Microdosing pain: how to make things suck less, by sucking more

Updated Oct 5 2018

Can we talk about ambient anxiety for a minute? I grew up in the woods on an island, and had an extremely sheltered childhood. It was lovely, but there were some emotional coping and regulation skills that I didn't develop, because I just didn't need to. I learned to work around these skill gaps by using my mind to anticipate and avoid things I didn't know how to handle… but ambient anxiety is the cost of admission for a life of anticipating and avoiding pain. I did my best to funnel that anxiety into my career, and things worked ok for a while.

Then, thanks to a combo of life shit and political shit and aging and who knows what else, my anxiety stopped being ambient and started looking like it was going to drive me over the edge. This has confounded me — I mean, I'm a white middle class woman. Relatively speaking, my life is pretty easy. Why am I freaking out all the time? If for no other reason, I need to get a better handle on my anxiety so I have more capacity to raise my son and be of useful service to others… so apparently now is the time to finally address this anxiety and stop it with the work-arounds.

Anxiety: trying to avoid pain

The game of anticipating and avoiding pain is exhausting and fruitless. It's an endless game of control whac-a-mole, where we're constantly convinced that if only we can do this or that, we will avoid pain. Anticipate that bad feeling, and then make elaborate plans to cut it off at the pass! Endless contingencies! Endless predictions! Endless schemes!

Also: Endless fear!

Because we all know that no matter how hard we try (and we all know I am #tryhard FOR LIFE) or how clever we are at our work-arounds (and oh, I am so very clever), pain will find us. Life happens. We're all gonna die. Etc!

And then, when shit does happen, we find that we have limited skills at dealing with the pain, because we've invested all our energy in avoiding it!

Also, bonus oops: we accidentally built a life where we spend an ever-increasing amount of time and attention anticipating, predicting, fearing, and avoiding things. NOT THIS! NOT THAT! FEAR! TERROR! STRESS!

Living this way is pure hubris (Oh, I think I know what's best for me?! HA! How many times can I be proven wrong?!) and it's crazy-making (I must think about awful things all the time! Are we having fun yet!?) and it creates situations where we hate ourselves endlessly (if only I'd anticipated a situation better, I could have avoided that pain! I'm so stupid stupid stupid!).

Basically what we're saying over and over to ourselves is "I don't have the skills to handle that. I can't do that. I don't have the capacity to survive that. I'm not strong enough to do that. I am not capable of it… so I will anticipate it and then avoid it."

And so the truth of my anxiety is revealed: I invested all my time in building little walls all over the place to try to shelter myself from pain, but what I was actually doing was denying myself opportunities to learn and become more capable.

Learning from pain in lil bits

Cool story bro, but leaning into and learning from pain is a delicate balance… if you get too much information all at once, your nervous system gets overwhelmed and it just switches into trauma response and you get all fight/flight cortisol panic attack and can't do anything.

Of all people, I super majorly understands this… me and my experience of divorce as physical trauma (wtf? turns out hurt feelings can feel like you're dying?), where too much came in and basically my whole nervous system shut down? Yeah, I get it.

So, if I want to grow my coping skills and emotional fortitude, I need to get pain in small, manageable doses. Hear what I said? We need pain. It's coming no matter what you do, in ways you can't even imagine (thank gawd! Who wants to spend all their non-pain time imagining the flavors of future pain?!). Pain is inevitable.

But here's the cool part: if you make the choice to lean in just a tiny bit, YOU GET TO CHOOSE WHERE / HOW YOU GET IT. It's like microdosing, and while you don't have control over the shit your life tosses at you, if you make the decision to practice coping strategies, you get to have agency about when and how you get those doses!

So this is the thing I'mma try:

When I feel fear or anxiety flare up around an issue, I'm going to notice.

Then, I'm going to try to peel back the layers of wtf is really going on and find the root pain behind the superficial anxiety.

If I've learned anything this year, it's that most anxiety details are just story and content.

This is the hardest part of the process, because my mind and ego really REALLY want me to believe the details and specifics of anxiety are incredibly important. Minds are really attached to the story, and so it can feel hard to peel back the specifics and get to the root of what's behind the anxiety.

Sometimes I try to just keep asking myself "So? And what if does? Why's that a problem?" until the details of that get stripped away, and the fear is actually just this pink shiny embarrassing embryo.

It's uncomfortable, but if you take off enough layers to the point where you're saying something so humbling and simple that it sounds like something that a very small child might say, and then you immediately feel like crying because it sounds so silly but is so true? Then… BINGO!!!

