My Cup Runneth Over: Quick Thoughts On Managing Anxiety

As I have noted in the past, I got me some anxiety.

Honestly, it’s hard not to, right now. The news is traditionally not a place you go for Good Feelings, but these days you turn on the TV for fifteen seconds or you give one quick scroll through Twitter and it’s a fucking assault, isn’t it? EVERYTHING WAS BAD AND HAS NOW COMPLETED ITS POKEMON-LIKE EVOLUTION TO A FULL-BLOWN NIGHTMARE, the news will have you know. What did Trump do today? you think to yourself, and then the news answers, THE PRESIDENT HAS GUARANTEED A NEW FOOD PROGRAM FOR THE POOR IN WHICH THEY ARE FED THE OTHER POOR WHO DIED IN THE HUNGER GAMES, WHICH IS LITERALLY JUST GAMES WHERE HUNGRY PEOPLE FIGHT OVER FAST FOOD, OH ALSO, KANSAS IS BEING EVACUATED AND IS NOW A MASSIVE BATTLEGROUND STADIUM FOR THE HUNGER GAMES, MAY THE ODDS BE EVER IN YOUR FAVOR, BUT THEY WON’T BE, UNLESS YOU’RE RICH

P.S. IN 25 YEARS NEW YORK CITY IS GOING TO BE UNDERWATER

P.P.S. DOGS ARE GOING EXTINCT AND CHOCOLATE IS NOW POISON

P.P.S.S. ELON MUSK HAS TAKEN HIS ANDROID SEX HAREM AND FUCKED OFF TO MARS, AND BY THE WAY, THE MISSILES ARE FALLING AND THAT BOSTON DYNAMICS DOOR-OPENING ROBO-DOG IS GOING TO HUNT YOU THROUGH THE WASTELAND, BLACK MIRROR-STYLE

So, it’s a very good way to feel bad.

In fact, it’s a very good way to trigger one’s anxiety. (For me, anxiety tends to manifest first as a physical sensation — like a feeling of ants somewhere in the space between my heart and my stomach — and then as a kind of pattern of obsessive thinking and hypervigilance. Hypervigilance in this case being a whole lot like tonguing a broken tooth to see if it’s still broken, which only causes it more pain, but yet there you go, keep on poking at it.)

(Poke poke poke. Ow. Poke poke poke. OW.)

And of course, anxiety exists even on good days. It’s not just a thing that happens when the world is bad — it can happen like clear sky turbulence, everything’s going along fine, and then suddenly OH MY GOD I’M DYING OF CANCER or WHAT HAPPENS WHEN EVERYONE FINALLY FIGURES OUT I’M A FRAUD and there you are, alone and shaking like a pee-filled chihuahua on a cold winter’s evening. There’s also anxiety related to my writing career — and I expect that anxiety and depression are common in creative folk, though I also suspect it’s a chicken-and-egg question. We live so completely in our heads, are we more prone to anxiety and depression, or is there some relationship between the two?

Who the hell knows?

Anxiety is a demon. It’s a chattering, vicious monkey. It’s a bag of gut-worms.

But, I deal with it.

And I thought I’d talk a little bit more about how I deal with it, and how I deal with it has a lot to do with how I view it.

Now, the caveat here is, as always, I am not a Certified Mindologist. You should not take anything I say with any kind of medical backing. I am not an expert on this subject; I am merely an expert on the subject of Me (and even there, my expertise is occasionally dubious).

Part of what inspired me to talk about this is this tweet from a friend, Mallory O’Meara

I like that metaphor. Metaphors help me think of the world in different ways, and help me come at problems from unexpected directions because, ultimately, metaphors are about making unexpected connections between things.

Here is the metaphor I tend to use regarding anxiety, and to look at that metaphor, it’s first necessary to look at another medical issue:

I’ve got allergies, and one of the ways that allergies have been described to me by doctors is that we all have an imaginary cup, and exposure to allergens fills up that cup, and if the cup is overfull and spills over, you must endure a proper allergic reaction. Now for me, that reaction isn’t life-threatening as it would be for some, but rather, it’s just irritating. I can be around a cat for just so long, and then my cup runneth over — and next thing I know, my eyes itch, my throat feels tight, I sneeze, and the longer I remain, the worse it gets. Eyes go puffy, nose goes full spigot, throat feels like it’s being bitten by tiny bugs, etc.

