Thursday, December 10, 2015


Have you ever heard of normalcy bias?  It's the phenomenon where people in the middle of disasters don't react because they assume a disaster isn't going on, despite all the evidence.  For instance, they smell smoke, but they assume someone is burning something and just stay where they are.  It makes sense -- you've been in a building where someone burned dinner probably dozens of times, but most of us haven't been in a building which was actually on fire.  Your brain uses its past experiences to interpret the data it's getting.

I used to experience this.  In fact, I pretty much assumed any fears I had were unreasonable, just me feeling scared for no reason, so I always ignored them.  Scared of heights?  Keep climbing that tree.  Dark alley?  Charge on through.  I mean, I was a kid and I knew my parents wouldn't let me do anything really dangerous, and anyway I felt pretty sure that everything would turn out okay, because nothing bad had ever happened to me.

Then one day, when I was 17, I was climbing a ladder in my garage, which it turned out I hadn't set up properly.  I felt scared as I started up the ladder.  Then I ignored that feeling because "I always feel scared of stuff like this and it always turns out fine."  Well, I was nearly at the top when it collapsed and I busted my face when I hit the ground.  I'm lucky I wasn't seriously injured, but I did mess up my teeth, which I've been terribly self-conscious about ever since.

And ever since then, when I feel that little twinge of fear, I think, "It could be nothing -- but then again, that's what I thought that time on the ladder and I was wrong."  Instead of feeling like disasters are normal, I'm constantly mistaking normal life for disasters.  I'll walk past a book left on the stairs and get this eerie feeling of imagining myself in the future, after someone has tripped on that book and died, crying, "I saw the book, but I didn't pick it up, and now they're DEAD!"  So I go back and pick up the book.  It's probably good on some level, because I'm more careful than I used to be.

But on some level it's bad, because every time I go to bed at night, I can't go to sleep until I've put my ear right over Miriam and heard her breathe.  I know the odds of her suddenly dying are low; but I can't help imagining myself finding her cold in the morning and thinking, "I didn't check her before I went to sleep."  So until I check on her, I basically assume she's dead.  This is probably not healthy.

There are some fears I don't let myself act on, even though I'm frightened.  I know the risk of home invasion is vanishingly small, and I also know that getting up doublechecking all the locks isn't going to make me safer, so I stay in bed trying to calm myself down.  I tell myself that if we are going to get killed by a crazy shooter who busts in in the middle of the night, I may as well be rested for the experience.  But I've lost a lot of sleep for that one anyway, because I feel like my life is a movie, and I'm watching the heroine try to sleep and shouting "DON'T GO TO SLEEP!  THERE'S A MURDERER IN THE KITCHEN!"

It's hard to say if this is "real" anxiety or just the nature of being an adult.  Does everyone feel this way, once they no longer have the luxury of just assuming the grown-ups will make sure they don't get hurt?  And if being less anxious would increase the risk that something bad happened to one of my kids -- well, I don't have that right, do I?

Some people use religion to reason their way out of anxiety, telling themselves that nothing will happen that God hasn't planned.  But even assuming that's true, I still think it's an abdication of responsibility.  We all know that bad stuff happens to good people.  And people love to say that the day of their death is already determined by God, but in reality people are much more likely to die if they take stupid risks to ignore their health.  You'll live longer if you buckle your seatbelt and don't smoke, and can you be sure that it's part of God's plan for you to be careless with your life?

Of course if you don't believe in God or an afterlife, it's that much worse because if you die, that's it.  If your kids die, that's it, your irresponsibility has ended everything they were and everything they could have been.  That's kind of a big burden to carry.  No wonder modern parents are so famously neurotic.  How can you not be?

I guess I'm just not sure how anxious I'm supposed to be.  If I assume I'm safe, that's "normalcy bias" and I'm probably going to be the first one to die when the horror movie gets going.  But if I assume I'm not safe, I'm going to spend my whole life worrying!  I try to make my decisions based on rational risk-benefit analysis, but that doesn't stop my heart from racing when my kids climb on the jungle gym or run a fever for a second day in a row.  I know how fast things can shift from "possibly unsafe" to "the ambulance can't possibly get here in time."  I can't stop myself from imagining disaster--in fact, if I don't imagine the disaster, I can't assess whether I should take action to prevent it or not.

