Panic, Office Work, and What Each Taught Me

I have panic disorder. I get mild-to-moderate anxiety attacks two to five times per week, disruptive panic attacks about once per month, and the severe kind that wear me out (a “go-homer”) every six months or so. It sucks, but it used to be worse. Nine years ago, before treatment, I’d have the hallucinatory, dissociative kind that felt like my heart was about to explode. I haven’t had one of those for almost a decade. These days, they’re annoying interruptions.

The disorder remits slowly. It leaves a lesser shadow of what it once was, but never quite ends. After you experience the five hundred bizarre symptoms that panic can throw– phantom smells, visual flashing, light-headedness, vomiting– you lose a fear of them. The attacks become painful and annoying, like headaches, but they’re not especially scary, per se, to a person who’s been through several hundred. They’re not dangerous; they just suck.

There’s no cure or exit that always works. Sometimes, a glass of fruit juice helps; sometimes, it doesn’t. A walk can make it better, or worse. Usually better, but it feels like a gamble. Reading isn’t usually possible; writing might be, but expect typos. The peak of an attack only lasts for a minute or so; an attack may have one peak or ten spaced a few minutes apart, and the recovery is long: 30 to 90 minutes, usually, before the damn thing is conclusively and safely over.

Do It Calmly

There does seem to be an overarching principle to the long recovery: whatever you do, do it calmly. That’s not much to say, but it’s what I’ve got.

That’s harder than it sounds. When your anxiety goes up to 11, and the fight-or-flight response is out of control, the impulse is to sprint out of a place, not walk calmly as if everything were normal. Yet, walking is often better for escape than running, in this case. Though regular exercise reduces the frequency and severity of panic attacks, I wouldn’t recommend all-out effort during one.

I find that panic produces two desires: one helpful and one hurtful. The first is the desire to complete a task that might make it better: a walk in the cold, going home, playing a mindless video game, or getting to the bathroom. It gives the mind and body something to work on, not so taxing as to exacerbate anxiety, but engaging enough to pass the time and spend some of that surplus adrenaline and neuro-electrical activity. That can be useful. The second impulse, the harmful one, is that raging urge to do it quickly and “get out of” the panic experience as fast as possible. That blistering hatred for the experience keeps it going.

The panicked mind thinks that achieving some task (say, leaving a crowded place) will make the attack end. The process of working toward the task usually helps; but, achieving the task in a hurried, tense, or reckless manner will create more anxiety. One escapes the situation that caused the attack, only to find the same panic in a new theatre (and, then, falsely attribute it to some other cause, back where one started). Sure, you escaped the movie theater, but now you’re having the same attack in a parking lot.

I don’t have all the answers, but the best I’ve got for panic is: find something to do but, no matter what it is, do it calmly. There’s something zen about the notion; more important than what you do is how you do it. That’s an attitude I try to take to most of life. Between health issues and work and random events, I can’t control the bulk amount of output I can produce. I don’t (and can’t) even know whether I have 60 years or 60 minutes left of life. The quality, I decide. Quantity isn’t up to me.

When I have a panic attack at home, I do housework. It takes twice as long as it otherwise would, and perhaps I do a less-than-stellar job, but the time isn’t wasted. If I have one while working out, I keep doing what I’m doing, in order to dump the adrenaline into exercise. At the office? Well, I still haven’t figured that out. The work never was the problem; it’s the subordinate context that makes office life so terrible. I suspect there’s no cure, for anyone, save sweeping societal overhaul (which will, though potentially beneficial, itself be stressful).

One good thing about panic attacks is that they end. Office life never does, really. Unemployed people have to search for jobs, which is just as stressful; retired people are so worn out by office existence that they often struggle to adapt, after having been institutionalized for so long. For this reason, the year after retirement has an above-normal rate of death by all causes: natural ones, and suicide. Such people have taken themselves out of the office– or, in most cases, been pushed out due to ageism– but the can’t take the office out of themselves.

Do It Tensely (…Or Else)

Let’s invert the directive above. Instead of “do it calmly”, let’s examine the distinctively unhealthy advice, “do it tensely.” You now have a recipe for anxiety– but, to its credit, also one for office survival.

