#73 - Talking anxiety

Dan Shipper:  Hey, welcome to Talk Therapy, a podcast where two friends talk about their journey to start a media business together. I'm Dan Shipper.

Nathan Baschez:  And I'm Nathan Baschez. And, uh, well, we both listened to a podcast recently that we enjoy, and it was on a topic that's very near and dear to our hearts here at Talk Therapy. Dan, what was the podcast and what was the topic? [laughs]

Dan Shipper:  The podcast is The Ezra Klein Show, which, um, Nathan and I share, like, a love for The Ezra Klein Show, which I really appreciate. And I said it like, like you're not here. We both share [laughs] a love [laughs] for The Ezra Klein Show.

Nathan Baschez:  It's okay, every once in a while you can turn to the wall and speak to the fourth wall.

Dan Shipper:  [laughs] Yeah. And the topic was anxiety. Ezra-

Nathan Baschez:  We both share-

Dan Shipper:  Ezra-

Nathan Baschez:  ... a love for anxiety too, so.

Dan Shipper:  We do, we love it, yeah. Uh, it's- it's more of a love hate thing, I would say. And Ezra is a, like a known, he's talked a lot about his struggles with anxiety, uh, on his podcast and- and some of his writing. And he had on an anxiety researcher who wrote a book basically comparing anxiety to addiction. And then they just had, like, a long conversation about how anxiety words, what this guy's theory is for why people have it, and why it's hard to get rid of. And, yeah, we thought it'd be good to t- to talk about today.

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah, totally. So the model that this guy proposed is basically anxiety as a form of, like, addictive, habitual behavior. His previous book was about cravings, The Craving Mind, I think it was called. And it was, um, you've got some trigger in your environment that causes you to notice, "Oh, there's, like, something that I want." It's like an itch you have to scratch. And then there's the action, uh, which is scratching the itch. And then there's the reward of, like, the feeling of relief. And it's sort of weird to think about how you could apply that to anxiety, because anxiety it feels like maybe the itching part kind of resonates. But, like, there's no relief. Kind of, it's like, "Well how does that work?" And he actually draws our attention to the fact that there is a form of relief in anxious patterns of thought, because basically what happens is there's some trigger. So maybe it's, like, you know, Dan said that I'm a jerk, or something. And then there's this action-

Dan Shipper:  Classic Dan move, by the way.

Nathan Baschez:  Classic Dan move. Just daily basis over here.

Dan Shipper:  [laughs]

Nathan Baschez:  Um, and then there's the action, which is, like, in the form of anxiety, usually it's kind of, like, a problem-solving behavior. Where you're thinking about it, you're ruminating on it. You're like, "Okay, like, here's a situation, I've got to deal with it." So, like, type A people tend to have a lot of anxiety because they're like, "Okay, first of all, what did Dan mean by that? Has he said other things like that? Does he treat other people that way? Am I being a jerk? What did I do?" And you're just, like, turning it over, and over, and over in your head, trying to solve a problem that ultimately all that thinking is not really helping you.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  But it's doing, like, basically the extra anxiety that's causing you to keep turning it over is, like, doing you no favors. But maybe there's some kernel of some little thing that's like, "Oh, I should just, like, mention it to Dan next time." Be like, "Hey, like, did I do something to piss you off, or whatever?"

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  But like, oftentimes, like, the anxiety is basically you're, like, scratching at the itch and- and- and sort of making it worse. You know, like, as you do with itches. Like if you get poison ivy or something, you're not supposed to scratch it for a reason. Anxiety, those thoughts are kind of like scratching. They give you a little bit of relief, but ultimately they kind of make it worse.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, and essentially his model for anxiety is, I always get confused between operant and classical conditioning, but I'm pretty sure it's operant conditioning. Where basically there's a trigger, like you said, there's a behavior, and then there's the reward, and then that reinforces itself. So you, like, you keep doing it over, and over, and over again.

Nathan Baschez:  Right, it's like-

Dan Shipper:  Um-

Nathan Baschez:  ... Pavlovian, right? Where you got the- the ding and then you get the treat. And then you associate the ding with the treat. And so you salivate when the ding happens.

Dan Shipper:  No, it's a, that I think is classical conditioning. And that's an association. I think operant conditioning is about rew- rewards and punishments.

Nathan Baschez:  Got you.