How anxious are you?  Is it just a grown-up thing?  What do you do to calm down?


Ariadne said...

Take it from someone who knows: this is not normal anxiety or "just a grown-up thing." I'm only now starting to realize what normal people mean when they say they're worried or anxious, and it's nothing like what you and I experience on a daily basis. I don't know what advice to give you; none of the "natural" suggestions (exercise, sunshine) helped at all. I hear therapy can be helpful, but it's expensive. You can always talk to a doctor about options if it's interfering with your life.

Enbrethiliel said...


Now I'm glad that I didn't suggest, back in the conversation thread, that you have a nip of "liquid courage" before diving into group conversation! As someone who does get a lot friendlier after a drink or two, I think alcohol in moderation can be a good at parties. But if you're never sure when enough is enough, I don't want to recommend that you take anything!

Sheila said...

Alcohol mostly just makes me sleepy. I have a drink sometimes in the evening or at a party, but I'm never even tempted to have a second.

Ariadne, before I make up my mind to get help, I'd have to be convinced being less anxious is a good thing. And I'm not sure, because isn't being careful a good thing? I should say, though, that meditation does help with intrusive thoughts and help me sleep at night.

Ariadne said...

ere's a big difference between being careful and being overly careful, but it's hard to know the difference if you have nothing to compare it to. Here's the way I look at it:what's good for me is also good for my family. If I have less anxiety, then we're all happier. I'm able to be more present and more patient. And, honestly, your kids know how you feel, even if you try to hide it and don't tell them.

Honestly, it should be enough that it's affecting your life as much as it is. It's okay to get help for that reason alone.

Even with less anxiety, I'm still careful. The only thing that's different is how I feel. I would recommend reading up on Generalized Anxiety Disorder and OCD.

Ariadne said...

*There's. Oops.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I don't know if you realize it, but you often send mixed signals. In this case, the main post gives the impression that you think you have a problem. (I refer to lines like, "This is probably not healthy," and "I've lost a lot of sleep over that one anyway.") Then someone commented with some sympathetic advice and you replied that you wouldn't take it unless you were actually convinced that what you're going through is a bad thing. Well, didn't you write this post because you suspected it was a bad thing? Your threads about your lack of faith have followed the same pattern. This really puzzles me about you. What do you want?

Ariadne said...

You seem to have a habit of not taking care of yourself because you don't think your needs are important. But you are important, just as important as anyone else in your family. If you're really suffering (and it sounds like you are), then it's not healthy to postpone getting help because you think something that is hurting you might possibly help other people. (Hurting yourself is never good for the people who love you, but that's beside the point.) Think of it this way: if one of your friends had written this post, wouldn't you recommend they get help? Wouldn't you want them to stop suffering? Then why are you the only one who doesn't deserve to feel better in your eyes?

SO said...

This angst is me in relationships.

Sheila said...

E, I guess you're right. What I would like is to be mentally alert and on the lookout for danger, and yet not FEEL so anxious about it. I guess this is too much to ask!

"Get help" -- not sure what this would mean, or look like. What could any therapist tell me that I don't already know?

Ariadne said...

I don't think that's too much to ask! Now that my anxiety is improving, what you describe is exactly what I experience: I am alert, I am careful, but I'm not in a state of panic all the time. :-)

Therapy isn't about what you know or don't know: it's about patterns of thought. Sometimes it helps to have someone objective, on the outside, to look at the way we think about and react to things and give us feedback about it. This is not really something we can do on our own. Medication is the other possibility, and there's nothing wrong with that either! Sometimes the problem is primarily physical, and the medication helps to balance the brain chemistry out again.

Enbrethiliel said...


You know what's funny? I'm reminded of your post on guns, in which you explained that learning to use a gun makes someone a different person--and not necessarily the kind of person that you wanted to be. But that also seems to be the kind of person you're describing in this post and thread: like a responsible gun owner who rationally believes there is a need for him to carry his weapon, you are mentally alert and on the look out for danger at all times. But you're not a calm gun owner, and that's the problem.

