Feed the fearful, starve the fear: On dogs, writing, and anxiety

I call my house Casa Neurosa, ostensibly referencing my penchant for taking in and rehabilitating wayward dogs with severe behavioral issues. Our current canine family members are Coco and Winifred, aged 16 and a little over one, respectively. Watch them snooze in my office all day, performing an expressive horizontal ballet I call “Sloth Lake,” and you’d never guess they were riddled with angst.

Coco’s reactivity has mellowed with old age and its attendant hearing and vision deficits. But Winnie’s anxiety is fresh and acute. We adopted her last March. It took six months, one in-home behavior specialist, and daily Prozac to get her to enjoy being outdoors, though she still won’t venture outside without my husband or me. She came out of her shell more rapidly inside the house, revealing her Tigger-level zest for life in all its splendor. We were baby stepping full steam ahead.

That is, until a week before Christmas. We were watching Die Hard (a Christmas movie; fight me). When Winnie saw John McClane’s plane descend, her dog brain computed our living room = LAX, c. 1987. Eyes white, she sprang from the sofa and shot under the dining room table. She’s avoided the room ever since. It doesn’t matter what’s on the TV or if the TV is even on: she steals frantic glances at it, cowers, trembles like the world is crashing down around her, and runs as far as she can from it to hide. It’s heartbreaking.

We’ve boosted Winnie’s pharmaceutical support, and I’ve restarted daily behavior modification sessions. Part of this is rewarding Winnie with certain super enticing (stinky) treats, but only when she ventures near the BIG SCARY THING. The goal is for her to eventually associate the TV with yummy snacks, like my husband and I do.

During our sessions, I frequently catch myself uttering soothing words: “Shh. It’s OK.” It can complicate counterconditioning, so I’ve been working hard to reverse this habit. And yet, a couple of weeks ago, I was reassuring a human loved one in crisis and said, “Shh. It’s OK” into my phone. Winnie startled from a dead sleep and began shaking, scanning for the BIG SCARY THING. Sure enough, I’d linked “Shh. It’s OK” to the BST. Now I keep the stinky treats coming and my stinking mouth shut unless I’m reinforcing her high five or leave it with an enthusiastic “yes!”

Recent evidence notwithstanding, I have rehabilitated several fearful and reactive dogs successfully. I get them. I, too, am hardwired for anxiety. Case in point: as thrilled as I was to join Team Leff at the end of last year, the new gig threw my anxiety into beast mode. My fears had nothing to do with the work, my colleagues, or Leff’s culture, which couldn’t be more engaging, supportive, or fun. Deep, unhealed wounds from workplaces past, coupled with my hardwiring and irrational self-expectations—that’s what had me in knots.

My writing process mirrored my psyche. I was frozen in wordless agony or spewing ungainly word blobs I had to wrestle into coherence. I couldn’t get out of my own way. I couldn’t stop focusing on how I was doing instead of what I was doing. I tried stepping away, taking Wordle breaks, doing housework. But I’d knot back up as soon as I sat down to write again. I even tried affirmations: “You can do this! You are a seasoned professional!”

Mercifully, I had an epiphany: I’d been telling myself, “Shh. It’s OK.” With all my break-taking and motivational falderal, I had reinforced a link between anxiety and writing. I’d made writing a BIG SCARY THING I needed to escape. What I needed was to make like Yoda and just do the thing I’ve done for nearly three decades. I can crank out some righteous copy when I’m on a tight turnaround or smack upside a deadline. Because there’s no time to try, only do.

As much as I’ve pretended otherwise, plying myself with treats while writing is stress eating and not behavior modification. Instead, I’m healing past workplace injuries and experimenting with ways to get my Jedi on. Music, meditation, coloring, charades with the dogs—anything to get grounded before I sit down to work. I’m resetting my mental and emotional associations with writing (and work in general) by tweaking my environment and perspective.

Counterconditioning. Turns out that shit works on humans, too.

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