BY MACKENZIE STEELE
I am taking Chemistry at university this semester, and we have just finished covering thermochemistry. Much to my disgust, I enjoyed it, and worse, learned something about life (and no, it’s not that planning is valuable). First though, a little background, and a little science.
I’m known to be a little anxious. I don’t have an anxiety disorder, and I don’t usually have panic attacks, but I am a bit of a worry-wort. I hold myself to high standards, never accounting for context or circumstance (like illness-related grade drops are perfectly understandable for anyone except myself). I also find it very hard to let things go. I have to consciously put something aside, or it will swirl in my head and join a whole bunch of other swirling Bad Things, so the number of swirling things keeps increasing and my mood doesn’t.
My biggest problem is with inconsistency. Like everything alive, I like a certain level of stability, but I never have enough of it. Life isn’t exactly predictable, but today more than ever there are so many variables. You can do everything right and it can still go wrong. Something might be concrete today but gone tomorrow (school programs and university departments, anyone?). Change is great, but there’s a problem when it feels like there is so much change that nothing is stable, safe, or reliable. Sometimes it’s mostly perception, and sometimes it’s real. Either way, it’s a valid feeling, and we can work on it through fixing any problems, seeking help, and building coping mechanisms like mindfulness. But that’s not what this article is about.
When you think about it as a reaction to instability, anxiety is okay. However, I still get very angry at myself when I become anxious when someone touches my belongings or other trivial things happen. I know they don’t matter, so why am I anxious? So the anxiety is joined by self-hatred which causes depression and more anxiety, and before you know it, it feels like everything is WRONG and nothing will ever get better.
Maybe you can relate to my experience a bit. Even if you can’t, we are about to get to the science bit and there’s a lot to contemplate if you like abstract ideas, so here we go. I am glad to introduce you to Thermodynamics’ Second Law!
The Second Law of Thermodynamics basically says that anything will usually try to become the most it can be. We can think of somebody trying to fulfil every potential: they would make a great athlete, but also love speaking, and have a flair for organising, and really enjoy making clay vases – and then they try to do ALL of them at once! It would be chaos, but wonderful chaos. And that’s the universe.
The Second Law also says that the amount of chaos can never decrease. You cannot make the world more ordered. It explains why the cords in the Box of Power Cords never ever untangle themselves after somehow forming a knotted disordered mass.
There is also the idea of reversible and irreversible processes. In thermochemistry, a reversible process is one done infinitely slowly, in an infinite amount of tiny steps, so at any stage you can go back to the original state and have nothing changed in your environment or the process you are working on. Of course, it doesn’t exist, since it would take literally forever. In real life, we have irreversible processes, which are actually done in real time, in a countable number of larger steps. Take moving a pen on your desk. You can pick it up, and put it back down where it was, but it’s not truly the same. Your actions have moved air molecules, among other things. The surroundings are changed and can never ever be returned to their former state (even ignoring how the pen and its position would also be very slightly different).
Now, this may seem pedantic to you. Who cares about the different positioning of things you can’t see? It doesn’t really matter.
But sometimes it really does matter. It matters when it feels like you control absolutely nothing, then something that felt constant is different. That anchoring, constant thing could be as small as a pen, as large as a routine, or something as simple as the same teacher each week. It matters when you are happy, and you realise that happy moment will very soon be gone, and you can never have it back. If you’ve ever had that kind of anxiety, you will know the compulsion to record everything (writing, photos, collecting and hoarding, anything), and perhaps the feeling of panic when someone touches your stuff. It’s the fear of missing out but it’s also the fear of losing and desperation to keep what you have. Because once it’s gone, you cannot truly ever replicate it. Memories, feelings, time, and exact position are all dynamic, and each specific combination can’t truly be the same again. This kind of anxiety is just your brain craving something that feels secure, which is a survival instinct that all living things have.
In some ways, it’s a sad thought. You can never have back what was. The universe will not order itself, and chaos will increase while much-wanted stability will not. Then I went to lecture, and the full picture is quite calming:
The world and everything in it, including you, will change and never be the same or more ordered, but that’s only because we are all reaching our maximum amount of potentials.
In summary, the Second Law tells us that life may not be ordered or calm, but the disorder has purpose because everything always will try for the best it can be in some way, somehow. It’s just a matter of time.
Shout out to Professor Michael Mucalo for making physical chem fun!
Experiencing anxiety is normal, and you are never alone. If you do ever feel overwhelmed or just want to talk, please reach out to someone you feel comfortable with, or get in touch with:
Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7)
What’s Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children’s helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)
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