Dr. Mona Knows Anxiety

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Q: I am so anxious. I can't seem to make a decision about anything. My husband doesn't want to hear about my anxiety anymore and my friends either think I am joking or are bored sick listening to me complain. I'm a lawyer --usually, I am a decisive, organized, and successful one. My clients depend on me for direction and clarity. If Ican offer direction and clarity to then, why can't I do the same for myself?

All of a sudden, I am questioning everything. I don't know if I want to work anymore. I don't know if I should convert my son's bedroom to an exercise room. Don't even know what equipment to buy. I don't know where to go on vacation--a nice spot for my husband and myself. I don't know when to visit my son at school or even if he wants us to visit. Each decision seems momentous to me. I torture myself by switching constantly back and forth. How do I stop this?

A: Anxiety? Boy wouldn't it be great if we could find the magic remedy for that? Sorry, no such thing. But we can absolutely try to understand where the anxiety is coming from. Knowing its roots may help us to fight it or at least to put it in its place.

The only clue to your anxiety is that all your questions revolve around a momentous change in your life. I can guess that you and your husband are facing an empty nest. It appears that your only child or the last of your children has headed off to college. Thus you can decide to use his bedroom for another purpose or to go on a vacation that does not include activities for kids.

The emptying of the nest is surely a painful period of adjustment to a brand new life with brand new rhythms and demands. All of a sudden, the kids are gone. No matter how well organized life has been, you now need to reorganize and to reprioritize. These changes can be frightening. Any transition can be difficult and this one is one of the hardest of all. You're on the downside of the bell curve. A family is like a structure. You built it. Now, in a sense, you're taking it apart. The man you met, the one you married, the kids you had, the ones you raised - all that was part of a building process. You're taking things apart now, a painful rearrangement of things that matter greatly. Set aside some time to mourn.

Leaving behind one stage, or "little life," means we have to leave behind something that we enjoyed and worked hard to establish. The past will not reoccur. The old happiness is gone. Someone who watched the New York Giants beat the New England Patriots in the Super bowl told me the next day that they were sad because the game was so perfect -the "perfect" Patriots, the underdog Giants -- it could never be repeated. The best game he could ever hope for had come and gone.

When we move on to a new stage of life, it's only natural to fear for the new and fear to let go of the other words, anxiety.

Empty nest is also adjusting to the loneliness of not having our children around all the time. Not only will we miss taking care of them, but we will also miss the laughter, the fun and the love. They're moving on to adulthood. Will that mean that our relationship with them will change? Will we see them as often? Will there be the same laughter, fun, and love? Will the relationship with our mates be as fulfilling as it was before? These unknowns fill us with dread and anxiety.

In your case, I suspect that you have displaced all of these basic anxieties for a lot of little ones - silly questions about what to do with your son's room or what kind of exercise equipment to buy. These are easy, concrete - much less frightening than trying to contemplate the possibility of seldom seeing your children. It is much less frightening to be unable to choose a vacation destination than to contemplate the possibility of sitting on the beach wondering, now that the kids are gone, what in the world you and your husband are going to talk about.

Moving to the next stage of life is frightening. But the only way to approach it is head on. Use your obviously excellent organizational skills, decision-making ability and energy to emerge into a new world. You have a new job: transition. Decorate a room, work on the changing relationship with your husband with your children, and change the rhythms of your life. Pretty soon the next stage won't look so bad.