Calling It Quits is a series about the current culture of quitting.
As a person with generalized anxiety disorder, or GAD, I’m familiar with anxiety attacks. But they really kicked into overdrive after I gave notice at my job in 2016. I cried, a lot. A flittering nervous energy was planted in my body and would not budge. A chorus of unhelpful thoughts — What did you do? Why did you do it? — became a soundtrack in my brain. It was loud and on repeat.
“Uncertainty is like gasoline on anxiety,” said Craig Sawchuk, co-chair for clinical practice at the department of psychiatry and psychology at the Mayo Clinic. I know this from experience: Major life changes have always catalyzed my worry and kick-started high-octane rumination.
In 2021, when quitting numbers surged and Americans saw the highest quitting rates since the 1970s, according to the Department of Labor, I was envious but also perplexed. Joyfully abandoning stability in favor of winging it? I couldn’t imagine choosing uncertainty. I couldn’t imagine converting my life into an amorphous blob of time instead of neatly parceled segments of work hours.
Anxiety can be constructive
Almost nobody quits or considers quitting without worrying at least a little. There are concerns about putting food on the table, health insurance and child care, to name a few. But for clinically nervous people, the idea of quitting a job, even a bad one, could open up a can of worms.
The latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-V, lists multiple disorders under the umbrella of anxiety. They include GAD — “excessive anxiety and worry (apprehensive expectation), occurring more days than not for at least 6 months” — as well as phobias and panic disorder, which can overlap but are not synonymous, said Jennifer Villatte, a clinical psychologist and chief of the Adult Psychosocial Interventions Research Program at the National Institute of Mental Health.
David Rosmarin, an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety, said that when people have been in a job for a while, even one they dislike, the structure and repetition can be a calming force: “You know that the commute is 49 minutes and you have to go to that train station, which you don’t like going to. You know that your boss is a jerk. But when you leave, the reason specifically anxiety comes up is because you’re facing uncertainty.”
Despite how it can feel, anxiety is not necessarily a sign of a bad decision. It might mean the opposite, said Dr. Rosmarin, whose book “Thriving With Anxiety” is publishing in the fall: “The crazy thing is that when people feel a spike in anxiety, often but not always, if it’s in the context of a life change, that’s actually an indication that they’re on the right track.”
So what if you want to quit but feel stuck?
The ability to weigh different outcomes without actual trial and error is what makes us uniquely human, Dr. Villatte said. The problems start when we can’t come to a decision and the consideration phase turns to worry. Once someone is stuck in a worry loop, she added, it usually causes them to do one of two things: respond impulsively or be stuck completely.
“When that sympathetic nervous system is active, you stop digesting food,” Dr. Villate offered as an example. “You have to be digesting food, otherwise you’re not going to survive very long. But stress is so effective that it actually can shut down these essential functions.”
This can also happen to anxious people who suspect it’s time to quit. Dr. Sawchuk said the key is to gently approach whatever it is that’s creating the discomfort, by doing “the opposite of what the anxiety is telling you to do.” He added, “If it’s saying ‘avoid, avoid, avoid,’ we’ve got to figure out ways to gradually approach.”
Dr. Franklin Schneier, co-director of the Anxiety Disorders Clinic at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, said that to find a middle ground between impulsivity and immobility, it’s important to differentiate between “what’s unhelpful worry and what is useful problem-solving.” He explained: “Some people get caught up in anxious ruminations, repeated kinds of things; sometimes they believe that that’s actually helpful problem-solving when it may just be spinning their wheels.” Instead, he recommended that “if you find yourself with negative thoughts about the situation, think about it as constructive: ‘What do I actually need? What could be helpful to me to manage the thing that I fear?’”
As Dr. Villatte noted, it’s the vacillation without a decision that’s the real anxiety maker. Deciding either way — to stay or go — will at least break that worry loop. If it turns out you regret your decision, you can always make a change.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember for anyone in the throes of a prolonged period of worry or fixation, even if it’s cold comfort in the moment, is that it may feel bad, but it is not permanent, lethal or rare.
Be prepared, realistic and kind to yourself
Dr. Schneier says preparation is key if you’re headed into the uncharted territory of joblessness. “Prepare to expect anxiety and to accept it,” he said. “You need to create your own structure and routine, a place where you’re going to do things, the time frame of what you’re going to do when, maybe have accountability to share your plans with somebody you trust.”
He also stressed the importance of being realistic and suggested setting small goals that you have control over, like spending three hours preparing your résumé as opposed to telling yourself that you’ll get a new job by next week. The second goal, Dr. Schneier said, is a “recipe for anxiety because that’s a goal you don’t have direct control over.” He also recommends exercise, meditation and relaxation as first steps, and therapy and medication if your anxiety becomes too much to bear.
Most important, Dr. Rosmarin said, is not to catastrophize or judge yourself. “That’s usually where people start to get into trouble,” he added. “It’s when they feel nervous, afraid, stressed, and then they get upset about the fact that they feel stressed — meta-meta worried.” Instead, he suggests, go easy: “Notice that you’re feeling anxious; don’t just pretend nothing’s happening. Acknowledge it.”
You’re not alone, especially right now
The pandemic actually prepared us — or at least gave us a preview — of what post-quitting anxiety might feel like. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: “Rates of depression and anxiety were rising before the pandemic, but the grief, trauma and physical and social isolation that many people experienced during the pandemic exacerbated these issues.” Which is to say, there is a community out there of like-minded people, perhaps now more so than before. “We know for sure that there are people who had never met criteria for generalized anxiety disorder” before the pandemic, who now do, Dr. Villatte said.
For better or worse, Covid ripped off that Band-Aid for us. “Do we wish a pandemic on the world? Of course not,” Dr. Sawchuk said. But there have been silver linings. The pandemic proved that many of us could acclimate quickly during a chaotic time, including those of us who are averse to chaos. The emergence of video calls and flexible schedules changed the traditional workweek in ways that have been beneficial for some people who are prone to anxiety.
When I quit a different job in 2022, one I had been recruited for and had been doing for only three months, I did not have anxiety attacks. What changed? For one thing, I’d been down this road before, and familiar roads are less intimidating than new ones. I was a full-time freelancer before taking the job, so a return to gig life — something that had once scared me — also seemed fine. And in 2022, I was, like everyone else, exhausted; the idea of setting my own schedule and being able to take midday naps was appealing, not incapacitating.
In addition, I had sold a book in 2021, and quitting meant I actually had time to write it. I had friends to see, money in the bank and antidepressants in my bloodstream. And quitting did not lead to a major disruption in my routine because my full-time job had been remote, and now that I had quit I was … still remote.
Once I decided to quit, I acted, with no endless vacillation. I was making a very big change in my life by quitting, but all things considered, it didn’t feel quite so big.
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