Anyway, I don't know about therapy, but I think people can modify behaviour by learning from role models or by role playing (faking it) until it becomes second nature (making it). So I have two suggestions . . .

1) Inasmuch as your anxiety seems to have an analogue in gun ownership, perhaps you could learn from gun owners. Not all of them are high-strung and stressed all the time just because they happen to own deadly weapons. What is their source of calm? You could talk to some of them, perhaps. Or even go to a shooting range and just shoot for sport.

In case that's a really unpalatable suggestion (LOL!), how about . . .

2) . . . going with myths, the way you did when you were pregnant? You could think of what you have as a superpower like the X-men's superpowers. But right now, yours isn't really under your control--not if you lie awake at night worried that people in the house will die because you failed to be as responsible as you should have. It occurs to me that some X-men who are especially dangerous to others are also pretty chill about it: Rogue always wears gloves, but doesn't mind stripping down to a bathing suit when it is time to swim . . . and Cyclops sleeps with Jean Grey without worrying he'll forget to put on his glasses before he opens his eyes in the morning and fry her. Is there a physical object like gloves or glasses that you could use to make yourself feel calmer?

Or how about a ritual? I also remember you saying, when Marko was an only child, that you used to check his car seat ten million times because you couldn't remember whether or not you had checked everything just a moment before (or couldn't trust yourself to be sure), but that you were able to stop when you added the step of kissing him at the very end of the ritual. If you've kissed him, then you've definitely checked the car seat. Is there something similar you could do for the locks in the house?

Sheila said...

Normally John does the locks. I trust him absolutely because he never forgets. When he's gone is when I check and doublecheck and then lie awake because I can't check the back door without going through the kids' room and waking them up. Even though, of course, the dog sleeps in there and so there is no way someone is breaking in because he'd be barking his head off.

So I'm pretty glad John no longer travels and is home before bed most nights!

For the rest, I basically do a lot of that. I go ahead and listen to Miriam breathing while she sleeps because it's reassuring to me, and then I don't worry anymore. I forcibly stop my mind from going directions I don't like (picturing the burglar breaking into the children's room). But as far as shooting off guns or carrying around talismans -- I can't get much out of things that are irrational! I could tell myself "this hat will keep me safe" but that's stupid, because it won't, and I know it. You don't need to be afraid of shooting guns if you know how to use them -- they are not intrinsically dangerous. But you can get hit by a car even if you know how to drive one -- in fact, it's one of the most likely ways to die. I can't un-know this. And it's all very well to force myself to drive more to get over the fear -- if, on some unnecessary drive I took to get over the fear, I get t-boned by an 18-wheeler, I'd feel mighty foolish then! And of course these are the thoughts that run through my mind when I am anxious -- the thought that my fears are perfectly reasonable and therefore the only way to shut them up is to lie to myself, and I can't actually lie to myself -- it doesn't work.

When Marko was suffering from his worst anxiety, at about two, I let him play with guns because it gave him a sense of control and helped him manage his fears. But on reflection, I realized that is why a LOT of fully-grown adults carry guns too. The illusion of control is comforting, even though there are few situations where having a gun is likely to make much difference. It worked for Marko because his fears were mostly imaginary, but it doesn't work for me because I know too much.

Enbrethiliel said...


What if your fears are already you lying to yourself? I'm sorry, but I just don't see them as very rational. If you do things because you have "eerie feelings" that bad consequences will result if you don't, then you're actually being superstitious.

You're right that being careful is a good thing, but you seem to be going too far in the other direction. What you describe yourself as doing brings to mind something St. Francis de Sales explained about virtue, particularly the virtue of humility. He said that there are two vices against humility: false pride and false humility. The first goes in one direction (seeing yourself as better than you are) and the the second goes in the opposite direction (seeing yourself as worse than you are). If we use the same model here, then you're managing to avoid being careless only because you're being over-careful. You're seeing yourself as more responsible than you actually are--which ironically may end up robbing other people of their own responsibility for themselves.

Ariadne said...

