First, a list of things I am not anxious about. This is not comprehensive, but it is illustrative.

Flying

Snakes

Spiders

Strangers

Heights

Public Speaking

Some of these things are because I’m a white, heterosexual, cisgendered, male. I am largely free from the social fears that plague many members of our society. I acknowledge that privilege.

Mood is a weird word that carries a morose weight — simple, short, with the long double o. It’s a word derived from Old English. Fittingly, it sounds like it oozed out of a bog. It’s hard to associate the word “mood” with a positive feeling, and it’s even harder to use it in the first person. How often does one say “I’m in a good mood?” Usually we use it to describe somebody else. Is this because it’s easier to gauge another’s state of feeling than it is our own? It feels that way.

Feelings. Why do we have them? They never did anybody any good. They just lead to broken hearts and bad days. How many crimes would simply cease to exist if feelings were taken out of the equation? Crimes of passion would disappear entirely! Road rage would be a thing of past times. Nobody would ever have their feelings hurt again, so comedians could stop complaining about how sensitive everyone is, and nobody would be sensitive about anything anymore anyway. Cold, clean, clear logic would rule our lives, and everybody would be better off.

Of course I’m a Star Trek fan, and I’m describing Vulcans. They’re an entire race that, as an entire race, decided, after a period of strife and war, that feelings were doing more harm than good and it was time to get rid of them. They developed a whole big philosophy and it rocketed their society into a many-thousand-year golden age. Nothing illustrates the crappy influence of emotions better than this episode of Star Trek, when Kirk has a transporter accident and it pretty much sucks for everyone. Watch this sequence.

Spock is trying to be helpful but he acknowledges his privilege as an emotionless being. He can solve the problem at hand (Kirk has been split into two complimentary but opposite emotional beings) but he can’t really relate to what it FEELS like. Spock understands what Kirk is going through only theoretically, but he’s been around humans long enough to know when they might get angry at him that he isn’t more sympathetic: “If I seem insensitive to what you’re going through, Captain, understand – it’s the way I am.” Poor Spock, we’re meant to think. He can’t feel the feelings that everyone around him is feeling. Not me. Lucky Spock, I say! He’s not missing anything!

I have a severe allergy to evolutionary psychology, but even that broken clock is right once in a while. It’s in that treacherous morass that we find some of the reasons why we feel the way we feel.

SIDEBAR: why don’t I like evolutionary psychology? Because it’s reductive and easy to manipulate. I know it helps people to imagine that their feelings or thoughts or behaviors are endorsed by Mother Nature, but it’s too often used to abuse people who are already marginalized and to excuse intolerable behavior by the people in power.

The human internal experience can be broken into three simple states that start big and get smaller: personality, mood, and feelings. Personality stays pretty consistent throughout a person’s life, mood changes with some occasional but reliable regularity, and feelings can vary from moment to moment.

The one objective fact we can hang our hats on is that the experience of an emotion is universal: anger in one person, no matter what culture they come from, is the same anger in another person. This anger might be expressed differently but the experience of feeling angry is the same for all humans.

SIDEBAR: Not everybody agrees about this, of course, but not everybody agrees that the earth is flat, either. We have to draw some lines, and for the purposes of this discussion, I’m prepared to draw a line around this.

SIDEBAR TO THE SIDEBAR: I do not mean to say that the scientists who disagree with the objective quality of emotions are intellectually equal to flat-earthers. They are not.

We have six distinct emotions, a nice, simple number that is the closest to consensus we’ll get. It’s so common, here’s a graphic for it:

In 2017, there was a new study that suggested that there are actually 27 different emotions. They aren’t really new discoveries, just more granular segments of the 6 we already have words for.

This whole thing reminds of me of light. See, there’s just one kind of light, and we call it “white.” It’s a byproduct of lots of important chemical reactions, like the nuclear fusion happening at the center of our solar system. We evolved eyes that can see all that light bouncing around, though we can only see a certain slice of segments with the eyes we’ve got. Other animals evolved ways to detect some of the segments we can’t see. For instance, reindeer evolved the ability see in the ultraviolet spectrum, because the lichen that sustain them in the frigid north glow like rave kids in ultraviolet. If a reindeer could talk, it wouldn’t say “yeah, I see in ultraviolet,” it would just include ultraviolet stuff in the list of its own visible spectrum.

Feelings are like light. We’ve always been feeling these feelings, but only recently have we come up with names for the segments. For many years, six segments was enough. The 27 “new” feelings are just segments of the same feelings we’ve always felt.

Wouldn’t it be neat if it turned out there were a whole bunch of feelings we had no access to, yet still existed in the experiences of other creatures? Some scientists think this is exactly what happens among humans and some of us just aren’t capable of feeling some of the things that other humans feel. Our list of 27 (or 6) feelings is just the broadest human approximation of the roughly 276,000 reactions they collected (read more about the experiment at this link https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2017/09/09/here-are-the-27-different-human-emotions-according-to-a-study/#595a22a13359 ).

I still haven’t answered my question, bellowed into the sky during a bad day: why do I have feelings?

We’re pretty sure we know why we evolved feelings: to survive. That’s the easy answer. Not everything we’ve evolved was to increase the likelihood of us living long enough to have sex and raise our offspring, but it’s safe to say that feelings are, since they dominate so much of our lives.

