If there’s one thing mental illness is good for it’s protecting you.
That’s basically the origin of it. As humans we are conditioned through years or evolution to actively seek dangerous situations, and respond to those accordingly with either fight or flight.
Years ago this stopped us from getting mauled by mammoths. But even though the mammoths are gone, this human conditioning is not.
For many it’s not even a problem. Fear kicks in rationally and appropriately, assesses the risk and makes a decision on what the body should do. For some (hello!) it’s learned through various means, mainly experiences over time, it’s hyper-vigilant and is constantly scanning and assessing and reacting. This is ultimately what anxiety is doing.
THE 6 HUMAN NEEDS
Many people including myself believe that there are 6 basic human needs that everybody has, however everybody has a different priority order for these needs. This order of priority can shape your entire life and its’ worth trying to work out what these are as a simple and conscious shift in these can work miracles on your daily behaviours and decision making.
Certainty: assurance you can avoid pain and gain pleasure
Uncertainty/Variety: the need for the unknown, change, new stimuli
Significance: feeling unique, important, special or needed
Connection/Love: a strong feeling of closeness or union with someone or something
Growth: an expansion of capacity, capability or understanding
Contribution: a sense of service and focus on helping, giving to and supporting others
But your brain will calculate whether something is a risk to you and your survival based on these needs. For me I was prioritising love over all else, which sounds lovely, but it wasn’t. For me, to be loved meant I was surviving. I wasn’t alone (safety in numbers and all that) and I was accepted. This lead to me being in damaging and abusive relationships, and it also lead to me developing anxiety about situations where I risked being judged or embarrassing myself in any way. This was just one strain of my incredibly complex anxiety patterns but it was a biggie.
It developed to such an extent that the thing I came to fear most was having a panic attack in public. I was anxious about being anxious. Wonderful.
Naturally the only way to avoid this was to stay at home. A lot. Or to make sure that I always had an easy way out of a situation so I could leave with little to no explanation to anyone if I felt like an anxiety attack might be coming. So if I did go out I would always have my car. It’s the reason why I can’t get trains, as they are too unreliable and public, and the reason why I couldn’t and still often can’t get lifts with other people. I want to be in control of the situation as much as I possible can, as, you guessed it, my second priority is certainty.
So my two main tactics for avoidance were to either not do something at all, or to try and control the situation by limiting the risk.
Over years and years of doing this without recognising what I was doing, I became a shell of my former self. I didn’t want to socialise. I didn’t care about not going on holiday with my girls. I didn’t care about leaving in the middle of parties. I became so selfish in making sure my needs were catered for that my brain learned to shut down any thoughts of guilt or upset over the things I didn’t do, as otherwise there was a risk I could win the argument and go to a party but then horribly embarrass myself by having a massive panic attack. That was a risk my brain was absolutely not going to take.
Thus, the avoidance.
RECOGNISING AVOIDANCE VS BOUNDARIES
Since taking medication for my anxiety and after everything I learned through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I started to notice a shift.
Firstly I started to listen more. As in, I actively began to observe the thoughts flitting through my mind rather than let them take over. Once I realised that my true self was the one listening to the negative thoughts and the ‘what ifs’ things started to rapidly change. I realised that I am the one in charge, thoughts are just fleeting and they are not reality.
Once you do this you really start to hear the thoughts for what they are. You’ll notice the smaller and faster thoughts as well as the ones that start to take over.
For example, I started to notice when I was outfit planning or thinking about seeing certain friends or looking at a restaurant menu (everyone does this right!?). All of these actions made me realise that somewhere in me was a little tiny bit of excitement.
Then I started to recognise the negative thoughts. If the thoughts I was having were ‘what if this happens’ or visualising scenarios that are negative in my mind this instantly screamed ANXIOUS.
That there is the difference.
You can be looking forward to something and then on the day feel completely drained of energy. You can feel like you’re coming down with a cold or you can just need some time on your own. If the thoughts running through your head are ‘I really need to rest’ vs ‘I can’t be bothered’ then it’s probably that you need to assess whether you need to politely rearrange or decline an invitation. Being assertive vs selfish is a big difference. This chart below is incredibly helpful:
HOW TO UNDERSTAND YOUR THOUGHTS
The trickiest part of this is how confusing mental illness can be. Depression and anxiety can make you feel physically drained. That’s why it’s so important to start recognising the thought patterns behind the feelings.
If it helps a great way to do this is to just brain dump all your thoughts onto paper or your notes app. Think about a particular situation or event, then write down and don’t stop writing for 5 minutes. You will be amazed at what comes out.
Afterwards re-read your ramblings and try to highlight what the anxious thoughts are (e.g. the what ifs) and what the needs are (e.g. physical sensations or human needs).
It took me a long time of working on my recovery before I started to genuinely feel excited about things but I’m getting there. And with every bit of progress I make the physical feelings get stronger. The anxious thoughts get quieter.
Once you start to recognise the difference you can start to be kinder to yourself and meaner to your mental illness. Taking charge of your thoughts will be the biggest step you take in recovering/managing your anxiety.