Being allergic to something is nobody’s fault, really. It’s just a thing that happens.

Anxiety is the same way.

And anxiety is, to me, like being allergic to, y’know —

*gesticulates toward the entire world*

All of that.

And —

*taps middle of forehead*

All of this too.

Meaning, you have an emotionally inflammatory response to — well, all kinds of things. It can be everything. It might only be some things. We all have triggers, and some of those triggers are expected, some of them are unexpected.

And, just like with allergies, we have a cup.

I like to suspect that this is true for everyone — everyone has this kind of emotional, psychological cup available to them, and the normal events of a normal day fill that cup up little by little. Traffic in the morning, add some to the cup. Doctor’s appointment, add more to the cup. Some good news at work, maybe pour a little back out of the cup. Some people are fortunate, I believe, to have buckets instead of cups: they were born with larger reservoirs of fortitude, or perhaps trained themselves to that point.

Others have smaller cups.

Cups that fill easily and spill over more often.

I like to think those people are people with anxiety.

So, for me, anxiety becomes less a thing to conquer and more a thing to mitigate — you find the things that fill the cup quickly, and you make effort to avoid those things. You also find the things that can help you pour some back out, and you make the effort to do those things, too. Like, okay, looking at the news is probably a thing that fills up the cup — honestly, I have to expect it fills up the cup for everybody, not just anxiety-sufferers — so, you either need to stop looking at it, or, if you’re going to (“I looked at the trap, Ray”), you need to countermand it with ways of emptying that cup, too. Balance it out with nice things. Funny stuff or doing some art or some meditation or hunting your enemies through the woods with an axe — every solution should be tailored to you, not to me, you have to find what works. What empties your cup?

(And by the way, you have to really attune yourself to this. “A thing I like to do” is not automagically synonymous with “a thing that empties the cup.” Certain video games and or media consumption can fill the cup rather than emptying it, even though I technically feel good about the thing I’m doing. Going out and taking photos is meditative for me, so I try to do it to empty the cup. I like coffee a whole lot, and it helps me write, but both coffee and writing do not empty the cup, really. You have to be astute, aware, and constantly measure and re-measure how you feel after Doing A Thing to see what effect it has on the Cup of Anxiety inside your heart.)

This isn’t an exhortation to JUST GO OUT INTO NATURE BECAUSE IT’S THE BEST MEDICINE, either — maybe the best medicine for you is actual medicine. Anxiety meds? No shame. You do what you gotta. Therapy? Also good in whatever form that takes for you. I’m not your boss. At least, not in this timeline. In Timeline 47199-B, I am your boss, however, and I’ll have you know that I know you stole my hole-punch, you motherfucker.

Point is, this is normal, you’re not alone, and if you treat this like it’s an average run-of-the-mill problem, I think you gain some power over it instead of letting it be this mythic thing, this monstrous wave, this all-consuming identity. It’s not that, it’s just a disorder, like allergies, that can be managed up or down. You don’t control it, precisely, but it also doesn’t control you — you can balance the scales and file down the monster’s teeth.

Know what fills the cup.

Know what empties the cup.

Practice self-care accordingly.

Have a nice day.

* * *

THE RAPTOR & THE WREN: Miriam Black, Book Five

Miriam Black, in lockstep with death, continues on her quest to control her own fate!

Having been desperate to rid herself of her psychic powers, Miriam now finds herself armed with the solution — a seemingly impossible one. But Miriam’s past is catching up to her, just as she’s trying to leave it behind. A copy-cat killer has caught the public’s attention. An old nemesis is back from the dead. And Louis, the ex she still loves, will commit an unforgivable act if she doesn’t change the future. 

Miriam knows that only a great sacrifice is enough to counter fate. Can she save Louis, stop the killer, and survive? 

