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Why Living With Anxiety Is Like Walking on Custard

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The following is an adaptation of a TED Talk from TEDxLeamingtonSpa called “Walking on Custard: How Physics Helps Anxious Humans.”

Fear usually pops up when we do something scary: jumping from planes, running from bulls… going clothes shopping…

But sometimes our response gets out of control, and we end up spending a disproportionate amount of time feeling afraid. We call this “anxiety.”

Language is limiting, and it’s frustrating we use the same word — anxiety — for both “reasonably worrying about a job interview” and also “crippling terror which prevents me from leaving the house.” It’s like having the same word for “all-out nuclear war” and “playful tickle fight.”

Anxiety is a spectrum, and so the association each of us has with the word might be different. For me, I’ve always been at the more unpleasant end of the spectrum. As a child, I was deeply worried about mortgages — for some reason — and then as I grew up it became obvious worrying was my main way of relating to the world.

Whatever I had to deal with, I would worry about. And then I’d worry about the next thing… and the next thing… until eventually this conveyor belt of worry got out of control and I ended living with horrible anxiety.

I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, I couldn’t enjoy life at all.

And naturally, my response to this was to worry about it — which just made it worse!

At some points I felt so trapped, I even wondered if suicide was the only way out.

Now, I wasn’t very open about this. If you had met me at the time, I would have given a fairly convincing impression of having things mostly together. I was putting up an image. And that was bad for me, because I didn’t get to share my problems with anybody else… but it was bad for others too, because they didn’t get to see the truth. And if we all put up an image, then everyone struggles alone.

So I’m trying to be more open about these things, and I began to think about how we could live less anxiously. I’m sure it won’t surprise you in the slightest to learn the answer lies in advanced fluid dynamics.

Let’s divide all the liquids in the world into two groups – which, by the way, is a fun game if you’ve got a lot of liquids and nothing better to do.

The two groups we’re interested in are Newtonian fluids and non-Newtonian fluids. This distinction described how liquid behave when they’re subjected to an outside force. In other words, we’re answering the classic scientific question: what happens if I hit it?

If we hit a Newtonian fluid like, for example, water — we know what happens. It splashes! Going all over the place and soaking everything in sight. And, generally, I get politely asked to leave for causing an unnecessary disturbance.

But if we hit a non-Newtonian fluid like, for example, popular pudding sauce custard, it acts differently. Instead of splashing apart when you hit it, it hardens temporarily before relaxing back to its previous state.

bowl of custard
photo source: TEDx Talks

In other words, if I punch custard — for my own personal reasons — then it hardens. So essentially, we can do really awesome things like filling a swimming pool with custard and then walk on it!

And as I thought about walking on custard – and I thought about it way more than anyone probably should – the more I realized how exhausting it would be. Once I start I can’t stop. I can’t pause. I can’t enjoy myself. I have to keep hitting the surface underneath me.

I must keep going… if I stop, the custard softens and I drown in custard… which is definitely in the top three most embarrassing ways to die there is.

Years after I first learned about this, I was in the middle of a terribly anxious period. This image of walking on custard came to my mind and I realized I was running and running and running on the spot. Exhausted. Unable to stop…. and with this constant fear of drowning in my own mind.

And the more people I talk to, the more I realize this feeling of exhaustion — of not being able to rest, of not getting anywhere – is common.

And I wondered what it would mean to stop.

Not to stop on the custard, where we drown. What would it mean to make it to solid ground.

Somewhere where we can rest, somewhere we can be at peace without struggling. Somewhere we can live.

So I made it my number one priority to figure out what this custard was for me. What was this anxiety? And to figure out how to get to solid ground.

I learned a whole lot of things, but the idea I want to share with you today is what I came to think of as “custard traps“: unhelpful mental habits which were causing my anxiety or making it worse.

I think of them as traps because at times I’d be going along quite happily and then suddenly I’m having a panic attack! I’d fallen into a custard trap. At other times, it was more like a vast ocean of custard, and I’d be trudging exhausted for months before finally getting to somewhere I could rest.

Some people have told me this image resonates with them, but for them the custard doesn’t feel like anxiety. It feels like shame or depression or some other emotion. But what it feels like and whether it’s a temporary custard trap or a chronic sea of custard, these unhelpful mental habits share a number of features.

Firstly, they appear invisible.

Everything we do becomes normal. If we change something in our homes — paint it, move it around, adopt a vicious angry bear to come live in the hall — then after a few days we don’t even notice anymore. The change just fades into the background. It becomes normal. We’re like “oh don’t worry about that bear… that’s just Steve!” And we do this with a mental habits, too. The number one reason I didn’t do anything about my anxiety for so long was that I wasn’t aware of all the thought habits I had fallen into. They were invisible to me.

