We are back to the normal episodes. I have three questions answered for you in this one. Thank you for your patience with the short episodes over the past few weeks. That was a big help to me to have less work to do while I finished up the course.
Speaking of which, Kick Anxiety’s Ass is now available. In fact, by the next episode, you will no longer be able to sign up. Don’t wait!
I’m a 22 year old female who’s struggled with anxiety and have dealt with bouts of depression. I began having a lot of anxiety and would experience multiple breakdowns with the thought of death and dying, even though it is a fact of life. These thoughts come to me at random times and especially as I lay down to go to sleep. It got so bad that watching the series finale of Lost (hope you know the reference) caused me to have nearly an hour long breakdown with my boyfriend trying to calm me down the entire time. Also just to give a little bit of context, I’m not a super religious person and don’t attend church regularly.
I know that if I was a more religious person this probably wouldn’t be such an issue, but I don’t know if finding a religion for that reason would sit right with me. Curious to know more about the psychology aspect about this.
This is something that is actually super common, so don’t feel weird. I did a Youtube live stream recently for people to ask me anxiety questions and when someone asked about death anxiety a bunch of people chimed in to say “OMG me too!” If you search for death anxiety online you will see a lot of explanations and articles talking about the fact that it’s real and prevalent, but not a lot of answers.
Here are a few tips: Focus on training mindfulness. Mindfulness is the skill where you can be focused on the present moment and allow your thoughts to pass through your mind without dwelling on them. The typical reaction for you is probably to try to push away thoughts about death or dying. But the harder you push, the bigger they tend to get, right? With mindfulness, you practice noticing your thoughts and distractions and being less judgmental of them. They are not good thoughts or bad thoughts. They are just thoughts like all of our other thoughts. Instead of pushing them away, notice them and recognize that they are there, but then practice shifting your attention back to the present moment and the task at hand. There’s a super simple breathing exercise that can help you build mindfulness at http://duffthepsych.com/mindfulbreathing. It doesn’t necessarily only have to be with a breathing exercise. You can do anything to practice mindfulness. You just pick a simple task and try to become totally engrossed in it. When you have a distracting thought, you give it a moment of recognition, see what it is, and then focus your attention back on what you were doing. With time, that shift in attention happens faster and faster until the point where that intruding thought doesn’t derail you anymore and you don’t freak out about having it. It’s just there in the background and that’s okay.
It may also be helpful to try to shift your mindset about the stress you are feeling. The feelings that happen in your body with stress and anxiety can be very similar to those felt by excitement or anticipation of something. Perhaps you could try interpreting your sensations as the realization that we all have limited time on this earth and you are exceptionally motivated to make good use of it before it’s too late. Remember that no matter how much you dwell upon or think about your death, that does not make it any more likely to happen. You aren’t going to will it into existence unless you intentionally try to kill yourself. There’s nothing dangerous about being scared of dying. Maybe you can use the stress as a motivator to achieve and make a difference while you are here.
The normal coping strategies in terms of breath training, cognitive strategies etc. You can find a lot of info about that in the free content on my website or in the online course. These coping skills will help you to turn the dial back a little bit on the intense reactions that you have, which will allow you to rely a little more on your rational mind and continue moving forward with your life rather than letting it derail you. The best antidote is to keep moving and focus on the here and now. Even if you are dreading the abyss of death, ask yourself what you would be doing if you did not have this fear and then go through the motions. Eventually the feeling will pass and you can continue doing whatever it is that you would like to be doing.
As to the question about whether religion would solve this. Not necessarily. There are some people who derive a great sense of peace from their belief in an afterlife etc. but even then, there is a lot of guilt and baggage that can come from religion. I’ve certainly seen religious people who are very very scared of death as well. So it doesn’t make someone immune. Overall, I want to say that you’re not weird. This is more common than you’d think. Follow my tips and if they are not sufficient to stop this from dominating your life, get some professional help. With work, you can reduce the impact that these scary thoughts have on you.
Could you address ways of dealing with the feeling of regret?
I have struggled with anxiety for a while. Last year, i decided to pursue an MBA as a result of feeling down when my boss left and i didn’t gel well with the new guy. I rushed into getting an MBA from a school below my potential. I had a decent shot at the top 7 but my anxiety distorted my judgement. I should have waited for a another year and applied to top schools or tried a career switch on my own (both possible). Now i am feeling very regretful. It is a really heavy feeling that has been very taxing on my mental health. What can i do about it?
Great question! Regret sucks. What I often see is that regret keeps you from seeing the potential and positive aspects of the situation that you are already in. Rather than making the most of it, you have this cloud of regret over your that prevents you from really pouring yourself into your current position. One thing that can help is getting some perspective and challenging your negative assumptions. Look to the facts. You are judging yourself because you feel like you assume that the course you are on right now is not going to be as “good” as the course that you could have been on if you made a different choice. How do you know that is the case?
For example, in my life there have been opportunities that I was really gunning for, such as certain pre and postdoc internships. But if I had gotten those positions, I would have been so wrapped up in the work that I was doing that I would have never had the time or mental space to start writing my book series. That means I wouldn’t have 2 books, a podcast, an online course, a 6-figure income etc all before 30. The path I’m on right now is so much better in the grand scheme and fits so much more with my personality. I have freedom. That’s something that so many people in my field do not have. This would have never been possible if things “worked out”.