Hunted and haunted, Miriam is coming to a crossroads, and nothing is going to stand in her way, not even the Trespasser.

Indiebound | Amazon | B&N

48 comments

  • This reminds me of a HR seminar I attended last year, where I sat in on a workshop run by a crazy lady with interesting hair and an invisible shield (it may have been invisible shield-wings… like Batfink, only “My wings are like a shield of invisible!” instead of steel).

    Anyhoo, the workshop was about managing stress in the workplace (with a view to employers Not Losing Money Through Stress-Absent Employees). Part of the discussion was about how some stress is good for us, because it pushes us to do better and helps us to manage our work and deadlines. Then there’s stress that’s not exactly good for us, but tolerable. Finally is the stress which causes exhaustion, and I think that similar to your anxiety-dial/anxiety-cup analogy. Some people become very anxious at the smallest amount of stress, while others have a great tolerance for it and thrive on it—until they suddenly snap and attack everybody in the office with a stapler.

  • Great post, Chuck. I would like to believe that acknowledgment is half the battle. Know your feelings, whatever they be, are normal, and you WILL get past them to better moments. I am known to say, “Keep your arms and legs inside the cart…and enjoy the ride.”
    Oh, and hugs help, so…
    Hugs
    Dee

  • Soooo real. Thanks, Chuck. My primary symptom of anxiety is irritability, something that reared it’s head in particular after my son was born – followed by a wonderful ride through postpartum depression and anxiety. It’s hard, and scary, but it can get better. Great advice!

  • This is a really fantastic and helpful set of analogies for any condition that affects one’s life – thank you, Chuck! As someone who has allergies that have been affecting my breathing badly for a while, which also affects my anxiety, I’d like to also note that being aware of how cups can cross-fill (or cross-empty) helps too.

  • You are helpful and good. Your advice is sound, and I’m going to share it on the social medias. I thought I had more to say, but the coffee has not kicked in yet and I’m also thinking about all of the things I have to do today and perhaps my cup is filling a little bit and I need to do a repetitive task for emptying cup. I shall do the dishes!

  • Loved this! I am one of those people you mentioned who is fortunate enough to have buckets, not cups, to fill. But when they dump, it is a tidal wave…so not so great, either. Your writing helps me empty my bucket, thank you so very much!

  • Thank you for this. Thank you for mentioning that sometimes, things you enjoy can add to the cup.
    Last night I listened to an audio book I like, to unwind before bed. It was exciting. Couldn’t sleep for another 2 hours.

  • Very poignant and true. I’m dealing with my own slew of bullshit filling my “cup” and I have been struggling to take steps to change my position. What you said resonates with that, and I appreciate it. I also appreciate the early Wednesday morning laugh, which I desperately needed. Thank you.

  • Love love love this post – my daughter is dealing with anxiety (newly-diagnosed even though she’s actually been hiding this for a long time) and now I’m going to be thinking about cups and how full they are when I see her. I’ll try not to fill hers but, you know, mother-daughter stuff can do that.

  • Thanks for writing this, Chuck. Some days it feels like my cup is one of those tiny paper cups they serve pills in: not only does it fill super fast, but it gets soggy and rips along the way. After Year 1 of Emperor Cheeto’s Reign of Terror, I’ve had to mitigate my news coverage to occasional emails from an activist group I support and whatever I hear from significant other.

    Sometimes I feel like too much of a delicate little flower. Hopefully some day I’ll trip the secret during meditation and turn my little cup into a reservoir big enough for a whole city. If not, I guess it is what it is.

  • I’ve got a cream for that!

    —-jokes, sorry—-

    I feel after reading your writing, that if anyone has the means, the insight, the reflective capacity, the manifold modes of expressive release, the humour, and the resilience to defy anxiety, it’s you Chuck. No matter where or how that anxiety originates.

    On the topic of creative brain: much has already been written. The percentage of people who experience serious mental illness in the creative community is the same as it is in the wider community. No greater. Creativity is not a symptom of illness. But – if you do a search for Victoria Arts Council and anxiety you will find a report that tells a detailed story about what being a professional creative can do to quite ordinary happy people. The financial existence can be tenuous. They get ripped off and abused in so many ridicerous ways, it’s disheartening.

