Anxiety: the thoughts, the feelings and the physical sensations

The particular void that I presently find myself in is persisting much longer than usual, and I’m not exactly sure of the reason for this. I’ve become accustomed to an acceptance that depression works to its own timetable, and I can never second guess or question its process. The ‘black dog’ does what it wants to, and no leash can ever contain its inevitable wanderings. “Take one day at a time” is the old mantra, but by following that logic I get stuck in a persistent cycle where each day blends into the next, and it’s as though I’ve taken on the role of a robot, where autopilot is a constant state of affairs. I am trying to drag myself free, but do not know how to.

I thought it may be helpful to myself, and to others, to list the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations that I experience. As difficult as it is to confine them to print, it’s the only way of facing them as opposed to ignoring or trying to forget them:

Thoughts

  • “I shouldn’t be feeling like this”
  • “I’m weak and not what a man should be”
  • I don’t want to be me any more”
  • “I’ve done something to upset someone. Should I say sorry even though I don’t know what I’ve done. If they don’t like me anymore then I am even more alone”
  • “I will always be alone. No one will love me.”
  • “I must be highly unattractive both inside and out. Why would anyone ever want to be with me?”
  • “I could have done things so differently, but now it’s too late”
  • “I will die before I experience happiness”
  • “I want people to ask me if I’m ok”
  • “I don’t want people to ask if I’m ok. I will only have to lie.”
  • “It’s too late for me to change”
  • “I want to stop feeling like this.”

Feelings

  • Frustration
  • Resentfulness
  • Deep sadness
  • Embarrassment
  • Heartache
  • Nervousness
  • Tension
  • Loneliness
  • Isolation
  • Abandonment
  • Hopelessness
  • Constant uncontrollable negative worries running through the mind
  • Combination of wanting others to reach out to me, but also to be invisible and go unnoticed

Physical

  • Heart pounding extremely fast, as though having a heart attack
  • Constant perspiration – leading to more self consciousness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Feeling jumpy and constantly on edge
  • Stomach aches/cramps
  • Inability to relax/concentrate
  • OCD elements – constantly checking things…need constant reassurance
  • Habits, nervous subconscious ticks
  • Crying

These are merely the sensations that are in my mind at the moment, and are by no means an exhaustive list. I believe this demonstrates the 3 pillars that are at work (thoughts/feelings/physical sensations), and that all of them feed into each other, again highlighting the cyclical nature of anxiety and depression. Negative thoughts may trigger a unhelpful emotion, which in turn precipitates an unfavourable physical reaction. That physical reaction can then lead to more negative thoughts, which starts the cycle again.

I must emphasise that many of these thoughts and feelings are irrational, in the sense that I realise I shouldn’t be having them, or that they have no foundation in truth. But the part of the brain that can rationalise my thought processes is sadly overpowered by the part that is consumed with these uncontrollable irrational thoughts. Which is why it’s so difficult to have people say “you’re worrying about things that don’t matter”. Unfortunately that is not my choice, whether I like it or not. An oft unmentioned part of the illness is an OCD like tendency to constantly check things over and over again, whether it be a message, or the state of my appearance, or whether the heating has been turned off. I have to keep rechecking them in order to quiet the roaring animal inside of me that is forcing these negative thoughts into my brain.

The one time of the day I am temporarily in a semi-peaceful state is on the train to work in the morning, when I plug in my music, close my eyes and imagine I’m somewhere else, and someone else. My nervous energy prevents me from concentrating on reading, and so I try to relax my mind by switching my visual senses off, and focusing on the aural. The music and the gentle movement of the train almost sends me to sleep, but the arrival at the station soon brings me back to stark reality. This is not going to help me climb out of the pit, but at least provides a temporary respite where I can imagine that all is well, and that I am a different person in a different place. As Lewis Caroll said in Alice in Wonderland, “Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality”.