Dan Shipper:  But I, we'll look it up later, we'll have a-

Nathan Baschez:  Let's take it offline.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, we'll take it offline [laughs]. Um-

Nathan Baschez:  Let's circle back on that one.

Dan Shipper:  It's some kind of conditioning.

Nathan Baschez:  We'll follow up.

Dan Shipper:  And I do think that that makes some sense. And what Ezra brought up in the show is, like, it doesn't feel like there's any reward, you know?

Nathan Baschez:  Right.

Dan Shipper:  And I think his counter-argument is, "Often at the end of the worrying, the bad thing doesn't happen, and you feel some relief. And so your brain just automatically connects the worrying to the bad thing not happening." Like, for example, what I used to do when I was in high school is I, um, after I finished a test I would worry about it. I would worry, like, "Oh my God, I definitely failed, I definitely failed, I definitely failed." And when I got the test back I would, I generally hadn't failed.

Nathan Baschez:  Would you actually verbalize that to yourself?

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative]

Nathan Baschez:  Like, you, like, truly believed it.

Dan Shipper:  Yes.

Nathan Baschez:  You're like, "I definitely failed."

Dan Shipper:  Yes.

Nathan Baschez:  That's funny 'cause I was the opposite, where I, as soon as the test was over I was like, "Glad that's done." And then I did poorly.

Dan Shipper:  [laughs] Um-

Nathan Baschez:  So, different strokes for different-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... folks, I guess.

Dan Shipper:  Seriously, yeah [laughs]. And for me it was like a superstition basically. Like, I know that there's no causal connection between worrying about it and doing well, but, um-

Nathan Baschez:  Especially after the fact, beforehand-

Dan Shipper:  That's what I mean, yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... maybe it'd cause you to study more.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  [crosstalk 00:04:27] But after the fact, what is the worrying-

Dan Shipper:  I did it after the fact. It doesn't make any sense. But I did it, and I continued to do it because there's that conditioning loop of, like, well I did it and afterwards I got a good grade. So, I should just keep doing that. And that's how you can kind of get caught in these loops of, "This thing isn't, like, actually serving me, but I keep doing it anyway because there's, like, this conditioning loop." And I think one of his strategies for dealing with this is essentially just paying more attention to the results of your actions and paying more attention to the causal connection between what you're doing and what the outcomes are.

Nathan Baschez:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Dan Shipper:  And the way that he specifically suggests that you do this, he applies it to overeating, is, like, to really pay close attention to how, if you're overeating, how overeating is making you feel.

Nathan Baschez:  Right.

Dan Shipper:  Um, and you'll notice that it's not making you feel good and you will automatically stop. And similarly, if you pay more attention to how the worrying is serving you, and how it's making you feel, and whether that's making you perform better or achieve your, achieve whatever the goal is, you'll probably notice that it's making you feel like shit and it's not helping you. And-

Nathan Baschez:  Right.

Dan Shipper:  ... somehow your brain will kind of, like, figure out to do it less.

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah. It seems like the really key thing is about using thinking to conjure feelings. So, it's not enough to be like, "Oh, I shouldn't worry. Worrying doesn't help me." That's, like, its own form of worry, like, you're still just thinking. He talks about, with the overeating example, instead of saying, "I shouldn't eat more pizza, it's not actually making me feel better. I'm gonna feel bad later on if I, like, eat too much pizza." He says, "Don't t- tell yourself what you should or shouldn't do. Create the feeling in yourself of that feeling of sickness. And, like, really try and tune into it and conjure it, almost-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... And make yourself feel it." Because when you start to pay closer attention to how you actually feel, you end up relating to your cravings differently. And this actually super resonates with me, because, uh, we haven't talked about this much but, I smoked for five years when I was, like, a young adult.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  And it was to the point where it was, like, a little bit difficult to quit. You know, I tried a couple times and couldn't quit and then finally did. And the thing that actually finally, there were two factors, one was I stopped living with some housemates that smoked. And so, like, I had that kind of, like, social trigger gone.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  But I still when they first left, I couldn't, I- I was, like, still smoking for a while and I tried to quit. And I, and I didn't, or couldn't. And then I- I used this, like, meditation app-

Dan Shipper:  Hmm.

Nathan Baschez:  ... or, like, self-hypnosis app. And the whole thing that it tells you to do is think about how disgusting it feels-

Dan Shipper:  Hmm.

