The horrible truth about anxiety

NoHum_anxiety Horrible truths are not advice — just stuff I’ve learned from my own experiences. Your mileage may vary.

A while ago one of my friends tweeted that she’d woken up feeling full of dread and had been anxious all day for no apparent reason. I sympathised, of course, but my initial reaction was, You mean… you don’t feel like that every day? ‘Cos I sure do.

I haven’t always been like this; there’s photographic evidence to prove it. My mum has a picture of me aged around 18 months where I’m wearing brown cord dungarees and a white sweater, my pudgy face accentuated by a brutally asymmetric home-cut fringe. I’m standing at the bottom of the garden, clutching some clothes pegs, and I’m throwing my head back and squealing with delight. I’ve got pegs!!!

Perhaps it’s inevitable that our peg-holding joy seeps away as life picks us up and shakes us around a bit. I had a handful of not-fun things happen to me by the age of ten, from minor injuries to moving house, a little light bullying to my parents’ messy divorce. I’m too old to blame my parents for everything, but my DNA was deep-fried in anxiety. My mum doesn’t feel right if she hasn’t got something to worry about (this tendency led to her warning me about the possibility of cocaine at parties. When I was eight) while my Dad likes to keep a calm facade, doing a nice line in ulcers and migraines.

Whatever the reasons, I had a good anxiety habit going by the time I was in secondary school, but kind of thought that everyone else felt the same; that this is just how life is. I kept a low profile, avoided things that made me feel worse, and cried for weeks in advance of any kind of public presentation. Totes normal.

As I got older, I graduated to a panic attack or two, became increasingly socially anxious and was gripped by a terror that never entirely went away during a ride at The Place Where Dreams Come True™. I came home, couldn’t stop crying, and my GP diagnosed me with depression and anxiety. After trying nine anti-depressants without success, it seemed like therapy was my best option.

When you have any kind of treatment for anxiety, you usually get a speech about the fight or flight response. Our primitive brains are primed for a predator’s attack, so when we perceive something as a threat, we get the same kind of feelings as if a lion’s about to eat us, even if we’re just making a mildly unpleasant phone call. I guess it’s useful to know what’s happening when I’m flooded with panic, but it doesn’t really help.

And most of the advice for handling it doesn’t help, either.

One of the things friends, acquaintances, and actual accredited professionals have recommended is that I write down my worries so that I can address them, which probably sounds reasonable if you’re not overloaded with anxiety. (Top of the list: the thought of having to address all those worries.) But I tried it anyway, and came away from the experiment with four pages of A4 and an urge to hyperventilate.

The horrible truth about anxiety is that the specifics don’t matter — but we act like they do.

When I’m worrying, my thoughts are on a loop: I feel anxious about something, try to reason myself out of it (sometimes with the help of other people/the internet), feel some relief, then within seconds or hours it starts again. It feels so good to have that momentary calm, my mind will do anything to get to that feeling again. Sure the worries have some basis in reality — they wouldn’t resonate with me if they didn’t — but they’re not the real problem.

The real problem is a physiological and psychological addiction to worrying that’s supported by wonky brain chemistry, memories of past negative experiences, and the deeply-held belief that life isn’t safe. (I saw a quote on Facebook recently that said when you’re anxious, it’s because you don’t believe the universe will take care of you. No kidding. Look around!)

I think part of the answer is getting to the root of the anxiety: finding a way to treat those wonky chemicals and clear out the negative memories. But when it comes to day-to-day worries, the most important thing I’m doing is… nothing. Not getting into an inner debate in the first place; not letting myself go into a tailspin.

For real-life example, when I’m scared that the restaurant I’ve booked online won’t have kept my reservation, the answer isn’t to ask my mum if she thinks it will have gone through OK, Google whether anyone’s had a similar situation to the one I fear, or call the restaurant to double-check. The answer is to acknowledge that my anxiety is flaring up and then not throw petrol onto the fire. Instead of trying to reason with it or talk myself out of it I can just sit with it. Or I can meditate, do a yogic stretch, distract myself, or yell “I DON’T WANNA.”

You might be like “Duh, that’s because it doesn’t really matter,” but the principle is the same no matter what I’m thinking (and thinking and thinking) about. I’m always on top of things in my mind, narrating my actions and mentally preparing for possible scenarios as if that’s actually a productive way to spend my time rather than just an easy way to become exhausted.

It’s hard to let go, to not be filling my mind with “urgent” thoughts. It feels dangerous, as if not preparing for every eventuality by worrying about them in advance will lead to disaster. But I’ve thought (and thought and thought) that way for 34 years and it hasn’t worked out that well, so it’s probably time to try something new.

Image: GE Healthcare on Flickr.

