The sudden feeling you get when you think you’ve forgotten your keys when you leave the house, but all the time and for no reason.
This is Aaron Gillies’ definition of anxiety, from “How to Survive the End of the World (When it’s in Your Own Head): An Anxiety Survival Guide“, published last month.
Gillies has a gentle, self-deprecating style. He does a great line in evoking the paralysing sensation of worry – while at the same time offering a perspective on the irrationality of it all. He describes situation after situation where his anxiety has worked against his own interests and dissects his thought processes and emotional state while it’s taking place.
Imposter syndrome is a never-ending terror that one day your boss, or your friends, or your partner will realise who you really are. That at some point in the future they will rip off the Scooby Doo villain disguise you’ve made for yourself to hide the anxiety-ridden weirdo you truly are. and it’ll turn out you were Mr Davies the creepy old janitor the entire time.
He goes on to offer some coping strategies. He’s not a psychologist, he’s a comedian and writer – his first tip for avoiding procrastination is “Imagine all of your dead relatives have surrounded you and are looking upon you in shame”. He makes some other suggestions, but finishes “In all honesty, I think the shame ghost people might be the best option here.”
Gillies describes an anxiety – insomnia – caffeine loop which was very familiar to me:
I got stuck in this loop a couple of years ago. I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom – all of the bad things were going to happen. I couldn’t sleep, so I had to have loads of coffee when I got up. I spent the day in a haze, then the evening and nighttime fretting anxiously. I was pretty awful to be around, and I wasn’t capable of working.
My wife, family and friends were amazing, and very tolerant. Some former colleagues intervened and packed me off for some CBT (counselling). My GP prescribed SSRIs, and I used the Headspace mindfulness app. Some combination of these things eventually pulled me out of the loop and into a more grounded routine, and my anxiety dropped to less invasive levels. But it was horrendous, and while the SSRIs stopped the sensations of dread, they’re extremely powerful drugs which left me completely emotionless. Coming back off them was pretty grim.
This period reminds me of the Chronophage (“Time Eater“) – the clock at Corpus College in Cambridge:
It moves its mouth, appearing to “eat up” the seconds as they pass, and occasionally it “blinks” in seeming satisfaction. The creature’s constant motion produces an eerie grinding sound that suits its task. The hour is tolled by the sound of a chain clanking into a small wooden coffin hidden in the back of the clock.
But I digress. I found the book useful for my coaching in two ways.
The first is in helping the coach to get inside the mind of the coachee when chronic anxiety is present. We’re not therapists and it’s vital that we understand and respect both the boundaries between therapy and coaching. It’s useful for us to understand the landscape – and to recognise when it’s time to hand the intervention to the professionally competent. But having built a high-trust relationship with the coachee, we can be a vehicle to help them to seek the support they need.
The second benefit is: as coachees open up about this stuff, they may feel that it’s just them. This book explains just how common anxiety is; and the deeply irrational yet utterly compelling stories we invent for ourselves in the face of seemly certain impending doom. In that regard, reading the book is extremely comforting – no, it’s not just you who has these crazy thoughts.
It’s very sweary, it’s very funny and it’s a very entertaining read about something commonplace yet taboo. Highly recommended.