Nathan Baschez:  ... to smoke.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  Just focus on your throat is raw, you're smelly, your fingers are turning yellow. Just all the gross feelings, like, get it as gross as you can in your head. Feel disgusted, and then, take a deep breath. You haven't smoked a cigarette in a while, and just, there's something clean and beautiful about just air-

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  ... in your lungs.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  Oxygen, you know.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  And, like, it's all about conjuring feelings and changing the feeling association. So you start to feel an association of disgust with cigarettes, and pleasure with just taking a deep breath and feeling, like, oxygen flowing through your body. And, um, it's really interesting how those visceral feeling shifts cause behavior shifts. And so, I think maybe conjuring the feeling of just how bad it feels to, like, worry about something to no productive end, you know? And then think about what it, the almost physical feeling of what it's like to just be worry free about something. Could be an interesting angle into, like, worrying less.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, and I, and I would say, like, it's usually you don't even have to conjure the bad feeling of worrying, it's, like, more actually, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, let me pay attention. I'm worrying, let me pay attention to how that's making me feel and whether that feel-"

Nathan Baschez:  In your body.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah. And whether that feels useful. And I think what it's doing, you talked about, like, the problems on your mind earlier. Like, he describes this as all to, like, conditioning. And- and I think that there's- there's an argument for that, but I think there's probably something even more complicated going on. But I think that there's this idea that you have a problem-solving mind, which can, like, do math problems and, like, analyzes things, and whatever. And then you have an experiencing mind that is, like, kind of awareness, it's consciousness. And basically you get into these weird situations where you're using the problem-solving mind for things that it can't solve.

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah.

Dan Shipper:  So, if you don't have enough information to make a decision, or if your bar for certainly is high enough, like the problem-solving mind is, like, you're revving it, but, like, it's not actually, like, getting you anywhere.

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah, you're kind of spinning your wheels.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, and you need to find a way to kind of, like, take your foot off the pedal of the problem-solving mind and, like, just experience what it's like to be in your body. And I think that's where you get a lot of people doing mindfulness stuff, or exercise, or journaling. Like, all that stuff is trying to kind of get, like, quiet things down and kind of get you away, get you out of that mode.

Nathan Baschez:  Totally. It's interesting because I think I relate to, and I- I would imagine you feel similar. A lot of my sort of, like, anxious, thought-spirally mind, is, like, this double-edged sword. Where on the one hand it keeps me up at night, it makes me feel subjectively bad, or kind of, like, to be preoccupied with something. But on the other hand, I feel like my ruminations are, like, a source of problem-solving, you know? Like, it's like, "What would I be if I didn't worry about stuff?" There's stuff I wouldn't notice. And like-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... when I notice those things I solve the problems, and I make them better.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  He just sort of says like, "Study's show you're actually not as good at solving problems when you're anxious." And this is something that, like, you've told me before. And I'm like, "I kind of believe it, but I don't [laughs] not 100% in some ways."

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  You know, like, I don't think I need all the extra anxiety, but there's something in that that's, like, I'm just scanning for what could go wrong, almost. And, like, I've just found enough things that way that I'm like, "Ooh, good thing I was looking, on the lookout for that."

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  That I'm, like, addicted to doing it, kind of.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah, I think there's a couple things there. One is it reminds me a little bit of, have you read The Courage to Be Disliked.

Nathan Baschez:  Uh, part of it.

Dan Shipper:  Okay.

Nathan Baschez:  I didn't make it all the way through, I didn't have the courage.

Dan Shipper:  [laughs] Yeah, you don't. Um, but, it's a summary of Adlerian's, like, psychology. And the basic gist is, like, you're anxious 'cause you wanna be anxious, 'cause you think it solves something for you. And you're, like, you're holding onto it, and need to, like, learn to let go of it. So-

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah.

Dan Shipper:  ... it reminds of, it reminds me of that a little bit. I think that the point of some of that like, "Oh, you're not doing good work when you're anxious." Is, it's not that you can't find something from your anxiety, but that, what anxiety does and what- what rumination does, is it gets you very focused on, like, a single thing.

Nathan Baschez:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Dan Shipper:  And you basically have blinders on. And when that single thing is actually the main thing you should be paying attention to I think it- it could be good, to be a little bit anxious and to be, like, kind of, like, resolving it. And finding the problem, and figuring out what it is, and- and fixing it.

