Hamster Wheel of Anxiety

So last night I was watching a show about OCD with my parents, and a woman came up on the screen who repeatedly asked her husband if he needed to go to the bathroom or leave for anything because she had to make sure that her dog was safe. He couldn’t move from that spot or her dog might hurt himself by tripping on a fan cord, stop breathing, or injure himself in some other manner. Several times she would put her hand on the doorknob, only to stop and spin back around and reassure herself that her husband was not going to move from that spot. I told my mom, “literally me though”.

Because it’s the greatest description of anxiety I’ve ever seen in my life. I call it the hamster wheel.

It starts out innocuous. For example, putting a fan on your dog in the dead of summer to help keep him cool. Some people might have a split second thought about keeping a close eye to make sure that he doesn’t bite the cord and then go about the day. But on the hamster wheel, the thought goes from a split second to a whole long story. You see your dog biting the cord, then rushing your dog to a vet hospital, only to have them ask you what kind of container you want for his cremated ashes. Then it’s in your head on repeat for the next ten minutes, with every variation possible. Sometimes doggy cpr is involved, sometimes your vet makes a house call. Each time the story starts over, that’s one hamster wheel spin.

Side note: At first glance this looks awful. But it’s actually really useful because whenever I’m faced with a problem, I can have four different possible solutions worked out before the end of lunch break. I expect this will come in very handy as a nurse. Anxiety sufferers are usually the best problem solvers because of the hamster wheel.

Okay, I know what some of you are thinking. Why don’t we just unplug the fan?? Because it’s too late, we are already on the hamster wheel. If we do unplug the fan, we are still irrationally freaked out. The psychological term for it is “free-floating anxiety”, but that doesn’t really adequately explain the sensation that you have forgotten a vital, life-or-death, piece of information. Taking the fan out of the equation doesn’t stop the hamster wheel.

So what will stop the hamster wheel? The key is jumping in before it completely and utterly consumes you. If I can get off before 5 spins, I’m usually good. If not, I’m irrationally grumpy and super touchy for the rest of the day.

I have a two-step method for hamster wheel removal. I actually had this method before I realized I had anxiety, then when I went to exposure therapy I thought I had to sit with the hamster wheel (that’s a whole ‘nother post I will get around to soon, I promise) and my therapist was like “WTF?? That was a good method??” so I’m just now getting back to it.

  1. RECOGNIZE THE HAMSTER WHEEL. Call it the racetrack of doom, anxiety wheel, the hula hoop of fretfulness, whatever helps you. I like circle analogies, because I know when I start going in circles I’m probably on the hamster wheel. Not always, but usually. Sometimes when I realize that I’m on a completely pointless journey to absolutely nowhere, I can get off. But that’s unusual, which brings me to step 2:

  2. DISTRACT YOURSELF. Read a book. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Turn on a movie. Wash dishes. Organize cabinets. My personal favorite is organizing because there is no time for spinning meaninglessly when trying to determine if you should organize alphabetically or by size of the book.

You might have to run through a few distraction methods. Don’t be frustrated if the first one doesn’t work, just keep trying. I believe in you.


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