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The Washing Machine Model: Navigating Anxiety and Stress

Updated: Jun 6, 2023

When confronted with seemingly insurmountable challenges at work or in life, it often feels as if our entire existence is under threat. Our future appears bleak, and our highly imaginative minds create a constant stream of thoughts about how things will inevitably go wrong. Consequently, our moods are affected, and sleep becomes elusive.

During these experiences, the most agonizing sensation is the belief that these feelings will never subside, that our future is in jeopardy, and that the problem will impact every aspect of our lives. The truth is that the feelings eventually subside, our futures were not in jeopardy the way we fantasized, and the problems do not affect every aspect of our lives. Despite the difficulties we may face, we eventually regain equilibrium, and life moves forward. Of course, some situations are more severe than others and may necessitate professional intervention. However, most of the issues that we perceive as life-altering end up being mere blips in our existence, having far less impact on our lives than our brains would have us believe.

After enduring countless cycles of fearing that everything is falling apart, only to later realize that these predictions were unfounded, I've come to understand that my mind, and perhaps the minds of others, functions much like the cycles on a washing machine:

1. Fill: The washing machine fills with water to the selected level or load size. This is akin to stressors in the environment filling your mental capacity to the breaking point.

2. Wash/Agitate: Once filled with stressors, the mind begins to agitate thoughts and feelings related to the stressors. This is the most challenging part to endure. Everything feels incredibly real. Your mind goes into overdrive, and the problem consumes your thoughts. The world around you is muffled by the constant, deafening hum of worry. As you attempt to sleep, the agitation continues in the background, rendering restorative slumber an unattainable dream. This often feels like the longest of all cycles.

3. Rinse: Following the agitation, the Rinse cycle begins. During this phase, things start to become clearer, new information emerges, and the immediate consequences anticipated by the brain never materialize.

4. Spin: The Spin cycle produces a renewed individual, more resolute than before. In retrospect, you realize that much of your distress was unwarranted, and you pledge never to go through it again.

Once we emerge from this cycle, we are susceptible to being soiled by life once more (that’s what life does), initiating the cycle anew. If only we could remember that these cycles are just that - cycles. Just as the process begins when we face stressors, it will also end, eventually yielding a cleaner version of our once troubled selves.

Regrettably, for most of us, we only recognize these cycles after enduring their agony. I am convinced that we can learn to identify the onset of these cycles, sit back, and simply let our minds do what they do, without judgment or haste. As detached observers, we can watch the cycles unfold without being consumed by them. We emerge clean after most cycles... let's never forget that.

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