxious or flustered

Feeling stressed or irritable - Having a headache

Yelling or raising my voice - Feeling angry

Having cold fingers - Being nervous or tense

Secrecy - Shame

Avoidance or procrastination - Anxiety

While there are similarities, these all play out slightly differently. For instance, I've learned that sometimes my first clue that I have a headache is my mood. I may stop and check in with myself, wondering "Why am I so irritable?" and only then realize that I have a headache brewing just below the surface and the pain is making me irritable...Or is it? Perhaps the headache was brought on by stress and tension. Hard to tell, but once it starts, the two certainly fuel each other in a negative spiral. Luckily, once I notice that I have a headache, I can decide what to do to relieve it and the accompanying irritability.

I was happy to discover the connection between yelling - or even just raising my voice - and feeling angry. Sure, there are times, like every imperfect parent/spouse/human, when I yell out of anger or frustration but there are also times that I may need to raise my voice to get my kids' attention, say if they've run too far ahead to hear me at a regular speaking volume. I may not be angry at all, but my body doesn't seem to know the difference. Noticing this connection between raising my voice and feeling anger has helped me to be able to calm down and remind myself in some situations, "I'm not actually angry, my body is just reacting this way because I raised my voice." I can also try my best not to yell (when possible) if I don't want to experience those unpleasant anger-like sensations.

Cold fingers bring back memories of desperately trying to warm my hands up while waiting for my turn at piano recitals. Being nervous made my hands cold, which was worrisome, considering I needed my fingers to move nimbly across the keys! Now, when my hands are cold, I sometimes mistakenly attribute this to nerves. Luckily, a warm sweater is all it takes to solve this one. My husband must be observant because he suggested turning up the heat in the house before a virtual interview I had the other day. It definitely helped feeling nice and warm!

As Brene Brown says,

"If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment."

I think it's easy to understand how shame can thrive when coupled with secrecy and how bringing things out into the open helps to dissolve shame. On the flip side, I've noticed that keeping something to myself can sometimes make me feel as if I'm keeping a shameful secret, even if I'm not actually ashamed of the "secret". For example, lately I've been running into acquaintances that I haven't talked to much over the past few years and several times, it's come up that I quit my job - two years ago! Upon realizing that they didn't know this, I've felt uneasy, as if I was keeping it a shameful secret all this time, when in fact, I just never had an opportunity to tell them. (Pandemic life, right?)

The connection between procrastination and anxiety is pretty well-known and makes a lot of sense. By avoiding a stressful task, we get to avoid the immediate anxiety that comes with tackling it. But in the long run, the longer we avoid the task, the more insurmountable it can seem. And if anyone can make mountains out of molehills, its me! But is the answer to this anxiety/procrastination problem to address every anxiety-provoking task immediately, so as not to exacerbate the anxiety? While I've often done this, I'm not so sure anymore...Take my closet for example. I have been meaning to declutter my bedroom closet - and the rest of my house, for that matter - for quite some time. Yet, I've had no real reason to get this done. Occasionally, thinking about it has brought on feelings of overwhelm or anxiety, such as "I really should deal with my closet!" but deep down I'm just not motivated to do it. There are countless other things I'd rather spend my time and energy on and prioritizing my time is something I value much more than a clean closet! So am I anxious about the closet because I'm avoiding it, or the other way around? The jury's out. Either way, I don't anticipate getting around to it anytime soon. And that's perfectly fine.

Did my chicken-or-egg list resonate with you? I'd love to hear if you can think of any examples from your own life, or if you've made any lists to describe different kinds of dilemmas or paradoxes!

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