anxiety as a paraside

Anxiety Symptoms as a Parasite

Everything in the universe wants to survive and reproduce. So does anxiety. In this article, we consider anxiety symptoms as evidence of a parasite, one that’s feeding on your joy in life. Of course, anxiety is not really a parasite, not in the sense of a disease or insect that’s invaded your brain. But let’s explore the metaphor and see whether it’s useful.

Like every parasite, anxiety’s survival comes at the expense of the host. Infected individuals don’t think about being infected with anxiety. Of course, they realize they are anxious, worried, panicked, but they don’t recognize their anxiety to be a feeding parasite. Why? Because their anxiety exists and functions at a psychological, rather than physical, level. If you found a tick with its head embedded under your skin, you’d immediately recognize it for what it is, and you’d remove it. That’s much harder to do with anxiety. 

Recognizing Anxiety Symptoms

How do you know when anxiety is feeding? Pay attention to your individual anxiety symptoms, the way anxiety manifests inside of you. These symptoms become your personalize signal that anxiety is setting in, that the parasite is working on you. Typically, you’ll notice anxiety symptoms in some area of insecurity. A tick looks for a point where the skin is thin and highly vascularized. Likewise, anxiety looks for an area of vulnerability, perhaps your health, your relationships, your finances, or your work. Once anxiety finds some area of insecurity, it burrows in, and the anxiety symptoms begin. Since it’s not a physical thing, like a tick, you may not even recognize that it’s there. Anxiety symptoms may be physical, as with tension or trembling. Anxiety symptoms may be cognitive, as with worry or catastrophic thoughts. Anxiety symptoms may be emotional, as with dread and foreboding. But they all start as subtle variations of these.

An example: Say there’s a pain in your side. Anxiety sends you the thought, “This could be something.” But you shrug it off. Your health has always been good. Anxiety sends you the thought, “Your boss isn’t happy with your current project.” But you shrug it off. You can’t please everyone. Anxiety sends you the thought, “You and your significant other have been fighting a lot lately.” Now you think, “Hmmmm, my significant other has been working late a lot…I wonder if they just don’t want to spend time with me anymore.” You consider further possibilities regarding your significant other, some of which are horrifying, like an affair.

Anxiety is smiling now, because it’s beginning to get a reaction. You see, anxiety was able to create two prominent anxiety symptoms: First, there was the worry because you and your spouse have been fighting. Second, you escalated that worry into a catastrophic thought. Worse, these anxiety symptoms were not detected as such. Instead, you took them seriously. That is, you mistook worry and catastrophic thoughts as what’s called “realistic anxiety,” something you really need to solve. You may even believe you’re just thinking through, but from anxiety’s perspective, it’s beginning to burrow in. Just like a tick, it’s found an area that’s highly vascularized, where your insecurities can be tapped into and amplified. The resulting worries are like inflammation around the entry point, around the head of the tick. The anxiety symptoms have begun to multiply.

Worry is Stage 1, the baseline level of anxiety intensity. Some people remain at this level indefinitely. Although worry is the lowest clinically significant level of anxiety, it’s worth pointing out that worry can involve considerable suffering. Worry can be interfere with sleep. Worry can also induce chronic muscle tension, resulting in chronic exhaustion.

Eventually, your worries may become so amplified that they form catastrophic thoughts, as shown in the example above. Catastrophic thoughts begin with the assumption that the worst has already happen. What if my marriage fails? What if I have cancer? What if my boss fires me? What if I fail my classes? Why do catastrophic thoughts produce such intense anxiety symptoms? Catastrophic thoughts assume the worst and then ask for a plan. Of course, the thoughts are catastrophic precisely because they describe scenarios that cannot be remedied. As such, catastrophic thoughts create intense suffering, and tend to produce produce physical anxiety symptoms, and possibly panic attacks. At this point, however, your anxiety is still about some area(s) of vulnerability.  