And the solution to this is observation. Self-observation. Getting to know ourselves.

Now, this idea offended me the first 100 times I heard it. “You’ve got to get to know yourself!” So patronizing and irritating, but it’s unfortunately true.

Self-knowledge doesn’t just magically appear. There’s no process monitoring our mental habits and letting us know we could change things around a little bit to be happier. We have to do the work ourselves to understand what’s going on inside.

Let’s have an example: Imagine I’m walking away from a group of friends and a thought pops into my head. Something proportional, rational and reasonable, like “you said goodbye a little awkwardly there…. maybe all your friends now hate you!”

If I’m not paying attention and that thought pops up, then I’m gonna have an emotional reaction, I’m going to feel bad. I’m thinking “all my friends think I’m super cool — of course! —  but what if this is the moment they realize I’m not. I could be doomed. I’m gonna die alone!”

And there I am on the custard, having a bad time over nothing. But if I’m paying attention when that thought pops up I can choose my reaction. Maybe I’ll choose to have an emotional freak out, but maybe instead I could choose to react to it more rationally.

Recognizing what’s going on inside using observation is crucial to making these custard traps visible so we can deal with them.

The second key feature of custard traps is that they are self-reinforcing. The trap themselves remove our ability to escape the trap. They’re devious like that. Anxiety, for example, protects itself because it’s exhausting being anxious. It sucks up all our energy and leaves very little energy to deal with the root of the problem.

This self-reinforcing aspect often appears in the form of a cycle. 

For example, being anxious takes a toll on our bodies which can make us feel ill. And then we can be anxious about being ill, which feeds itself with more illness and then more anxiety. The cycle gets stronger.

Or perfectionism. I have perfectionist tendencies, so I beat myself up for every mistake. Then I beat myself up for beating myself up because a perfect person wouldn’t do that either! And again the cycle continues.

It’s so easy to get stuck in these traps — and the solution is to do something different. This is based on the simple idea that clearly whatever I’m doing isn’t working. My natural impulse is to do the next step in the cycle: that’s what makes it a cycle!

So if my instinct is to sit and dwell on some mental movie of something terrible I’m convinced is about to happen, instead maybe I should stand up and sing the Danish national anthem. It won’t help — not least because I don’t know the Danish national anthem — but it will break me out of the loop I’m in.

I do something different. And if it’s not helpful, that’s fine: next time I’ll do something different again. Eventually I will learn some things I can do that are useful ways to escape these traps.

The third key feature of custard traps is that they are habits.

They’re difficult to escape from in the moment, but we keep falling into them in the first place because they are habits. Now, I’m no “brain scientist,” but I do know our brains are constantly forming physical pathways. They’ve essentially rewiring themselves all the time, and this makes us prone to habits.

It becomes instinct for me to go from “there’s a pain in my left leg” to “oh God, that’s definitely a blood clot and I’m on the verge of death.” This link between these two concepts has been strengthened in my brain through habitual repetition.

So we need to have a long-term outlook. This is about learning what it feels like to dip our toes in the custard. What does it feel like just entering a custard trap?

For me there are physical sensations: I get a stab in the chest, a fizz in the brain. But there are also situational triggers. I know anything about my health is likely to send me onto a custard trap. This is different for everybody: maybe it’s social situations, fear of contamination — there are a million different things — but once we’ve learned what these triggers are for us and what it feels like to be getting caught in one of these loops, we can use that feeling itself as a trigger to do something positive.

So as I feel myself falling into a trap, those feelings remind me to take a positive action. Maybe it’s drinking some water, calling a friend, meditating for 10 seconds or relive a sporting triumph (not one of mine, obviously, just one I’ve seen)… but the point is to associate something positive with what was formerly negative. Over time this can replace the habit.

It’s like laying the foundation over the custard, transforming it into solid ground.

Does this sound too easy? It probably should. It’s good to be suspicious of easy answers to tough problems, and anxiety is a really tough problem. I have only touched the surface of the mind management aspects of it today, but there are also chemical aspects, social aspects, situational aspects…

Mind management is really good to focus on because we can we can always take more control over what’s happening in our minds. But it is difficult. I’d love to be able to give you, personally, the actions you need to individually take to be less anxious. But these things are so unique to us. We have all spent years developing our own individual mental habits, our own personal custard traps. And only we can put in the effort required to escape them.

But it’s my hope that if we’re all a bit more open and honest about these difficult personal expenses, these tough solo journeys across the custard can be journeys we can all make together.

If you or someone you know needs help, please visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

The Crisis Text Line is looking for volunteers! If you’re interesting in becoming a Crisis Counselor, you can learn more information here.

lead photo: screenshot, Walking on Custard

Originally published: May 5, 2016
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