For example, me and my discomfort with swimming pools has very little to do with swimming or pools. Sure, I failed guppies three times as a kid, but when you it peel, back it's just the shame sting of looking stupid. GOD I HATE LOOKING STUPID. It makes me feel worthless.

The issue here isn't really about water or swimming or pools, or what happened in my childhood. It's not even reeeeally about my fear of looking stupid… it's about worth, because my sense of worthiness is tied to my intelligence.

So, it's not about swimming — it's about getting over my discomfort with looking stupid, so that I can practice being ok when I'm feeling dumb, so that I know that I have worth even when I'm not smart.  I look for small, manageable, safe ways to practice feeling stupid, so that it doesn't hurt so much.

Instead of avoiding swimming pools (still nerve-wracking for me!) I can choose to try other new things that feel stupid, so that I learn how to deal with the pain of stupidity, so that I can get untriggered into a worthless-feeling state.

See, Ariel? Not knowing what you're doing isn't an unsurvivable horror! You've gotten to practice repeatedly how you can feel dumb, and still have worth, and so now you don't need to avoid feeling dumb because it makes you feel like you don't deserve to be alive. Looking stupid isn't a crisis. If you can practice it in little bits, maybe you can learn that.

Instead of avoiding the pain with ever more elaborate work-arounds and rules and contingencies and fall-backs (avoid avoid avoid!), I can consciously make the choice to lean in just a teeny tiny bit, so that I can practice my coping skills.

…But don't overdo it!

Anyone familiar with the psychological concept of flooding? Flooding, in my swimming pool example, would be throwing myself into a pool, to hopefully force myself to realize that pools aren't scary. I tried to self-flood myself once, and it was awful. (Me: "So I chose to go to this place? That's totally associated with a lot of very acute emotional pain? Because I'm trying to burn the trauma out of my system?" My therapist: "Please don't do that to yourself.") Flooding is pretty intense. I'm gonna say the solution probably is not drowning myself in feelings of stupidity so that I can abruptly burn the discomfort out of myself.

The solution is more likely tiny steps towards filling capability gaps and healing. It's making the proactive choice to develop strengths, instead of the choiceless reaction of living in fear and desperately working around perceived weaknesses.

Anxiety is just about control — we live in fear of the future, desperately trying to anticipate pain, and avoid it.

If we surrender to the reality that there's no avoiding it (NONE! No matter how clever we are!), then we can slowly start to redirect the energy from avoiding/controlling you think is bad, toward instead developing the skills you need to deal with… whatever!

Then you don't have to run endless contingency plans and fears (If this happens, I'll do that. But if THAT happens, I'll do this. Or what about that? Or this other thing? Then I'd do XYZ!) and can instead just feel like "Ok, if that happens, I have practice at dealing with that pain. It will suck, but I know from my practicing that I can handle things sucking. It won't be easy or fun, but I don't have to spend my life afraid."

Transmute fear into grace! Refunnel anxiety into strength! Stop hating yourself for not anticipating every possible thing that could happen, and instead start loving yourself for working so hard to develop new strengths!

  1. "It's making the proactive choice to develop strengths, instead of the choiceless reaction of living in fear and desperately working around perceived weaknesses."

    This. This sentence has so much power. Thank you.

  2. Thank you! You just put into words why I’m so anxious and what I’m doing with my time. For me, joining a music group has helped with my micrdosing of embarrassment, but it’s time for me to move the microdosing into the work/job realm and into my fears around my child dying. I haven’t figured out what those will be though.

    • Something that I got from this article, and that I am finding truly mind blowing, is that the micro dosing doesn't need to be the same flavour as the details of the anxiety. I like the idea of getting better at feeling stupid being helpful for the pool related issue, and probably a bonus load of other anxieties which all boil down to feeling stupid as well! It is harder with the massive ones like fear of losing someone close to you, since losing a parent very suddenly a few years ago, I have struggled hugely with the absolute terror of losing my partner in some way. But I suspect that dealing with the smaller anxieties will over all loosen the grip even of the mega ones, which I find don't respond well to head on approaches, like flooding anyway. I knew somewhere deep down that this was the way to tackle this stuff but maybe I wasn't ready to really hear it. This is going to resonate now though for a long time.

      • "But I suspect that dealing with the smaller anxieties will over all loosen the grip even of the mega ones.."