One of most important social skills in the corporate world is mood mirroring. If the executives are tense, middle managers will be tenser, and workers who want to be upwardly mobile will be most tense at all. Carrying around this anxiety does no good. Nothing gets done faster, and the quality of work is worse than what it otherwise would have been. So what’s the purpose of holding this unpleasant mood? In most companies, management and especially upper management has no idea who’s good at his job and who’s just collecting a salary. Managers and executives are too busy managing up to pay much attention to what’s happening below them. By and large, it might be only 1 in 5 managers who has an intelligent sense of which of her reports are good and which are bad; as for upper management, two or three or eight levels above the workers: forget it. But, they all have opinions. Those opinions are largely formed based on appearances and perceptions: body language, verbal intonation, and various mood cues. As an executive sees it, the people who are running around anxious are team players; the relaxed people don’t give a shit.

High-ranking individuals within companies assess their subordinates based on what they perceive to be merit, but they’re usually picking up superficial cues. To social status, they respond strongly. The aversion to cognitive dissonance is sufficient that a person who reliably projects high social status will be viewed as competent and high-performing in any workplace. The problem is that this is hard to do. Everyone’s trying to project high status– it’s less taxing than projecting anxiety– but most people who play this game come across as low-status strivers. Also, groups define status in different ways and one who projects the wrong kind of status will draw resentment. To be coolly aristocratic might work in a London investment bank; it will inspire anger if you’re a foreman at a steel mill or a programmer in Silicon Valley. Since it takes a long time to discern what kind of social status a group values, and because these tokens are often hard to fudge, it’s more prudent to fall back on the second element: mood mirroring. When the boss seems angry, be angry. If the boss relaxes, relax– but not quite as much as he does, for that’s sometimes a trap. Forget what companies say about themselves being casual, fun, or (gag) family-like places to work. The old “shit rolls downhill” rules about not leaving before one’s boss, and not sitting while he stands, still apply in Corporate America.

If you seem relaxed at work, people assume you don’t care. If you’re the odd-man-out in theatre of shared suffering, that’s points off. Substance doesn’t matter. Merit doesn’t matter. Merit? What, you think you’re still in college?

Often, this anxiety comes straight from the top. Corporate executives are like toddlers with guns. They can’t do anything for themselves, but they can cause incredible damage, quickly. As bad as it is to suffer their whims, there might be slight comfort (not much) in the observation that their position is also stressful. They hold notional responsibility, but can’t do any of the real work that powers the company. They’re constantly in a betting position with regard to the performance– which they cannot measure, and the people to whom they must trust this job cannot be trusted– of the people below them. The personal stakes are low– if an executive fails and is fired, his buddies on the board will line up another job– but the anxiety is real. And, of course, executives take what anxiety they have and deliberately amplify it. As they see it, a display of twitchy trigger finger will motivate the people at the bottom.

Thus, corporate capitalism will always be a game where one of the most important skills is the ability to display anxiety in deference to the nervous brats up top. Of course, one shouldn’t go overboard. A full-on panic attack is embarrassing. It suggests that one can’t handle the stress. One who wishes to maximize his corporate survival ought to display about 1.2 times the anxiety level of his immediate superior: not so much to become the long pole in the tent or seem unreliable, but enough to send the sycophantic message, “When you’re upset, I’m upset.”

To wind down (or avoid) a panic attack: find something (anything) to do, and do it calmly. Try to do it well.

To survive at the office: find something (anything) to do, and do it tensely. It doesn’t matter if you do it well.

One might see why office life wears people out. Most people can’t mirror anxiety without themselves becoming anxious. Making an angry face tends to make a person angry; the same applies to smiling, grimacing, and other expressions. Just holding one’s facial pose tends to create the emotion. Even professional actors do best “in character” and need time to recover from tense scenes, and that’s when they know the events and emotions aren’t real. (In the office, the fear often is real, because most people live on the wrong end of arbitrary but brutal power relationships.) Being around people who at least have to pretend to be anxious will make most people, in accord, actually anxious.