We often make the mistake of thinking that there is one perfect path. Often making any decision and focusing on speed IS the best thing. It helps you learn to trust yourself and build self-efficacy. There are always options and you can excel in any situation. Gary Vaynerchuk is someone that I reference often. I think that a lot of his content is repetitive, but he has a few points that I think are super important. A lot of his stuff focuses on the fact that life is long. That you can eat shit for 20 years and still have the vast majority of your life to kick ass. That the mistake is feeling like you don’t have options that you can’t make something work. I think you would have regretted being paralyzed by indecision more in the long run than making a decision that you 2nd guessed, but you continued pushing forward.
What are your values? What would you consider success? Does that hinge on this decision that you regret? Does it really matter that you were not in a top 7 school? In some ways I wonder if you would have killed yourself with regard to your anxiety in a top 7 school vs just getting through and being able to focus on your career and what comes next. It may help you to look for more influences to balance our your negative self-judgments. It’s not hard to find people on podcasts, youtube etc. that are very successful talking about how they didn’t take the route that they anticipated or the route that their field prescribed for them, but are now crushing it. Look for the unique opportunities that come from the choice that you DID make. Embrace those. Also embrace any aspect of it that might be easier on you and less anxiety provoking.
The past is in the past. You have absolutely no control over that now. You only have control over right now. It’s easy for the present moment to get squished between regrets about the past and worries about the future, but that will only hold you back. The best way to craft a future that you are happy with is to realize that there are many paths and the past is already gone. Remember that the anticipated future that would have followed the other path was only a guess anyway.
I have mixed feelings about being in therapy. I am lucky to have found an amazing therapist that understands me quite well. We had a similar family setup growing up and our characters align well together. I have been seeing him for almost a year and I feel that for the first time in a long while someone gets me that well. The problem is that the whole therapy setup is confusing to me. Your therapist is someone you confide in but is not technically a friend you can hang out with or who you can rely on outside of your sessions. I feel it’s pathetic that this relationship became so important to me and that I am so attached to it. I am pretty independent in life in general and so this is confusing. My therapist is the only person I don’t feel lonely when I am around yet this fact makes me lonely and confused if this makes any sense. Is this normal or is it better if you actually don’t feel as close or attached to your therapist? I have never been in therapy before so I am not sure how I should look at this relationship.
Well first off I’m proud of you for going to therapy even though you have some negative associations with it. I’ve said it many times, but professional help IS self-help. You recognized a need in yourself, looked for the resources that were available to you, and took advantage of one that is supported by research. To me that’s a sign of strength. It’s easy to let pride get in the way and it takes a strong person to push past that.
I can totally understand why the therapeutic relationship is confusing to you. It is sort of an in-between relationship. Not quite a friend, but definitely not a stranger either. You are supposed to have a close relationship with your therapist, but it’s inherently unbalanced. They may share some snippets of themselves with you, but the focus is always going to be on you.
The thing is, it has to be that way. That’s WHY therapy works. You need to be able to unload your burdens onto someone without the guilt that comes along with doing that to friends or family. You need someone who will have unconditional support for you, but will not be afraid to push you and challenge you in the interest of progress.
The therapeutic relationship is unique and that’s why it helps. For instance, there’s no way that I could be my wife’s therapist. If family and friends were totally sufficient to treat mental illness, then my wife wouldn’t have an anxiety disorder after all of these years.
To your question of whether you would be doing better if you were more detached – absolutely not. Now there can certainly be circumstances where therapeutic relationships become TOO personal and codependent, but even that provides an opportunity to work through the pattern. Therapy is like a dress rehearsal for life. You are going to play out similar patterns and work through things that are present in your life in the therapy session, which provides you a safe platform for doing so. It’s supposed to be personal and emotional. AND you are supposed to feel attached. One of the best predictors of success in therapy is actually the quality of the relationship that a person has with their therapist. If you dive straight into the heavy shit without ever building a strong therapeutic relationship, that can be unhelpful or even risky.
Therapy can open up a lot of feelings that you may have not had full access to before. This can be scary and confusing. I encourage you to ride with it and process that in therapy. Maybe you discovered an aspect of your personality that you would like to feed more that is not really being fulfilled by your “real life” relationships. Therapy can be practice. I’ve had many clients learn how to ask for help, express themselves, and engage in conversation with other people in their life due to the work that they put in through therapy. I think you being more lonely due to the realization that you don’t feel lonely with your therapist makes sense. You are realizing that you have the potential to feel supported and comfortable and less shitty all the time. However, I take that as a proof of concept. You aren’t only able to form these sort of connections with your therapist. This is just a safe platform that’s allowed you to take the chance and put yourself out there in a way that helps to build a close relationship. That means that you have the capacity to do that elsewhere in your life. That potential can be daunting, but it’s also amazing.
So overall, you are not doing anything wrong in your situation. Everything you are talking about is really common and it sounds like you are actually making good use of therapy. That’s not the case for many people. Good job and keep it up!