Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Data and Anxiety

Comic by B. Kliban.

I have been suffering from anxiety attacks for the past month.

What is anxiety? A tangled ball of thoughts that I can't seem to get out of no matter how much I struggle. A weight that makes my shoulders slump and my molars grind and my fingers twitch and my heart flutter in my chest. A worry that I cannot do anything about, that won't unravel itself, that has tangled itself knotted and confused around my fingers. An emptiness. A cloud. A drowning flood that I can never escape. Sometimes I'm fine and I forget about it completely and I wonder what I was ever afraid of, what I ever worried about. And then it will come again, a fire, a darkness, a switch being flipped.

Anxiety is an evolutionary mistake. My mind (already fast) goes into overdrive, mulling possibilities, rehearsing plans, calculating probabilities. My body gets ready to run, to fight, to survive. Back when my ancestors were threatened by tigers, epidemics, and pogroms, this anxiety helped them survive. It helped them anticipate the unexpected, and act with dispatch when true threats came.

So I inherited this anxiety. But I do not have tigers, epidemics, or pogroms to trouble me. And yet sometimes my brain reaches out and grabs something--something it is afraid of losing--and starts to worry about it, with the same fretful intensity that should only be reserved for those big dire things that can really kill you--those things whose eyes glint out at you from the dark opening of a primordial cave. And I will be trapped in my thoughts like a bug twitching in a spider's web.

It's hard to describe what the thoughts are like, because they are so annoying, so simple, so obviously wrong. But they come, and I can't stop them. I am not loved. I am not good enough. I should never have come to grad school. I have lost my chance for community, for affection, for real life. My girlfriend is going to leave me. My friends don't really like me. I have let down my family. I am a disappointment to my advisors, a secret joke in the halls of the History department, a pleasant fool. Over and over again. Endlessly echoing in the theater of my mind.

The thoughts won't go away. I sit there on my couch, my heart beating, my mind racing through them over and over again, replaying them like an afternoon re-run of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The cause of this bout of anxiety is easy to identify. My fiancée left me a few months ago. Those emotional truths that had once seemed solid--that I am a good person, deserving of love; that the people I love will not leave me--seemed to have melted into air.

I know that this is not fair. I am still a good person, deserving of love; it is still unlikely that the people I care about will suddenly abandon me. Many fine, normal, attractive people go through broken engagements. But the dream-like nature of the worries makes them even more hard to deal with. Because they have very little fact behind them, I cannot grab hold of them and do something about them. Because they are inscrutable, they have become a grand, unsolvable problem, one which has come to take up my every third thought.

A few weeks ago I began an attempt to quantify my life. I wanted to boil my self down into numbers, data-tables, and vectors in order to find the hidden patterns underlying Brendan Mackie. Below are a number of data visualizations which help show what I'm going through.

I have learned a few things already from this project.

I am OK
Look at my daily ratings. There's a perfect 10 in there! None of the days merited lower than a 4.

I may be a bit broken now, but that has not meant that I cannot have wonderful experiences. And my bad days are, from the perspective of the carnage of human history, not super bad.

Friends Are Important
Days when I see friends--for lunch, coffee, or dates--are the best. Conversely, when I'm lonely I'm far more prone to fall into deep anxiety.

Anxiety Happens In The Morning
I wake up with anxiety. But as I go through my day and fill my head and heart with actual, real-life stuff, the anxiety passes.

Understanding It Helps
Being able to see my well-being marked in an impersonal line graph helps. See, here, this dip? This is when I let a whole Sunday morning go by fretting over whether someone actually liked me or was only pretending to. Look--this good day? That was when I made an effort to connect with my friends.

I know that tomorrow morning I will wake up and I will hold today up for judgement. Will I have let another day slip by, tortured by illusory thoughts? Or will I have tried to do something about it?

I'm curious about your comments. How do you deal with anxiety? What more can we learn about ourselves from data?