“What the hell am I doing?”
That was the almost audible question that was spinning around in my head in the early hours of the morning recently when I woke in a sudden panic. I’m sure that you’ve all experienced something similar; a good day, followed by an apparently good sleep, interrupted by something that in turn prevents you from getting back to sleep. It’s in these moments that all our anxieties, no matter how trivial, start to whirl around in our minds like. washing machine on spin, further compounding the inability to relax. I am no medical expert, but I’m told that this reaction is caused by something triggering our sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the brain starts to try to process what to do about the imminent threat, which at night manifests as mind-racing anxiety. This response originally evolved to save our lives, when presented with physical danger such as an attack from a wild animal or neighbouring tribe. Nowadays, our lives are so complicated that these threats can instead be the most trivial of issues we experience during the course of our day.
Now, there are lots of reasons that led do my late-night soap opera that I won’t bore you with, suffice to say they included a whiskey, an ‘argument’ and a very beautiful, but upsetting autobiography that I was listening to when I went to bed. Topics included my abilities as a photographer, my self-assessment as to how good a husband I am, who I might be letting down in some way, whether I should stop ‘dreaming ‘and go back to work similar to what I did before, and so on. I know with my rational brain that such thoughts are ridiculous, but in the early hours, they were driving me to ‘make some decisions’. Fortunately, I understand the symptoms well enough to know that decisions should never be made when in that state. When I finally got back to sleep, it was for about 1/2hr before my alarm went off. That’s just typical. I felt pretty bad, but an early training swim at the pool brought me back to reality.
Night Terrors (2022) by Richard Fletcher
I started to think about why those things and not, say the problems with our economy or the war in Ukraine, featured in my night-time anxiety. After all, those are really important world problems and in the case of the latter, pretty scary. The answer is pretty simple: neither of those things are at all under my control. The trivial shit that I was processing in the night was all related to something believe I should be able to control or could do better at. While I don’t consider myself particularly insecure, I have always been a serious worrier. The scale of my worrying varies from whether I remembered to lock the front door before going to bed, to whether that nagging pain is just indigestion or something more serious. I generally require evidential proof that all is well before the associated anxiety truly dissipates, in some cases lurching the other way to cockiness. My wife refers to this as ‘leaping tall buildings in single bound’. An recent example was during the preparation for our summer trip to Austria in the camper. At the last minute there were problems with COVID passports etc, but just when I thought it was all ok, a friend of mine pointed out that in order to drive in certain areas of France, we now needed a declaration of the emissions our vehicle produced. Even though I researched what he was saying, and I knew we’d be avoiding those areas, I was sufficiently worried to go through the process of registering with the French transport authority for the sticker to be displayed in the window of the van. The website was a pain; needing me to review the van manufacturers’s data, losing something in translation from French to English, only working with a particular web browser etc etc. At the end of the process, I was informed that the sticker would take a week to arrive in the post and that there was no electronic equivalent. We were leaving for France the following morning. At this point, I flipped from worried to “well, I’ve paid for the bloody thing now, so if they have a problem with no sticker, I’ll show them the evidence and if they don’t like that, they can stick it”. What an idiot.
Thinking about my late-night drama, I wasn’t surprised to see my photography right up there on the worry list. While I acknowledge how much my photographic practice has developed over the past 10 years and I’m continually receiving affirming feedback about my work, I still have a worry that I’m not somehow good enough. This is partly just how I am, but it also comes from knowing some incredibly talented photographers, whose work amazes and inspires me on a daily basis. We are not in competition, but I look at their images and think “I wouldn’t have thought about that” or “that look is something I doubt could have achieved” etc. Of course, we are all very different personalities, so it stands to reason that we would have different ideas and approaches. We are also interested in different subjects and genres, which informs what we produce. It is the classic apples n’ oranges comparison. Rationally, I know that I’m a good photographer and a developing artist, but there’s something that drives me to be better. I need to remember that, not just when I’m working, but also when my brain is deciding whether I need to run or stand and fight a non-existent threat. When I left my job last year, I found that for several months that I could not relax at all. Every negative emotion related to walking away from my old company dominated the waking hours and sometimes the non-waking ones too. I had some sessions with a hypnotherapist, which was great help. My hypnotherapist talked about convincing that primitive part of the brain to stand down; there was no real danger, so no need to prepare to fight or run. We can do this by using our imagination to picture a positive outcome to the problem we face at the time. For me, the image of me receiving my degree and having my own exhibition (an ambition of mine for several years) that people actually want to see, featured in my thinking. Gradually, all of that self-assessment and panicky fear began to subside. It’s naturally a work in progress, and it needs to be paired with the traditional relaxation techniques such as breathing and stretching, but learning to control the response has been really useful. That’s not to say that we cannot decide to think about anxiety more constructively when we are awake. That particularly night’s excitement has prompted me to change direction with the business and with my own creativity. It has motivated me to plan more effectively and accept that some things won’t work as expected. As I mentioned in my previous post, letting go of being a grown-up and using our imaginations helps us be more creative. As I write this, I’m dealing with a fair amount of grown-up stuff, but also thinking about my next photography challenge and the next chapter of my book. It’s an antidote to overthinking and offers as much of an escape as is achievable while, say, waiting for my car to be repaired. Next time the late-night wobbles happen to you, make a note of the ‘topics’ you were fretting about and give them some rational thought the following morning. When you get the headspace to think about it and convince yourself of the reality of the situation, it should be easier to get past. Now then, did I leave the iron on?