I agree that irrational coping mechanisms aren't going to help solve your problem. The problem with anxiety disorders and OCD is that they make your fears seem completely rational, and you lose the ability to tell the difference between rational and irrational fears. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is supposed to help with things like this, though I don't know that firsthand. Yes, driving is dangerous, and knowing that is a good thing, but feeling like you're going to die every time you drive somewhere is not. I understand, because driving anxiety is something I struggle with myself. In my experience, forcing myself to drive more doesn't fix the problem either, because the problem is how I think and feel about driving. No amount of practice is going to change that. It's hard, it really is. I guess I'm trying to say that KNOWING something is dangerous and worrying about it all the time are separate things. Hopefully that makes sense.

Ariadne said...

It's hard to explain something like this to someone who hasn't experienced it. It's easy to see from outside that an anxious person's fears are irrational, but it's not so easy to see that if you suffer from anxiety.

Sheila said...

My fears aren't irrational though, only unlikely. I have a very small chance of dying today. But that means I *do* have a chance of dying today. To make good risk assessments, I should know what things are likeliest to kill me today and avoid those things or do them carefully -- but bringing possible dangers to mind makes me feel scared, and I don't like to feel scared.

But to shrug off the responsibility and just pretend it isn't *possible* that I could die today, and not take reasonable precautions, is stupid, even if I could manage to do it.

As far as "responsibility" goes, my own actions are the only ones I can change. If I try to cross the street and get hit by a speeding bus, it won't be my fault. I will also be dead and it won't matter whether it was my fault. And as far as the kids go -- they're children. They don't really have responsibility for their lives yet. A parent who leaves a bottle of lye around on the grounds that if her children drink it and die, it's their own fault, is a bad parent. And even if it really is no part of the parent's fault when a child dies -- they're still dead. "It's not my fault" would be pretty cold comfort if I were suffering the worst loss I can possibly imagine.

Ariadne, you' explain it pretty well. To me, the thought that someone could know it's possible to get in a car accident and die, and yet still get behind the wheel and calmly drive without once feeling panicky or picturing the worst possible scenario -- it's kind of incredible to me and I'm not sure how it works. Sure, sometimes I do drive without thinking of the dangers, but the second those dangers come to mind, I start to freak. But driving without keeping an eye on road conditions or the behavior of other drivers, consciously assessing possible dangers, would be pretty unwise!

(I swear, they should have a separate drivers' ed for anxious people. The one I had was all about terrifying you into road safety and I think I'm still traumatized. Jeez.)

Meredith said...

"What could any therapist tell me that I don't already know?"

Why do you assume that you know more than any therapist? You won't know what you don't know unless you try the therapist. (Not trying to be rude - I remember asking the same question after Sean was trying to get me to go to a therapist for my anxiety. It's an anxiety-driven thought in itself! I felt bitter and helpless, but my mind was still darting around and trying to anticipate what moves a therapist might use on me. Rather like the phantom home intruder, who also bothers me sometimes.)

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm not saying that you should think those dangers are impossible, but that given how unlikely many of them are (as you yourself admit), you're giving them a disproportionate amount of your time, energy, and emotional focus. Combined with your "eerie feelings," you might as well be carrying a rabbit's foot. Not that, I hasten to add, I'd judge you for that. I mean, who cares? But if someone wrote s big post about carrying around charms because of fears that someone might get hurt, my reading would be that he wanted some help. Again, my understanding of your original post is that you think that is a problem. If, however, you don't think it's a problem, then I have no idea what the objective of this discussion is. I don't mean to sound curt; I'm really in the dark and you don't want to know my best guess. ;-P

When I asked you what you wanted, I didn't mean what you wanted to feel, but what you wanted to get out of writing this post. What would your ideal commented be saying to you in response?

Sheila said...

It's not that I don't think it's a problem. It's that what I want -- to be aware of the dangers in a rational way, but not FEEL anxious about them -- does not seem to be possible. I mean, I know other people manage it, but I don't know HOW.

But, Enbrethiliel, now I'm not sure what YOU want. You read this blog, which is just a record of what's on my mind. You respond with advice, and I'm not instantly cured by it. Is this a problem? I wasn't really expecting y'all to be able to fix anything for me; I appreciate that you're listening and chiming in, that's all. Just *having* comments is enough for me because it means people care enough to take the time.