  • Emma Johnston

    I’m the exact same, and my son is turning out to be exactly like me. Hes 10, and on Sunday night, when I was actually up really late, which isnt like me, he was upstairs, unable to sleep. He was listening out for me coming to bed, or any noise really. My husband and I were both blogging, so were sitting in absolute silence. After about an hour, Jack came downstairs looking like he’d been crying, but was now trying to hide it. He said that I should go to bed, so I agreed, and went upstairs with him, jumped into bed for a cuddle, and he told me that he’d started to worry that we were dead cos there was no noise at all. This is of course completely irrational, but the fact remains that my son believed it in his head. We’ve tried to give him a solid home, but hes lost so many people in his short life, and hes getting depressed. I think I should perhaps take him to the docs sooner rather than later.

    • Aw, the poor love. There’s something especially terrifying about night time fears, too, isn’t there? I used to wake up in the middle of the night as a kid and be afraid to move in case a burglar was downstairs.

  • The timing on this post is incredible. I just wrote up a speech on the body’s reaction to fear — and the fight or flight response — for my Toastmasters meeting tonight. I go to Toastmasters because I’m terrified of public speaking. In the past, I’ve had panic attacks so severe I’ve nearly lost consciousness. Toastmasters is my exposure therapy.

    Of course, I don’t know that it’s actually working. I’m on speech # 7 and, every time I go up there, I still freak out. From my research, I know that exposure therapy is supposed to help with fear extinction: the creation of new sensory memories that will replace my fear memories. But it appears my brain does not want to listen to logic.

    I used to take meds for my depression and anxiety. I weaned myself off of them almost three years ago, because my husband and I wanted to start a family. We’ve been struggling with infertility issues ever since, and the lack of meds doesn’t help my ability to cope with this. 😉

    But ANYways. Now, when I’m scared, I just try to remind myself:

    – no one’s judging you the way you judge yourself
    – these people want you to succeed
    – what’s the worst that can happen? even the worst ain’t that bad…

    Of course, I still feel terrified. But I’m so damn tired of letting my anxiety rule my life.

    • Whoa, that is some major exposure therapy for anyone with anxiety. The problem for me is that even when I give myself positive self-talk, I don’t believe it… I do find it a little helpful telling myself I don’t have to do well or to feel good, though. Having said that, I have an older relative who joined Toastmasters (or a similar group, at least) because he had a stutter and wasn’t very confident, and now he loves it.
      Lots of luck for tonight!

  • Vicki

    Diane you’ve gone a long way to find a way to cope with anxiety and you are to be applauded for that.
    I think of an anxiety attack as my body tricking me and I tell myself that what I’m feeling isn’t real and that it will pass. I also smile at it because that tricks my body into beginning to think that there isn’t any threat after all. Apparently smiling is suggested to combat depression as well. Putting plenty of positive, pleasant images in the mind can help too. Even positive words (which is why NLP can help). Analysing fears is a no no. That’s just perpetuating the fear.
    Yes you have stumbled on the horrible truth about anxiety and the fact that the universe doesn’t care. My current nasty spiritual experience I’ve told you about has taught me a lot about anxiety and why it is we suffer from it. It is very much a human condition. Also as you will have gathered it’s particularly associated with M.E. and here is part of the horrible truth I have discovered. Anxiety (and depression for that matter) is all part of the body’s attempts to heal it itself. It is its method of trying to fight the infection causing the illness with adrenaline, hence the anxiety.
    I do believe we can fight back. Incidentally that’s why I think such things as LP and the Gupta protocol have helped some people with M.E. because it aims to tone down the adrenaline levels. I think you already know about the Stop technique.

    • Hi Vicki, yes I agree that bringing down the adrenaline levels is key with M.E (tests have shown my adrenals to be totally overworked) and plan to write about what I’m doing on that front in the future. It’s a cruel irony that most of our symptoms are our bodies trying to fix us and completely overreacting.

      I’m v. familiar with the stop technique, having done it for over a year and been driven a bit mad by it! I personally don’t like approaches that involve telling yourself to feel differently than you do, from CBT to NLP to affirmations to positive imagery etc. because it’s still getting into a battle with your brain, and trying to convince yourself to feel differently, rather than *actually* feeling better, and that just doesn’t work for me. (I’ll probably write more about this in future, too.)

      • Vicki

        Diane yes I agree about the battle re positive imagery etc. but it’s the only weapon (!) I have atm. and I view it as trying to trick my body as it’s tricking me.
        Obviously actually feeling better should be our goal but in the absence of that possibility for now it is at least best not to allow negative trains of thought to take hold. The therapy for instance of watching a comedy video is a good example.
        Anyway when I can get round to it I am going to start a blog now that I can see I could write a series of articles on it rather than keep a diary, which i didn’t want to do. The whole theme of the blog will be about adrenaline from all angles – medical, philosophical and spiritual. I have so much to write about because I have learnt so much about the subject in the past couple of years. I look forward to reading any future articles you write.

        • Oh, I’m totally supportive of whatever works for you (or anyone else!) but the idea that we can stop our negative thoughts has never worked for me because we can’t control what’s happening in our subconscious, and I’ve often found the effort of fighting negativity actually makes me feel more miserable. My therapist recommends getting to the root of issues some of the time and distracting oneself the rest of the time, which feels like a good balance to me 🙂

  • MallyMon

    (((()))) ♥