How to avoid because of anxiety in ten easy steps

How to avoid reading a book for school:

Step 1. Think about picking up the book.
Step 2. Don’t pick up the book.
Step 3. Still don’t pick up the book.
Step 4. Maybe even take a nap.
Step 5. Be too anxious to nap from avoiding.
Step 6. Not pick up the book for another hour.
Step 7. Acknowledge you are avoiding and it’s making things worse.
Step 8. Drag yourself out of bed to pick up the book.
Step 9. Read a few pages.
Step 10. Realize the anticipatory anxiety was once again worse than the anxiety of actually doing the thing.

Sometimes my brain is annoying. Who am I kidding? My brain is often annoying. It was particularly annoying tonight. I rested for a bit after work, and then I had every intention to read some of my book for grad school. Those intentions were great, except that I then proceeded to avoid reading for over two hours. And it’s not that I found that time restful. Oh no, I used that time to keep thinking about how I was avoiding reading. And that made me more anxious. So I avoided some more. And around and around we go.

When avoiding, I’m very aware of the fact that I’m avoiding. Awareness is not key in this situation.

I used to have a lot of trouble with reading, towards the end of high school and in college. OCD made me get stuck rereading the same sentence or paragraph over and over trying to understand, and sometimes even memorize, every bit of information. This obsession with reading perfectly to get perfect grades bled into reading for fun. And eventually it sometimes led to avoiding reading all together because if you don’t read, then you can’t get stuck. I worked really hard on this obsession with exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. And after several months, I was able to read for enjoyment and school again without much difficulty. I would occasionally find myself rereading unnecessarily, but I would catch it do an exposure, and move on. Pretty soon, reading became second nature again.

The thing about those pesky brains though, is they form circuits. When you go around and around in a pattern, your brain gets used to those patterns. It’s easy to fall back into them. Fortunately, I still don’t have trouble getting stuck rereading. But unfortunately, my brain remembers all of the anxiety those compulsions caused, and so sometimes it panics and puts up a wall. My brain has me avoid reading again to try to avoid that anxiety, as a sort of remnant of the reading OCD. Again, I know that avoiding only makes my anxiety worse. The anticipatory anxiety is almost always worse than the anxiety when actually doing what I’m avoiding. But with brains, old circuits die hard.

The classic book with cat photo

It’s frustrating because I want to read. I like my MFA program, and most of what I’m reading I chose myself. (In this program, you write your own syllabi with the professors.) But sometimes I just cannot get myself to start. I tell my body to go to the desk. I tell my hands to pick up the book and open it. But they don’t listen. Until finally they do. I don’t know exactly what triggers this change. Maybe the pros of starting the task (getting to read and eventually having my anxiety come down) finally outweigh the cons (having to face and feel the anxiety head on for a short while). I’ve spoken before about this short-term vs. long-term suffering in exposure therapy. And maybe this just isn’t an engaging book (ironically it’s about engaging your reader). The other day, I read a book in just a few hours because it was really good. But still, I had trouble starting. I’m really not sure how I managed to start reading again tonight. If I knew, I would capitalize on it again and again.

But I did start reading again. And I told myself I wouldn’t stop until I read at least one chapter. It’s a smaller amount than I’d like to read tonight, but I have a much better chance of achieving and going beyond this smaller goal than I do with facing a larger goal initially. Sometimes I really am just playing games with the old, sticky circuits in my brain. Yes, writing this blog post after reading the one chapter is probably just another way to avoiding again. But maybe writing out my thoughts on this will help me avoid even a little less next time.


All of my blog posts about “Reading OCD”

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