        Yeah, for me, developing coping skills in little doses has helped me slowly build up a larger sense of calm around handling larger challenges. Some of that could also be that when I'm not in constant ambient anxiety mode over the small stuff, I'm able to conserve my emotional resources so that I have more energy to devote to dealing with the larger stuff?

        I'm not totally sure yet. It's all an experiment.

    • work with a therapist that specializes in CBT – Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people's difficulties, and so change the way they feel. they essentially work with you to overcome your fears by giving you controlled times and activities to do to work through those little by little. You should really do this in a controlled environment through someone who has experience with this. I did this for post partum anxiety (didn't even know that was a think before I had it, and my major fear was my child getting sick or dying). It was tough, but so worth it!!

      • YES! Whenever I write about some weird thing I'm trying on my brain, someone pops in to note that it sounds a lot like Cognitive Behavior Therapy. I did some writing about one concept a few months ago: https://offbeathome.com/opposite-action/

        I've never worked with a CBT therapist, so I'm not able to offer a first-person recommendation, but I have several friends who've super benefited from it… and thank you so much for sharing your experience, too! I absolutely agree with you: if someone's in a place of crisis, it's really REALLY important to be working with an actual trained expert. I'm just some lady on the internet, rambling about the mental exercises I try to do with myself. I'm not a counselor and am totally unqualified to do anything more than share my stories, as food for thought.

  3. Holy shit. I started to copy and paste the bits of this that resonated with me so I could comment on them specifically but the whole thing resonates. I'm going to need to read it a few more times and let the lesson sink in (because it's so easy to fall back into anxiety patterns.)

  4. Thanks for this. I stumbled over it while mindlessly scrolling through FB in the process of trying to distract myself away from an overwhelming anxiety attack. Read through twice, still haven't processed it all but it helps to know I have something to come back to, a tool to to help tackle this stupid anxiety.

    I'm not one that makes plans, work arounds or strategies to deal with the things that scare me. My anxiety throws me into what I call ostrich mode. The tiny fear becomes an overwhelming cloud of badness so I bury my head and avoid it, hide from it or run away.

    I've realized that my coping strategies are useless, but I have yet to replace them with anything. Why? Because OMG!- that means taking stock of all my failed attempts at life and re-evaluating all I've done wrong and trying to figure my shit out. It's too much, so I stumble onward armed with a sad bag of tricks mainly comprised of shoving food in my mouth, immersing myself in TV, distracting myself by constantly scrolling through social media and literally hiding in my house to avoid any situation or person that might be uncomfortable. It's exhausting.

    My husband is a huge advocate of confronting your fears and charging forward. I have tried and wow does that suck. I'm sure tiny, manageable, controlled doses will be so much easier to handle.
    Controlled. That seems to be the big word. Having control of all situations, knowing exactly what to expect, that's the only way I can confidently move forward in life. But oh, letting go of control, just knowing that I won't know what to expect makes me sick to my stomach.

    But there comes a point in life where you realize that you've got to take control of yourself – not the world around you. The only control you have is over your own actions. So it's time for me to woman up, use the tools I've got readily available (hello, mini computer constantly in my hand) and figure my shit out.

    I apologize for using the comment as my journal entry of the day. Bottom line is: Thanks Ariel, this helps.

    • As recovering control freak, I feel you SO HARD. For me, it's an ongoing daily process of surrendering. Choosing to practice in little doses helps me feel like I have a little agency, even as I try and release any illusions of actual control.

      But yeah: baby steps.

  5. Things that make you go "hmmmm…"
    This resonated with me in an unexpected way as I thought about what coping mechanisms I might have learned ( or not ) in childhood.
    Many years ago I concluded that I don't appear to suffer from anxiety as much as most people do ( a genetic gift from my father ) and even though that generally *is* a gift… how has it shaped me? I spent a good part of yesterday thinking about how that "gift" might have come with strings.
    Maybe developing my "anxiety muscles" a little more might be a good thing for me.

  6. I LOVE how you've described this! "Microdosing pain" is way more interesting than expanding your stress response curve or whatever resilience studies are saying these days.

    I too grew up very sheltered and basically did everything possible to avoid stress and pain well into my 20s. Fast forward another 20 years and I'm now practicing what I call "prophylactic resilience" – consciously putting myself in situations a bit outside of my comfort zone. It's nerve-wracking every time so it doesn't FEEL like progress, but when I look back, I can see that growth has occurred!

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