Do you ever get anxious, and what do you do? Do you try to dismiss the very thought of danger, or do you somehow keep aware of the danger while letting the anxious feelings dissolve? I imagine prayer is part of your toolkit, which must be helpful.

Meredith, it's worse than that, because I have a really serious fear of therapy because it's too much like Regnum Christi spiritual direction. I wanted to go to deal with the trauma of getting out of RC, but I couldn't because the thought of trying to talk to a stranger about my thoughts and feelings gave me the creeping horrors. So I blogged about it instead, lol. I'm sure the brave thing to do would be to force myself to go anyway, but I'm not brave and right now I feel like I would rather do almost anything than that, including just put up with how I feel. Maybe someday I will do it.

And of course on some level I think, it's not really THAT bad because I'm not anxious all the time or anything. It comes and goes.

Enbrethiliel said...


What I want is to know where you want the conversation to go bso I don't waste time typing stuff that doesn't even address your point. I personally can't stand it when I'm the position I imagine you are in, with everyone misunderstanding me while thinking they get me. Again, I don't mean to sound terse. I just find talking with people frustrating when we're not having the conversation I think we're having. And I imagine others feel the same way, though I could be wrong about that.

I don't think I feel very much anxiety when it comes to danger. Even when I've personally experienced it. Full disclosure: I once caused a car accident. Don't worry: nobody died. Except maybe my ego. And that truck's bumper. I do seem to have very poor spatial intelligence, and I feel a lot better when someone is in the passenger seat to tell me how far away from other cars I am. But I'd say my true handicap is not getting enough practice. Not that I can blame anyone for not wanting me to drive any longer. =P And no one seems to believe me when I say that my having caused an accident once makes me less likely to do it again. With due modesty, I am capable of learning from my mistakes (I think everyone is: it's the essence of practice and the bright side of failure) and no one wants to avoid another accident as much as I do. Maybe the best thing for you would be to crash without hurting anyone! (That last bit is a joke.)

Then there's anxiety over things that aren't really dangerous, which seems to be more common with me. Take speaking to complete strangers in Filipino. (You may recall that I speak my own language rather poorly.) What helps is coming up with a script beforehand or anticipating the phrases I will likely have to use. And I think I've been getting better, because it's mostly a language problem rather than an emotional or psychological problem. Foreigners in immersion programmes do this sort of thing all the time.

Also, I don't know if I'd recommend prayer to anyone in my position. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever asked God for help with learning a language! Not that it would hurt if I did. On the other hand, I have prayed to my Guardian Angel on the road. I believe he has saved me from physical dangers before and I trust that he will again . . . though, of course, if it's "my time," then it's my time. This may seem irresponsible, but I honestly can't get very worked up about it.

Sheila said...

Sorry I didn't answer this right away -- got caught up with Christmas. Hope you had a merry one.

I think there's probably not much you can say to me which would be helpful for my anxiety, because you just don't suffer from it! While I admire your ability to look danger in the face without stressing out, I'm pretty sure it's non-transferrable. ;)

But this has been helpful for putting my own anxiety in context -- how abnormal it really is. I don't suffer from extreme, crippling anxiety, I don't think, but apparently I do worry more than at least some adults do.

The other day, riding in the car, John and I were talking about anxiety and control. He and I are both pretty anxious people, and both of us are less anxious when he drives. See, he finds it comforting to be in control, because then he can be sure that all responsible precautions are being taken. I find it comforting not to be, because I can give myself permission not to worry, because nothing I do will make any difference -- if an accident happens, it won't be my FAULT.

Just goes to show that anxiety isn't the same for everybody.

Enbrethiliel said...


If it makes you feel better, you don't seem to be anxious in every field of life. Take that older post on faith in which you said that people who read it and then feel their faith weakening shouldn't blame you because it's not your responsibility to look after their faith. That's kind of what I was trying to say, with respect to the example of the book on the stairs. Even if someone does break his neck by tripping on a book that someone else left on the stairs (and which you saw but did nothing about in between both events), that's really not on you. People have a responsibility to look where they're going and you can't be everyone's mom. Anyway, there's at least one area in which you seem to live on the wild side! ;-)

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