Note

In light on the awful attacks of yesterday, my struggles are incomparable to the friends and families who lost loved ones, and those that are severely injured. In my writings I can only talk about my own feelings, and it is never intended to be compared to other people who are suffering much worse than I am. I just wanted to make that clear.

The Cycle of Thoughts and Feelings

Thoughts and feelings are at the very heart of Depression. The simple fact is that the thoughts we have can influence the feelings we experience, and vice versa. It’s a viscous cycle, and the cyclical nature of the illness ensures that once you are in the cycle, it is very difficult to break free. Thoughts can often pop into your head from seemingly out of nowhere, and of their own volition. Frequently however, these introspections are provoked by associations arising from what we see or hear around us. Photos, friends, people in the street, a piece of music, or a particular building can all conjure up thoughts, and consequently feelings, which are both unwanted and damaging. This can happen to all of us, although I would suggest that those with a depressive disorder will experience them in a far greater frequency.

Memories can be very significant stimuli in depression, and can be triggered by a wide variety of occurrences. For example, the other day I walked past a previous flat I had lived in, for the first time in about 3 years. This induced painful memories of the difficulties I was going through when I resided there, and the dark place that I found myself in. For the brief time the building was in my eye line it reignited the anxiety I had all those years ago, and the effect this had upon me took some time to wear off. Just as they say a smell of cooking can take you back to your family kitchen when you were a kid, this visual reminder conjured up all kinds on unwanted sensations and anxieties. On another occasion, I walked past someone in the street who looked remarkably like a person from a few years ago who I had a bad experience with, and this generated the same feelings of anger, sadness and frustration that I had felt at the time. It acted as a kind of portal, which transported me back to 3 years ago and bestowed upon me the exact emotions I had experienced during that period.

It can work the other way too. A certain image or stimulus may conjure up memories of a happy event, and illicit a smile and feeling of warmth, as though you are living through that event once again. The problem stems from the fact that the effects of positive memories wear off extremely quickly, whereas the effects of negative ones can linger for many hours or even days.

When a particular issue or source of anxiety is at it’s height, I often focus upon those things that will justify and confirm my beliefs about it, rather than seeking out those truths that may offer a counter argument. For example, if I get self conscious or low about my appearance I will ‘notice’ people who in my mind are ‘more attractive’, ‘normal looking’, and consequently to my prejudiced perception ‘happy’. This will then feed my exiting beliefs and anxieties, and prolong the cycle of mental unrest. It becomes impossible to see the things that would offer a counter to these beliefs, as you cannot help becoming blind to them. Depression could be described as like a special pair of glasses that allow you to see the negative things, but blinds you to all of the positives.

It seems to me that a need for support from other people is inevitable, and paramount as a facilitation to help you try and overcome this. Not so much for reassurance, as that can have detrimental consequences and potentially lead to a heavy reliance on reassurance before you can even function at all (another cyclical process). But just having other people who are not wearing the ‘depression glasses’ can encourage you to open your eyes and see things for what they really are. My illness (among other factors) has prevented me from ever having a girlfriend, and that has always been a huge roadblock to getting to where I want to be, and consequently has promoted deep levels sadness and frustration, as well as an inevitable elevation of that part of my ‘desired life’ to a near mythic unobtainable feat. This is not merely because ‘you want what you don’t have’, but because of the knowledge that whilst it wouldn’t necessarily solve everything, it would mean that I would no longer have to do things alone, and would enable me to express my emotions in a positive way towards another person (love, happiness) rather than a negative one (anxiety, fear, stress, resentment). Plus it’s its just too damn appealing to be with someone who loves you for who you are, and for which you can reciprocate.

Obviously thoughts and feelings aren’t going to go away, and nor should they, as they are what makes us who we are. The goal however, is to be in a position where you are in control of your thoughts and feelings, rather than them being in control of you. It feels as though mine do not only control me, but in fact own me, and dictate every step of my life. If there is a way to take back this ownership, then that must be what I, and indeed everyone, should aspire to.