Of course, though I hold a low opinion of corporate executives, I don’t intend to assert that they want people to be running around with panic attacks. They probably don’t think about that issue at all. (It is rare for a corporate executive to think about anything other than his own enrichment.) That a small percentage of the population would react to standard, mandatory office anxiety in a painful and counterproductive way is, from their perspective, tolerable suffering since they are not the ones who suffer. It is not within their intent, though. They are ignorant assholes, but almost never deliberate oppressors.

This particular divergence between what is mentally healthy and what is necessary to survive the subordination to rich people that we call “work” is not a unique one, and I’d argue that it’s the tip of a seemingly unrelated but fascinating iceberg: the notion of minimalism.

I can’t do the entire topic justice, but what I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older is that people are generally happiest with few things of high quality, rather than a plethora of low-quality objects (“clutter” or “junk”). A sturdy small house might be better than a troublesome large one, since most people spend the bulk of their home time in a small number of places, while a house that’s falling apart in a constant source of cost and headaches. High-quality objects and experiences, even if few in number, make people happy. Unreliable junk makes people miserable, even if they have a lot of it.

Most people know that, I think. Further, when there are a small number of elements to contend with, one can transform them. Cold, if one is properly dressed and therefore in no danger from it, becomes invigorating. The difficulty and pain of physical exercise can be offset by the design and healthful simplicity of the task: run 10 miles, or deadlift 225 pounds, or swim 50 laps. People do these things for free, with no economic purpose, because they enjoy physical exertion. Yet I don’t know anyone who would move a typical apartment for free. That work is just unpleasant: packing boxes, awkward objects, possessions breaking. Likewise, virtually no one can “transform” a torrent of junk and clutter into something enjoyable.

Office work is the opposite of minimalism. In bulk, it forces workers to contend with low-quality communication, low-quality ideas, low-quality projects, low-quality power relationships; and, in most cases, a low quality of delivered work. It’s busy, but it’s inefficient and often produces things of low or even negative social value. This incessant junk generation isn’t merely tolerated, but celebrated. If people weren’t spewing garbage into the stream of ideas, practices, records and discourse; well then, how would anyone know that they were working?

George Carlin decried our society as one where people buy shit they don’t need with money they don’t have. That’s bad enough, but one can opt out. Workplace clutter, on the other hand? Ha. Good luck with that.

Just as office social demands push people to treat minor shortfalls or risks as if they were personal, existential crises; it deprives them of the right to recognize clutter as such. It forces people to contend with, and generate, garbage so their managers can put together status reports on which they’ll be judged not on what was accomplished, but on the number of bullet points and words the report contains.

Largely, this exists because the best way to survive in a corporate environment is to flood the channel. Executives are always looking to cut costs; this usually means cutting people. Savvy corporates learn that it’s best to have complete opacity about how much one does and how much effort it takes to achieve it. Obviously, it’s no good to be seen as lazy; but it’s also damaging to be seen as hard-working, since it can present a person as over-eager, and it can set high expectations. You don’t want executives to know if you work a 2-hour day; you also don’t want them to know if you work a 14-hour day; or if you work a 14-hour Tuesday and a 2-hour Wednesday; or if you work exactly 8 hours every day. There is no upside in being surveilled by people with a hard-on for cutting (and, in many cases, externalizing) costs. Corporates with any sense of self-preservation will ensure that their superiors cannot pinpoint them in time and space.

 

In the cat-and-mouse game between executives looking to cut costs and workers trying to survive, one of the most common defenses is a channel-flooding attack. It doesn’t work not to communicate at all; it’s far more effective, in most cases, to flood executives with so much extraneous information that they can’t help but fall back on the default decision (to delay) with regard to anything that might cause harm.

Consequently, the main activity performed in corporate offices is not meaningful “work” but channel flooding. I don’t expect this to change any time soon.

But, imagine how much better of a world we’d have if this mandatory waste of time and emotional energy were eradicated.

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7 thoughts on “Panic, Office Work, and What Each Taught Me

  1. > High-quality objects and experiences, even if few in number, make people happy. Unreliable junk makes people miserable, even if they have a lot of it.
    > Office work is the opposite of minimalism. In bulk, it forces workers to contend with low-quality communication, low-quality ideas, low-quality projects, low-quality power relationships; and, in most cases, a low quality of delivered work. It’s busy, but it’s inefficient and often produces things of low or even negative social value.