Nathan Baschez:  Uh-huh [affirmative].

Dan Shipper:  But that blindness, that, like, attentional, basically because you're- you're focusing on one point, blinds you to all the other stuff. If that energy is misdirected, you're not going to be able to react to other things that might actually go wrong. And so it can increase the- the number of mistakes that you make because you're focusing on the wrong thing. Too-

Nathan Baschez:  Yeah.

Dan Shipper:  ... too rigidly. And basically what you need is, or the way that I conceptualize it, is you need to be able to think about the thing that you're thinking about, but not so intensely that all the other things just disappear. So that you can be aware of other problems that might arise, basically.

Nathan Baschez:  Right. I feel like it's more of a generalized anxiety-

Dan Shipper:  Hmm.

Nathan Baschez:  ... where I'm just sort of on the lookout for things that might be amiss.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  And I'm just kind, like, alert. I'm just, like, running scenarios, kind of. Of like, "Would this be a problem? Is this okay? Do we think of, this through?" All this kind of stuff. It doesn't feel as focused as what you're describing.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative]. Well, when you're doing that, what are you not paying attention to? Have you ever missed anything because you're doing that? Like-

Nathan Baschez:  Um.

Dan Shipper:  ... for example, uh, if you're in a meeting and you're, like, constantly scanning for signs of danger, or signs that the person is, you know, doesn't like what you have to say. Are you missing other things that are going on in the meeting that might be important? To tell you, to give you a quick picture of how you should act, or what you should say?

Nathan Baschez:  Maybe. I'm thinking of it a little bit less meeting-centric. The types of scenarios that are coming to mind for me are, like, with a piece of writing-

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  ... or with a code, or a design, or something.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  I'm like, "What are all the different ways that someone might react to this? What are all the different problems this might have?" And it's, I'm a little bit more in, it's like a creative mode, almost. But, like, a kind of anxious creative mode. 'Cause it's, like, very, like, on the lookout for problems, kind of a thing.

Dan Shipper:  [crosstalk 00:12:17] That's interesting.

Nathan Baschez:  And this is why I find writing kind of difficult, is because it's really hard for me to turn my editor off.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  My inner editor, as I write, 'cause I'm, like, thinking about the problems with what I write, and I can see them pretty clearly. So it's hard for me to just, like, get the initial draft out and, uh, put it on the page. And, um, it's interesting 'cause it's, like, I just think there's a lot of different forms of, these patterns have some commonalities, but maybe different people have different ha- like, my habit loop is, like, scanning the environment-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... for, like, what could be wrong with this type of thing, or whatever. And your habit loop might be, like, a totally different one 'cause, like-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... you know, we evolved a different, uh, little cycle earlier in our lives at some point.

Dan Shipper:  Totally. That's why I think, like, when we say anxiety or depression, or just, like, when we talk about any of this stuff, like, they're so different. Even the same person has so many different things that that could mean, or feelings-

Nathan Baschez:  Right.

Dan Shipper:  ... or situations that that could come up in. And I hate that everybody is like, "This is how anxiety works." And it's like, "No, this is a mental process that people experience and give the label anxiety, but anxiety is different for everybody. And it's different in different situations." And I think we really need a, basically a more refined language for how to talk about this stuff and differentiate between different experiences.

Nathan Baschez:  It's interesting to think of it, like, anxious loops. Where, like, everyone has a different type of loop that is triggered by different things, and it's a different type of action that you might take, and it's a different type of reward you might get. So they're very heterogeneous in that way, but they're homogenous in the sense that it's, like, a loop that kind of, is a habit, basically.

Dan Shipper:  Mm-hmm [affirmative].

Nathan Baschez:  Or something like that-

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  ... where there's, like, some core mechanics that are similar, but it manifests in lots of really different ways.

Dan Shipper:  Yeah.

Nathan Baschez:  Anyway, this is a complicated issue, Dan. Why can't anxiety be simple?

Dan Shipper:  [laughs]

Nathan Baschez:  I'm anxious about it now [laughter].

Dan Shipper:  That would definitely make my life easier [laughs] but-

Nathan Baschez:  Well-

Dan Shipper:  ... we didn't, we didn't solve it today, but maybe next time.

Nathan Baschez:  Maybe next time.

Dan Shipper:  All right.

Nathan Baschez:  See yeah.

Dan Shipper:  See yeah.