Smart People Anxiety

  One of the great things about working and living in Portlandia is the people.

I’ve found Portland is kind of a mecca for some of my favorite types of people: creatives and artists.

I enjoy meeting with folks who are insightful, thoughtful, compassionate, those who sometimes are slow to speak outside the counseling office because they want their words to be well-considered. Often they are introverted but not all. Many are grad school students at the seminary, involved in leadership or ministry. They care deeply about people, often very empathetic and authentic. They inspire me because they see things beyond the surface. Their everyday walking around, thoughts are art. I’d love to read their memoirs or journals. They fascinate me.

The downside though is often creatives and artists because of the way they see the world and the depths to which they think and process things can really struggle with anxiety and depression.

They have high highs and low lows. They quickly can go from “Everything is awesome to everything has gone to hell”. (They’d describe this much better)

They get paralyzed by their introspection

Overwhelmed by the intensity or the changes of their emotions

They can feel isolated and misunderstood.

And frustrated at feeling out of control.

If you add, for many of my clients and grad students, being devote in their faith; they can be vulnerable to another layer of anxiety around believing they are not doing enough for God or for others.

For example, they may feel overwhelmed at the enormity of a social justice issue, at how big the problem is or how much work and changes needs to be done in that area. And they can have a hard time turn off or turning down how concerned or troubled they are about the issue.

When I see this, one thing I tell them is they are suffering from what I call “Smart people anxiety”.

It’s not the simple, garden-variety anxiety or depression – it’s complicated!

Strong thinkers are strong feelers.

There’s levels and layers to their anxiety!

Their anxiety doesn’t just get triggered and then follow one railroad track to a catastrophic ending.

Their anxiety branches off in multiple and elaborate permutations that quickly can overwhelm them.

It becomes a huge suffocating mess to untangle.

Because of how creative and thoughtful and imaginative they are.

Another phrase I use as way of talking and exploring this other than “smart people anxiety” is “Inception level anxiety” or “Inceptionesque anxiety”.

Inception being the movie directed by Christopher Nolan and starring Leonardo DiCarprio.

Inception is about a team of people that get hired to create dreams and implant new realities and memories into their targets. A young member of their team played by Ellen Paige has a talent for creating very realistic elaborate dreams. The more realistic the dream world and images she creates, the greater the chances at their deception, their inception, will work.

In the movie, with a challenging target, they attempt to plant a dream, within a dream, within a dream. The problem is the deeper they go the harder it is to distinguish the dreams from reality.

For artists and creative, I think this is a part of what makes their anxiety or depression harder to untangle and treat. They can quickly build elaborate constructs, metaphors, inner worlds and word pictures for what they are going through. We all do this when we go through struggles and experiences, we try to make meaning, to make sense of things. Creatives can overdo this. They can attach so much meaning and attach so many different things to their stressors and triggers; they don’t just catastrophize, they globalize. What might be, what it might mean, quickly becomes reality.

Thing is, it often isn’t completely true, or true at all. Because it might mean something doesn’t mean that is the best or truest interpretation to hold. Just because it feels, or seems real, doesn’t mean it is.

Here’s a few things that the team from Inception did that might help you if you struggle with this type of anxiety:

  • They set limits. When one of their team went down into the psyche, into the dream state, of their target they set alarms to pull them out of the dream. This prevents them from getting trapped in the dream and disconnected from reality forever. If you struggle with rumination and worry you can set limits too. You can literally set an alarm, a time limit, just like the Inception team to remind you to get out of your head and go do something else. You set limits by having a designated space to worry. You can journal. The thoughts can seem a while lot smaller on a page, and you can literally close the book on them when you write them down. Journalling also slows you’re racing thoughts down because we usually can’t write as fast our thoughts. You can also set limits by having boundaries on the types of conten, and how negative it is, that you allow as input or what you create and dwell on. For example, what types of music, media, news, people – and how much and how long – you expose yourself to.
  • They had a totem. Each member of the team had a something to hold, something with someone weight, that they could “carry” with them down into the dream to root them to reality and help them distinguish what was real and what was a dream. DiCaprio’s character had a top that he kept in his pocket and held onto. For folks struggling with the anxiety of quitting tobacco, they often use a totem of their own, a “worry stone” to help them focus on the present and work through a period of craving. For folks with this type of anxiety, focusing on what’s present, being mindful, focusing on things external to them instead of their thoughts (diaphragmatic breathing and exercise help), focusing on their core beliefs, what’s most important, what they know to be true, instead of thinking too far ahead or focusing on their ruminations and visualizations can be very helpful. These are a few ways of grounding themselves and reconnecting with reality.
  • They didn’t do the work alone. DiCaprio’s character, because of his past, lost objectivity. He started to struggle with what was real. It made him vulnerable to making selfish, poor choices that comprised the team’s mission. His past was haunting him. He needed the others on his team, especially Paige, to keep him on track.

If you’re a creative or introvert, struggling with how powerful your anxiety or depression can be, I hope this post will encourage you to use your powers of insight and imagination “for good”.
Watch here on the blog for more posts on anxiety and depression.

In the meantime, what do you think? If you’ve seen the movie, anything you’d add?

And, most importantly, anything you’ll do with this?




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Licensed professional counselor and health coach in Portland, OR Pre-marital and couples counseling. Individual counseling for anxiety, depression, insomnia, sleep disorders, sexual addiction, porn addiction, career, transitions, grief, burnout, personal growth.

13 thoughts on “Smart People Anxiety”

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    I truly do enjoy writing but it just seems like the first 10
    to 15 minutes are generally lost just trying to figure
    out how to begin. Any suggestions or tips? Appreciate it!

    1. Hi, sorry for the delay in replying, great question. (Didn’t realize there’s a section where comments are sent to). Sometimes that first bit of writing helps clear your mind. Kind of like small talk with yourself, the outer layer of the onion, before you go deeper and peel back a few layers. That may be just what you need to do, and just be okay with that. You could try some guided imagery, diaphragmatic breathing beforehand. Going for a walk or run, do some stretching or yoga. You could also do some reading or listen to some music, do some visual art. Experiment and try to find a pre-writing ritual that opens up your best ideas. If anxiety or the gremlins in your mind distract you, reading Seth Godin’s Icarus Deception, Pressfield’s War of Art, or Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly may help inspire you.

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