Perhaps the most common question I get asked about the anxiety is ‘but why’? Often followed by ‘and how?’ And then, my personal favourite, ‘but can’t you just stop thinking like that’? or some variant on that. To the ‘why’ question, I am often at a loss for words when it comes to the anxiety and explaining where it comes from or why it suddenly hits me at different times of the day or in different places or why I think as I do. The ‘how’ is a bit easier to answer as my anxiety is so physical – while some may respond to thier anxiety by becoming very quiet or hiding themselves away, my body (like others) responds physically – I get very shaky and jittery, I get really warm, I often feel dizzy and sick and, perhaps most difficult of all, I feel like I am about 10 seconds away from passing out at any given moment. And that in turns leads me to respond in a certain way mentally – I either decide I have to get out of the situation immediately and then do so; or I take steps to try and alievate the fear and sense of impending danger – I go to my safety behaviours as my CBT therapist calls them; or, and this is happening less and less at the moment, but is the end goal, I try and let the anxiety wash over me and not disrupt what I am doing.
As for the ‘but can’t you just stop thinking like that?’, my response is more often than not an internal sigh and attempt to compose my face into one not of increduilty and to stop myself from screaming ‘you don’t think I haven’t tried’. The thing is I know that most of the time that, for some, that question comes from a genuine place of care and concern but also, in most situations, a complete unfamiliarity and experience with anxiety. From other people, however, it doesn’t feel so kind, for want of a better word. Especially when it is accompanied by a ‘startled deer in the headlights look’ and then swiftly followed by some sort of response revolving around me pulling myself together or them ‘not wanting to suggest things but maybe, you know, if you just stopped thinking about it and carried on with your work, it would be fine and go away’.
But that’s the whole point and problem, if you will. It doesn’t go away, even if I am working or researching or just relaxing. It is back to the stage of always being there. Of me not being able to turn my brain off. The thoughts are automatic, a habit. All day, every day, these thoughts enter my head without me even realising or before I have even had time to think them. And so I can rarely stop feeling anxious. All the time. And that has huge physical implications in itself, without adding on top of that the physical manifestations of my anxiety. I am so unbelievably tired, both mentally and physically. And that’s a problem because I am not getting enough PhD work done (which in turn adds another layer to the anxiety). And I’m just generally being semi ok at life, at being a friend, a girlfriend, a daughter, a sister. And I can’t see a way, at the moment, to change my thoughts and to unlock that part of me that desperately wants to get back into a productive work routine and to enjoy life again. My mind is so tired that it just grabs hold of every negative thought or emotion I have, pulls them in and makes them stick. And that makes me really sad.
I try to be rational. Ala CBT, I have tried to let myself follow negative/ scary thoughts and not to fear them but to observe them. I’ve tried asking myself what is the worst thing that could happen? And is it likely to happen? Believe me, I’ve tried all that. And sometimes it works, sometimes it really does. I am able to rationalise the thought and to break it down into smaller segements that are easier to manage and to conquer so to speak.
But sometimes it doesn’t. And it is at those times, not unsurprisingly, that I feel most vulnerable.
But over the last few days, I have realised something, that I don’t think I really took away from my previous experiences with anxiety, or from the therapy or CBT I had, or from just talking to people. And it is this.
Yes there will be times when I won’t be able to stop myself thinking (and potentially acting) a certain way. But maybe I don’t have to stop it completely. Surely it would be better for me to be in a situation where I didn’t try to fight the thought or push it away but that I give it space so to speak. I allow it to be there but I don’t identify it. This might seem similar to letting the anxiety wash over me. And I suppose it is to an extent, in that I am giving myself the space to feel and react, but I think it is slightly different too.
Maybe if I break it down it will make a bit more sense. So…
Step 1: Give the thought space. Let it be there.
Step 2: Let it wash over me; immerse myself in it, as ludicrous and scary as it may sound.
So far so good and similar to the idea of letting the anxiety wash over me.
But Step 3 of letting the anxiety wash over me would involve letting the physical sensations wash over me without reacting and waiting for them to albeit. Which they will do. Trust me (more on that in another post to come). What it doesn’t really do however is let me process the feelings and thoughts that come with it, so means the same thought triggers will trigger the same response next time or I come out with a ‘well I survived that time’ kinda mentality. And then I’ll begin to dread the thoughts and symptons and then begin to panic when I feel them coming on and this starts the circle of fear off all over again.
Whereas Step 3 of the, as of yet unnamed thought process in my head (!), stops that cycle if (and it’s a big if!), if I don’t even let myself identify the thought/ trigger as ‘scary’, ‘likely to make me vulnerable’ or ‘stupid/ embarrassing’ etc. That way, hopefully my body won’t even respond, so I won’t have to let anything wash over me. Yes I can have the thoughts in my head but I try not to turn them into catastrophic or scary thoughts. Fighting my thoughts and trying to rid myself of them is a battle I feel like I am constantly losing, so to answer the question I raised at the beginning of ‘why I don’t just stop thinking about it?’, a). please understand it is not that easy and b). perhaps thinking about it is ok, if done in a certain way. For after all if it’s not important whether my thoughts are scary or not, why should I try to stop them or give them their space. Only that way, so it seems to be me anyway, will I properly lose them and be able to stop thinking about them.
I don’t know whether that makes much sense but it’s kinda where my thought process is at the moment and I’m willing, at the moment, to do pretty much anything to try and beat this once again. I’ll keep you posted!
P.S. A lot of people have asked about my experience with CBT so expect a post about that soon.