This is Your Brain on Anxiety

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.” 
― C. H. Spurgeon

Something I’ve learned about mental health over my life, both through observation of friends and family members going through their own challenges and later going through my own, is that feelings are real.

I don’t mean that in a fluffy or trite sense. I may be having a perfectly lovely day, enjoying good company and delightful weather but the friend or family member sitting next to me may be experiencing a painful reality where every interaction is a threat and grief is near-overwhelming. I may not be able to see that reality, but have no doubt at all that to that person, that landscape is as real and sharply defined as what my own eyes and senses tell me.

Unfortunately, I find myself on the flip side of that example as well. I’ve written before about developing anxiety issues over the past few years and they had a flare up this past week that has given me pause to try and think and write about them some more.

I’ve been meditating a lot on the problem of knowing something to be truth but feeling unable to act or feel or think according to that truth. I’ve had enough observational and even personal experience with mental unwellness that I am intellectually aware of the disconnect between my reality and the one everyone else is experiencing. I know when I have an anxious or mildly depressive episode that what I am feeling is not necessarily “real” or reasonable. And even knowing this, I hate my inability to recalibrate my feelings and reactions to what I know they ought to be given the situation. I hate knowing that my senses have overcome my sense, and still feeling it happen.

My personal experience of anxiety is a total loss of control over the flow of thoughts within my own head. The metaphor I use is of an old rolodex filled with cards, rotating and flipping from one thing to the next faster and faster and faster. Given a starting point my thoughts catastrophize themselves, or I fall into a fret spiral. Faced with a worrying challenge (some of them as petty as an awkward conversation) my brain goes into overdrive, trying to map out every possible scenario to deal with a thousand different potential outcomes, one idea tripping into the next frantically. I cannot stop or even slow this process when it starts, and the result can be a migraine, insomnia, or an actual panic attack. At their lightest these episodes are embarrassing, exhausting, and annoying. At their worst they are physically debilitating. I have literally worried myself sick against my own will, culminating on one memorable occasion in hyperventilating on a bathroom floor–choking on my own breath and crying because I was desperate to switch the brain that felt too hot inside my skull off.

The depressive side of things is not as physical but it’s not much prettier. I talk a lot about Imposter Syndrome–in the parlance of the internet, I haz it.

These episodes aren’t regular but they do happen, and when they come they usually arrive suddenly and without warning. They are often triggered by a sense of personal failure or shortcomings, and usually synced with other medical realities like hormones and medication. During these periods my worst thoughts are amplified and it’s frighteningly easy to follow a different kind of thought spiral down to some pretty harsh conclusions about my personal worth.

Luckily for me I’m a born contrarian! When I’m healthy and fully functional, I’m able to harness the niggling voice in my head that tells me I’m an idiot, no good at what I do, and a hair’s breadth away from screwing up, and use it as fuel. “You think I’m going to fail? Well, watch closely, jerkwad, I’m about to nail it.” But when I’m down or depleted, that voice becomes louder and I’m more easily convinced that it’s right: I am a fraud, I am incompetent, and any second now I’m going to screw up in some major (albeit poorly defined) way. This take the form of free-floating dread which is turn can all to easily trigger the anxiety attacks described earlier.

And that’s me; my brain on anxiety. Every single person I know who struggles either chonically or periodically with mental health challenges has their own unique

I know it’s mostly foolish and nonsensical to feel the way I do, for the reasons I do. The only grace I’ve learned to give myself (and others) is knowing and remembering that feelings are real. That dread might just be in my own head, but that doesn’t make it any less dreadful in the moment I’m experiencing it. And I’m grateful to be able to retain the perspective that moments are temporary.

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