For something like anxiety, I’m prepared to accept that explanation. There is a huge physiological component to anxiety. Play the anxiety home game: give yourself a panic attack by taking 30 deep breaths in rapid succession. It’s guaranteed to work! That simulates the sudden stress of being chased by a hungry tiger. The blood rushes from your extremities to your internal organs. Your bowels release. You might vomit, too. Your pupils dilate, letting in more light. Your body turns off everything that won’t help you survive the next few minutes, from reproduction to digestion.

Imagine feeling that all day. You know how allergies are your immune system behaving on false information? That’s what anxiety disorder is. It’s your entire body acting like a tiger is going to jump out at any moment, despite the lack of tigers or tiger-like creatures in the vicinity. I have it, so I take medicine that helps regulate it.

We’re not entirely sure how these medications work, and some of them work better than others on some people and don’t work the same way in everyone. That’s a maddening fact that is crushingly familiar to anyone who has experienced chronic illness (which, if we’re being honest, is most people). If you’ve ever taken an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication (and if you’re an American, chances are pretty high you have), then you know the experience well. The first one you try probably won’t work, or it will kind of work in some ways but not in others, so the doctor tries another medicine that does more of the stuff you like and less of the stuff you don’t like. My own experience with these medications is common and nonlinear, and supplemented with drugs like benzodiazepines and beta blockers. Clonazepam is the chemical throat-punch that stops anxiety before it gets out of hand, while fluoxetine is the long-term levy that I use to keep the flood of bad feelings in control. I mixed my metaphors there, but you can follow along.

When I lament the burden of feelings, anxiety is my primary target. I highly recommend the book My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel, if you’re interested in learning more about anxiety in general and Stossel’s anxiety in particular (he has it, too). There are two lessons from this book that I want to share with you.

The first: anxiety as a disorder is very new, and, like ultraviolet light to a reindeer, was probably always there but we didn’t have a word for it, and using what we know about how anxiety was treated over the years, we can see how many people probably had it.

The second: one story of anxiety that sticks out to me, personally, is that of an anonymous World War 2 veteran. He was so fearful of his panic attacks that he told his therapist that he would gladly trade them in for the experience of storming Omaha Beach again.

First, the second lesson: this man’s anxiety about his anxiety was so great that he would happily exchange it for the experience of traversing a beach while an enemy army tried to kill him. Anxiety, as a force in this man’s mind, was stronger than the German army, stronger than bullets and mortars. If you’ve ever seen the Normandy scene from Saving Private Ryan, imagine two doors: one leads to a panic attack, but you choose this door instead https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hdBEyitJ7Qc [warning: graphic!].

The other lesson Stossel teaches us is that anxiety existed for all of human history, but without a name that encompassed all of its fun iterations. Of the many physical effects of anxiety, a common one is diarrhea and general gastrointestinal distress (see voiding bowels as survival tactic, above).

Here are some famous historical figures who suffered from anxiety:

Charles Darwin. By Stossel’s estimate, based on Darwin’s copious notes and letters, spent roughly a third of his adult life “either vomiting or in bed.” He suffered terribly during the voyage of the Beagle, but eventually published his discovery.

Isaac Newton. One of the greatest geniuses the world has ever seen (if you didn’t know already). He discovered calculus but didn’t tell anyone for ten years because he was so anxious and depressed.

Mahatma Gandhi. While working as a lawyer, froze during his first case and fled from the courtroom in terror.

Emily Dickinson. She barely left her room after age 40 or so.

Samuel Johnson. Britain’s greatest academic. He was crippled by anxiety and found it especially difficult to get out of bed at a reasonable time.

Imagine what these people could have accomplished without anxiety hampering them? Look at what they accomplished despite it!

So what’s my excuse?

Again, it comes back to me, like a spotlight at a stage in a dark amphitheater full of people judging me. Or, even worse, struggling in silence with incessant feelings of low self-worth and stupidity to an empty hall. I’m a bad writer. I’m not good at anything. Even my skills at competitive first person shooter video games have been surpassed by younger people with faster reflexes. I don’t even have a job! Woe is me, etc.

I am a modern day Ælfric, the commander of English forces in a battle with the Danes whose anxious vomiting led to the slaughter of his leaderless forces in 1003 AD.

I wonder what scenario Ælfric would pick, given the choice between his anxiety and reliving the battle that he so decisively lost. What would he had been able to accomplish if he had been able to pop a couple of Xannies as the screaming, blonde, Danish invaders came over the hill and hacked his men to pieces?

I am again faced with my original premise, unswayed from the finality implied by it. Feelings are the worst.

My own age of anxiety began when I was in grade school. I was so terrified of the social pressures of 4th grade that I refused to go. My father promised me anything I could dream of from Toys R Us if I went to school, but I could not. It would be many years after this that I would start therapy and medication that turned my life completely around, but the intervening years were marked by almost constant panic attacks at the prospect of intimate social activities. For instance, I did not learn to greet people by name when I saw them until practicing that very activity with my therapist at the age of 27. I’m still reluctant to do so, to avoid the horror of calling someone by the wrong name.

Fatefully entwined with feelings of social anxiety are feelings of inadequacy and worthlessness. Socially anxious people are more acutely aware of nonverbal signals but are much more likely to misinterpret them as negative. People like me are hyper aware of the moods of the people around us because we’re absolutely certain that they hate us, or think we’re pathetic, and would rather we weren’t there.

There are some signs of hope, however. Anxiety often falls apart when confronted with facts. It’s simply a matter of reminding ourselves of those facts, and letting ourselves believe them, that give us victory over anxiety.

The lesson we can all learn, one that echoes down the ages from Ælfric: don’t be so goddamn hard on yourself.

31 thoughts on “Feelings

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