Friday, August 16, 2013

‘Is That All There Is?’ Anxiety, Exposure and the Adrenalin Crash

I was quietly, morbidly terrified. The cream walls pressed in on me. I sat on a swivel chair behind the clunky reception desk as if it offered protection from the ordeal to come.

To my right, the shopfront-style window showcased the darkening sky and the wide, bare street. On my left, visible through glass panels in the radio booth, my friend Melissa moved dials up and down, put discs into a console and spoke into a fat black mike. I could hear her voice on the speaker broadcasting into the room.

Melissa hosts a Sunday afternoon radio program on a community radio station, and I was about to read out a film review on it. Melissa had been suggesting for years that I start a regular review segment on her program, an informal arrangement every two or three weeks. I’d always refused, but now, thanks to taking half a Luvox a day, I thought it was worth a try. And I was suffering for my decision.

Sure, the radio station is a local one with a limited audience. But ‘stuffing up’ would be a definite setback. And anyone coming into the reception area would hear me stumble on that huge speaker, including the two late-middle-aged men who were due to come in any minute for the program running after Melissa’s show.

I had my review printed out, the sheet already damp from my sweaty fingers. I was too scared to do anything but glance over it, as sustained attention would remind me of the ordeal to come.

Finally Melissa summoned me. This was actually a step forward as the lonely anticipation was worse than being in the booth with Melissa, ready to roll as the last bars of the music track played themselves out. Truth to tell it wasn’t my first time in the booth: a couple of years ago Melissa had interviewed me about my self-published book The Inspired Shopper. That had been hard, but as an interviewee I had far less responsibility.

To cut a long story short, I sailed through it. I started with the high point of the film and went from there. Melissa and my on-air rapport helped. We often discuss films over the phone, so this was familiar territory in some ways. And she knew I was nervous, so could take over if I started to panic. It went so well that a friend who listened said he had been expecting me to sound okay with room for improvement, but that I had sounded much better than that – his only criticism being that I talked too fast.

Afterwards we went out for a drink at a large noisy cafe on a nearby corner. Walking to the cafe with Melissa in the hostile cold of mid-June, I didn’t feel the rush of victory and mastery that I’d been expecting; instead I felt empty. There was a sense of anticlimax. I had made a major breakthrough, yet nothing had changed.

I’ve had this feeling often when I’ve done something that caused what is called ‘anticipatory anxiety’. Instead of a sense of pride in having made it through a feared event in one piece, there is a feeling of flatness and disappointment.

Part of it is surely psychological. If you anticipate something perfectly ordinary, and then you achieve it without all the imagined catastrophes occurring, you realise that all the energy you expended on the anxiety was a waste of time. Not only that, but given that the feared event is probably something you were able to do with ease as a child, or even a few years earlier, you are confronted with the essential mundaneness of much of life. Your achievement doesn’t feel like an achievement at all, just a big let-down. The song that sums up this ennui perfectly is the 1970 Peggy Lee hit ‘Is that all there is?’

But there may also be a physical aspect. Anxiety produces the fight-or-flight syndrome. The sympathetic nervous system causes the body to produce stress hormones that include adrenalin (also known as epinephrine) and dopamine, a neurotransmitter that is associated with feelings of pleasure and plays a role in addiction.

If you’re a nervous person like me, adrenalin can seem like a sadistic enemy. It makes your hands shake, your legs turn to water, your heart thump madly and your digestive system melt, while it spitefully steals your ability to breathe. But it also sends energy surging through your bloodstream. It helps you to complete the challenge that has called it up in the first place, among other things by elevating blood sugar and  increasing blood pressure and the flow of blood to the muscles. 

After the challenge is completed, the body goes into recovery mode. The parasympathetic nervous system kicks in. Blood pressure and breathing return to normal, and the heartbeat slows down. Levels of adrenalin drop and remain low for a period that depends on the severity of the stress. It’s common to feel tired and listless.

But that's not the whole story. While adrenalin is released instantly and has a short-term effect, another stress hormone, cortisol, works differently. Cortisol levels start rising just as your adrenalin levels start to drop. Just as it takes longer for cortisol to build up in your system than adrenalin, it also takes longer for cortisol levels to drop. Wikibooks has this to say about it:
Together with the rise of cortisol and the decrease of adrenaline, come the nasty side-effects of the stress hormones. It is at this moment that you feel bad, anxious, and having [sic] lots of negative thoughts. And this is perhaps one of the critical features of stress which flies against common sense: you only feel its bad aspects when your body is stressing down and progressing towards a more relaxed state. When you are building up on adrenaline, in effect stressing up, you might even be feeling good! This explains what is popularly known as the adrenaline rush and the consequent adrenaline crash.
Perhaps the feeling of 'blah' afterwards is a combination of a lowering of blood sugar and blood pressure, a drop in dopamine and adrenalin, and the continuing presence of cortisol? For some people cortisol levels remain high after a stressful event is over, contributing to chronic stress. (There is also a link between elevated cortisol and depression, but it is disputed.)

The post-event blues I've described here aren't confined to the anxious. Google is filled with mentions of ‘post-event depression’. If you attend a fantastic concert, a dream vacation or even your own wedding, there is a flatness afterwards as you return to normal life. I suspect most people put this down to the boredom of daily life, but perhaps there is that physical element as well.

This article on the Psychology Today website talks specifically about post-wedding depression. One of the antidotes it recommends is focusing on life after the wedding, rather than seeing the wedding as an end goal. This suggests that seeing any kind of social or psychological challenge as the be-all and the end-all may be part of the problem. Perhaps it would be better to keep in mind that life will go on afterwards much as before, apart from the subtle internal change of meeting that particular challenge; and, once the challenge has been met, to look ahead to the next challenge.

But I think the most important way to cope with post-event let-down is to keep the bigger picture in mind. In my case speaking on the radio doesn’t necessarily translate to, say, being able to talk comfortably with my relatives at the next family do. It should, but it doesn’t. Nevertheless it is still a victory. As long as I am willing to stay in my discomfort zone, and to build up my tolerance of unpleasant feelings, I can gradually increase the scale of the challenge. A feeling of short-term victory would be nice, but more important to keep in mind is my larger plan for a greater involvement in life – that’s the hope, anyway.

Have you experienced a feeling of let-down after achieving a social or other goal? Please let us know.

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