    Still on the creative brain: I have to hand some peer-reviewed reports on how a creative brain functions. It’s not diseased, but we do know from observing brains at work in the lab that the creative brain does some interesting things. It’s a type of brain most prevalent in scientists and artists. The areas of brain that manage executive reasoning, and wild day dreams, are usually switched between; never working together. In a creative type brain, not only do they fire at the same time, but owners of creative brains seem to have greater capacity for deliberately switching off and on different kinds of thinking, than other types of people.

    So, take away from that what you will. Creatives have different brains that can be identified during active scans. They are practical daydreamers. They have a nous for finding solutions and connections that others haven’t realised for that reason. Maybe that’s what you really need right now, in these Days of Bad Tweets. To imagine new and better realities; a nice way out. A door that nobody has seen yet.

    Take care. 🙂

  • I’ve heard this described (particularly with regards to reading the news) as Don’t Drink the Seawater. You feel thirsty for information, so maybe just a sip (glug glug glug) but it’s the opposite of helpful.
    I’m not saying we need to give up on media altogether (though some may need to for their mental health) but I think it’s important for us to give ourselves permission to not engage sometimes. Yes, we should be both informed and caring, but unless we are a vast and boundless reservoir of caring, there’s little to be gained from informing ourselves about all the things we can’t do anything about.
    Pick your fights, I guess, and be kind to yourself. And definitely, find ways to refill that cup. I recommend knitting, and mysteries by the Queens of the Golden Age.

  • February 14, 2018 at 7:45 PM // Reply

    Hey, thanks boss! Sorry about the hole-puncher btw… I’ll replace it with a nicer one. That shows. And you can use it to perform exorcisms. And It makes panda-shaped holes.

  • Okay. I’m an old registered nurse who’s been serving the dying for the last fifteen years. I’ve learned that during their life, where ever someone has placed their mind is where they focus during their death. First of all; you have a vivid imagination and that suits you well for the creative world, but in the real world it is not a good trait. Turn off the box my dear. Turn the box off.
    You’re a father. Father anxiety will ruin your child. Stop.
    Choose a mantra like, “I am safe, I am fine. No harm will come to me.”
    Pull the needle of the media out of your arm and tell it to go fuck itself.

  • Good timing, C, thanks.
    As one who dances with a similar demon, depression, I find a related cup-emptying effort can sometimes do the trick. Sometimes not, but one tries anyway, coz when it works it’s like magic.

  • I like that visualisation of the cup for anxiety as a whole. Thank you for sharing. 🙂

    Someone once told me to imagine anxiety’s voice as a character (so you can tell the difference to your own comments). Mine often takes the form of a slobbering, monstrouse dog with huge teeth which just wants a scratch behind the ears but growls and snaps for attention rather than just nosing your hand….someone else used to say their anxiety voice was like a stick thin man with a bowler hat, smoking and rasping at you in a sneering way. Those things help me laugh sometimes when I hear the anxiety whining away in my head and imagine the character. I guess it also tells me it is time to go and help empty the cup. Every little helps.

  • Superb words, Chuck!

    As evidenced by the welter of comments above, this post resonated for quite a lot of folk. And it resonated for me as well. Great post,Chuck and a great analogy. The news bit; that’s the thing I must stray from for it contains nothing but misery. And yet I keep going to select alternate mainstream sites, like a good Lepidoptera to that infernal flame. Must curtail that bad habit in order to empty my cup.

    I’ll send a link via my own blog as it is most worthy to spread your message far and wide. Thank you for writing a most timely post, one that I shall embrace fully.

    You do know, don’t you, that it was Tony in cubicle 312 that pilfered your hole punch. Just saying.

  • Thank you for your openness and honesty. I’ve had my emotional battles and found a type of therapy that’s created miracles for me. My teenage son’s anxiety grew into a debilitating monster two years ago, and between educating him at home now (which sucks for me because school itself triggers his anxiety), and trying a variety of things, he’s no longer completely shut down. Still working on helping him create changes around his anxiety because it’s affecting his ability to get an education, but it’s encouraging to see you as an example of someone living with anxiety while having a career and life. Reading this today really helped this mom.