    This is why I quit office work years ago. I quit while I could. If I married or had a girl friend, I couldn’t have quit. Now, I’m trying to become a highly skilled craftsman which is a sort of one-man entrepreneur.

  2. Alternatively, imagine a world where every person who becomes a executive and their progeny cease to exist.. not unlike how how destruction and removal of malignant cells is necessary for treating cancers.

  3. The DOS attack … I thought we were the ones who invented that! Back when I was working on an R&D team for a defense contractor, management suddenly had this fevered daydream that we submit daily status reports. Some of the researchers thought it was insulting, but we realized there was a hidden benefit to it. Management could never ask “what are you doing???” or “why haven’t you done …” Because all you needed to do was say, “Please refer to the October 5th status report in which I say …” They instituted the policy, they had to deal with the flood of paperwork that resulted. So eventually, they stopped asking.

    Another trick was, when you needed information communicated directly, you never told your manager. Managers had this attitude that anything said directly to them by a subordinate was bullshit, so if you warned them about this problem or this problem, you’d get this “yeah yeah we’ll get on it.” Instead, you made sure to mention the problem to the office snitch, who’d report it immediately, and then the problem was solved.

    Defense contracting is a bit of an exception however, because it takes so long to get someone a security clearance that no one can be fired. So management’s schemes were nothing more than kabuki theater. And, strangely, it was one of the more technically creative environments I’ve worked in. The lunatics ran the assylum, and there was nothing wrong with that.

    • It was a strange situation – you had these ex-military managerial types managing these ultra-brainy Ph.D.’s. Some of the brains were ex-military themselves, but nerdy. The military, it turns out, is a nerd’s paradise – clearly defined rules, lots of machines to play with, and it’s surprisingly hard to get rid of troublemakers – at least the ones who obey the rules. The private sector, on the other hand, just makes up the rules as it goes along, and they really don’t care what impression it leaves. I guess the military sees arbitrary changes in the rules as bad for morale, and low morale gets people killed.

  4. >> There’s no cure or exit that always works. Sometimes, a glass of fruit juice helps; sometimes, it doesn’t.

    The thing got legalized in some US states so I guess it’s safe to ask: have you tried weed?

    I’d be very curious to find out how it works in your case and if there’s a difference between Sativa and Indica. Like, can an Indica exacerbate your anxiety? Also you’re a smart and very creative guy, I bet your mind trips would be significantly more excentric than those of the regular Joe stoner.

  5. “Ms. S.” developed panic attacks progressively more frequent during the past 3 years despite adequate treatment protocols with several medicines in adequate doses. In fact the patient had already been treated, in cronological order, with venlafaxine (up to 300 mg/day for 8 weeks), sertraline (up to 200 mg/day for 6 weeks), amitriptiline (as augumentarion strategy with sertraline for 3 weeks) and quetiapine in monotherapy (up to 400 mg/day for 6 weeks). She presented no significant improvement of her symptoms, au countraire, important adverse effects occured (mainly gastrointestinal and sleep disturbances) that ultimately lead her to discontinue the use of pharmacotherapy.

    Considering the severity of her symptoms and the failure of other therapies, tDCS was started after a written informed consent was provided. We performed 10 consecutive daily tDCS sessions (except for weekends as stated below). The patient presented limitation of her independecy for daily activities due to severity of panic attacks. In fact, she was unable to continue working and other activities rather than routine were markedly diminuished. Anxiety symptoms substantially improved during the 10-day treatment course. At baseline, the patient did not present with psychiatric comorbidity such as depression or cognitive impairement. After one month of treatment, the patient was asymptomatic and reported significant clinical gains (Figure 1). There were no significant clinical or cognitive side effects, except for a mild transient local eritema under the electrode site.

    • The cathode was positioned over the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC) and the anode was placed extracephalic over the contralateral deltoid. We used a direct current of 2.0 mA for 30 minutes per day. The 25 cm2-rubber electrodes were wrapped in cotton material, which was moistened with saline as to reduce impedance. For assessment of anxiety symptoms we used the Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale (HARS). We also assessed depressive symptoms through the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale (HDRS) – version 17 itens; and cognitive functions with the Montreal cognitive Assessment (MOCA).

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