Anxiety about Anxiety Symptoms

Eventually, anxiety symptoms burrow in so deep that you begin to dread the symptoms themselves. This is the start of anxiety about anxiety. You stop thinking about your work, your health, your relationships, your finances. Now you just want to know “When is this damn anxiety going away?” Now its got you. No longer does it need to bombard you with worried and catastrophic thoughts about your favorite vulnerability…it just needs to show up, and you automatically go into a posture of submission, dread, and retreat. 

This is a significant inflection point in the development of your anxiety syndrome, Stage 2, because your anxiety has become self-sustaining. Your dread of the symptoms, your reactivity, becomes its food, its sustenance. When you feel anxiety about anxiety, that’s the parasite sucking away at your motivation and joy. As your vital spirit passes over into the plump, swollen body of the tick, life shrinks down. Few things in life bring joy because most things are infected by the parasite. Some people even reach the point that they no longer leave the house. 

Ironically, many people come into psychotherapy defending the parasite. These people have reasons why nothing will change. When I suggest ways they can begin to excavate the parasite, they give me reasons why my suggestions are doomed to fail. My response is “When you came into therapy, you were looking for new ways of thinking and feeling, and that’s what I’m giving you. When you tell me that my suggestions are pointless, you’ve gone over to the other side, you’re doing the work of the parasite now. You came in seeking hope and courage and now you’re taking even those away. The parasite has you believing the hopelessness and helplessness, and that’s keeping you stuck.”

For many anxiety sufferers, this is a come-to-Jesus moment, because they know it’s true. There’s an old saying that people “prefer the devil they know over the devil they don’t know.” Many sufferers are so accustomed to going through life with the parasite attached that they’ve lost sight of boundary between it and them. It’s thoughts are their thoughts. Rather than question their catastrophic thoughts, they immediately believe them. So they start justifying and creating reasons why they cannot change, why the parasite must remain attached.

Eventually, however, people recognize that they have a disease, a parasite. At this point, they declare “You’re right, I have to beat it, I have to beat (or control) this anxiety.” They are recognizing the presence of the parasite and committing to its defeat. Maybe you commit to visiting the grocery store tomorrow, after procrastinating for weeks, just because the grocery always leads to a panic attack. Maybe you tell yourself that you’ll finally set that doctor’s appointment, even though you’re afraid of bad medical news. Maybe you’ll drive over that bridge that makes you feel faint. Maybe you develop a whole list of changes you’re going to white-knuckle through. You’ve given in before, but you’ll never give in again. Not this time. Sounds great, right?

Wrong. In fact, your commitment to beating anxiety is just another trap, another way for anxiety to feed. This trap frames your struggle to free yourself as a struggle of strength. If that’s true, then why haven’t you freed yourself already? From this perspective, the only answer is because you’re weak. You’ve been weak for weeks, months, maybe years, and now suddenly you’re expected to rise above your past defeats and be strong. Exactly how do you, in your weakened, bled-dry state, intend to go head-to-head against the parasite that’s been sucking away at your vital juices (hope, courage, joy) for so long? 

Unfortunately, it won’t happen, and it won’t happen because the parasite knows how to your courage against you. Anxiety is seeking your reactivity, your physiological arousal. Anxiety wants to create a high stakes showdown, a shootout at the O.K. Corral. Anxiety wants you to mess with it, because anxiety loves to threaten total thermonuclear war (panic). Anxiety knows that as your reinforce your resistance, it’s because you perceive there’s so much as stake, because the threat is so high. And if the threat is high, then so is the anxiety. This is the parasite actively feeding. The more you fight to excavate the head of the tick, the deeper it burrows. Eventually, many people stop fighting and just live within the boundaries of a small life. 

Acceptance

What does victory even look like when you can’t go war? The answer is obvious. Victory is not about straining and grunting to tolerate anxiety. Victory is about actually being calm. 