  • This is a like concept known in the fibromyalgia/CFS/chronic stuff as “Spoon Theory”.
    Only backwards.
    With funnier examples and more cursing, b/c Chuck.

    Right now I’m obsessing over curling. Restful, not violent, very sportsmanlike. I recommend it.

  • I wonder if a lot of anxiety comes from focusing on negative outcomes. Perhaps much of the anxiety we face can be minimized (dialed down) by asking ourselves how to overcome the anxiety in healthy ways that solve the problem and coming up with solutions. Personally, I think anxiety – as well as other negative emotions – are the body’s way of warning us that problems are on their way and they are telling us to get prepared for obstacles.

  • Where people with anxiety have a smaller cup, people with depression have a cup that fills at very random times,and oh shit, oh shit, how the hell do I empty this cup? So we try to break the cup to empty it, and sometimes we consider just destroying it.

  • This was perfect to read right now. My anxiety and depression get really bad this time of year, and today was a bad day. I have allergies too, and I love that analogy of anxiety being an autoimmune response to (circles arms around the whole world) all of it. Thanks for the post.

  • Terrific and timely post. I think this is more important with each passing day. I especially appreciate the fact that you’re actively trying to help people, instead of judging people’s need for meds, therapy, meditation or whatever works for saidindividual. There’s far too much hatred and judgment already, without adding more. I genuinely respect that!

    It’s always comforting to know we aren’t alone.

  • It’s difficult to tell from the above if you suffer from an actual anxiety disorder or you just don’t like the world we live in.

    I remember anxiety attacks that lasted 12 to 14 hours, when my “resting” heart rate was 140 beats per minute, and having an attack while traveling from Idaho to Virginia having to make three different flight changes on a business trip right before Christmas. I don’t know if that was Hell on Earth, but it was close. Funny thing was, the exact same thing happened to me on the return flight. I didn’t die, but I thought I was going to.

    Medication controlled it but the thought of living on drugs the rest of my life just repelled me, so I eventually weaned myself and only had one anxiety attack since then (the single panic attack I suffered at that time was absolutely glorious).

    I still have a heightened startle response and can’t listen to music with ear buds in public because I absolutely have to hear what’s going on around me.

    My son who is a Marine vet says I act like someone who’s been in combat except I never have been. When I was 16 years old, I was viciously beaten by several men during a riot including being beaten across the kidneys with a bicycle chain. I hadn’t thought about it for decades (after being terrified for a year afterwards), but something must have triggered it.

    If you suffer from an anxiety disorder, you have my deepest sympathy because I know exactly how that feels. If you just don’t like who is currently residing in the White House or the state of the world around us today, well, life has always been politically and socially difficult and we all have that in common.

  • Thank you so much for posting this. When I opened it in my email, I read it and was able to forward to a friend. She’s raising her grandson, who suffer from crippling anxiety due to a trauma when he was very young. She’s trying to do everything she can to help him… but some people just don’t get it. She has shared it with his mother, who can now visualize what they’re working with. Next up is the school….

    I read your blog because of the writing advice and I love your style. This post though, this post has changed the life of my best friend in a very good way and I thank you.

    Wyndie

  • This makes so much sense.
    I always feel like that cartoon figure, when the pressure valve above their head explodes.
    The cup picture is awesome.
    Thanks.

  • Thank you for the metaphor of the cup filling or draining and the advice to recognize what fills or empties the cup. I think for me the metaphor itself holds some power on the way I feel, the fact that something can be explained in a way that I can see in my head. It reminds me of Dan Torrance in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep where Dan creates boxes in his head and traps the monsters inside those boxes, locking them away. Now, when I stare out at the river beside my place of work, head overflowing with anxiety, I can imagine the cup draining, or removing the heat and letting those thoughts stop boiling, letting them settle and dissipate. Sometimes using an effective metaphor for understanding what goes on in your head – as well as the knowledge that you are not alone in this struggle, can help more than anything.

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