So you stop fighting and just accept the thoughts and feelings, understanding what they are and where they come from. They come from a parasite that wants to get you worked up. When you sense worry, you shrug and tell yourself that’s the parasite trying to feed. When you sense catastrophic thoughts, you shrug, come back to reality, and recognize that the parasite is trying to feed. When you feels anxiety about your throat tightening up to the point you can’t breathe, you shrug and recognize that the parasite is trying to feed. Recognizing the parasite at work helps keep you in contact with reality, keeps you grounded. This is also called mindful awareness. You are observing your own mental processes in the moment. 

Once you understand that the parasite is trying to feed, the next step is to be okay with the symptoms, whatever they are and whatever they become. To do this, you try to stay in observer mode. When you are observing the symptoms, you are not caught up in experiencing them, or actually, struggling not to experiencing them, as with distraction, suppression, and even various medications. You are no longer trying to escape. All escape is based on the underlying assumption that “I must not experience this, I absolutely cannot experience this.”You’re now working directly on the cause of the symptoms. You are now treating the disease. You tell yourself that “I can, I will, I want to experience the symptoms.” Maybe you even muster up some gratitude.

So how do you maintain observer mode? Let’s assume you have panic attacks, because that’s probably the worst case scenario. When you feel the symptoms coming on, get a pencil and paper. Practice observing the symptoms as closely as possible. If your heart beating fast, write that down. If it changes, write that down. If you notice you’re starting to sweat, write that down. If your hands are trembling, write that down. Let the whatever happens happen and just observe it as it moves along. To the extent that you can, practice being okay with the symptoms. 

Easier said than done? Of course it is. But remember, even though you’ve may have experienced hundreds of attacks, you haven’t died yet and you haven’t suffocated, and you haven’t gone crazy. You only believe these lies in experiencing mode. So see if you can introduce doubt and be okay with the symptoms. No one says “I’ve observed hundreds of panic attacks.” That’s because observation involves distance and detachment, which makes it possible to know your anxiety intimately. You’ll discover that the symptoms occur in an orderly sequence, a predictable sequence, a boring sequence. You can’t be anxious and bored at the same time. 

How do you apply the acceptance idea with worry? First, practice recognizing that you’re worrying. Otherwise, you’ll be immersed in your worries for long stretches of time. Practice coming up for air. Surface. Again, that’s just mindful awareness. Whenever you feel yourself going into another deep dive, surface. That’s you leaving the future and coming back to the present moment, where the possibility for joy is. Also, be comfortable with the fact that you’ve just worried. That addresses worry about worry. 

Next, ask if your worries are realistic.  Just because something can go wrong, doesn’t mean it will go wrong. Some worries are realistic. If possible, take action. 

Practice exposure and acceptance to worry by worrying intensely. You can also grab and pencil and paper and take the initiative on your worry. Set aside 30 minutes to worry as hard as you can. Write down every single worry and catastrophic thought. Be as creative as you can. Elaborate previous worries in new directions. Don’t worry just about disappointing your boss, write down disappointing your coworkers and your spouse. As you do so, observe yourself in this process. Say “Ah, here I am worrying.” Give yourself compliments. “That was a great one…never thought of that before.” Take joy in your inventiveness. After the 30 minutes is up, do something you really enjoy. This rewards you for detaching from worry. 

Before ending, let me comment on something you may have noticed, a lurking contradiction. You’re not really practicing acceptance of the anxiety symptoms as a means of getting the anxiety to go away. That’s really just more fear and escape, and that fuels anxiety about anxiety. If you’re telling yourself that you’re working on your anxiety, but you’re secretly desperate, you have to bring that desperation to the surface and acknowledge it. What you ought to be practicing is being okay with the anxiety symptoms, whatever they are. If I’m choking, well…I’ve done that before, so no worries. If I’m having catastrophic thoughts, let me catch myself and recognize that thousands of times these thoughts have never happened. Most of the time, the anxiety symptoms do go way down when you practice just being okay with them. That’s called “opening a space.” And when the symptoms don’t reduce, practice framing it as another great opportunity to practice being okay.