Part 1: Anxiety doesn’t have to be a life long sentence.
I write about this because I know it deeply. After many years of feeling depressed and burnt out….I started experiencing anxiety attacks. So severe at one point that I reached out for medicine in desperation.
I never understood anxiety before when friends would tell me about it. “What do you mean you can’t go out? We’re your friends?” I would exclaim when they would have to peel out of plans.
Then it hit me like a bus. Anxiety is the most excruciating fear. Even with no fear present. It’s a search for fear. Once habituated into an anxious state of mind for a long period of time…the brain eventually takes on this new state as the norm. Because the brain is very efficient. It’s trying to save us time and if this is how we’re feeling a lot of the time…..stressed, overwhelmed, depressed…..then the brain decides that there is clearly a lot of danger around so it better have us on high alert all the time.
Eventually I was at the point when I would wake up and feel immediate panic. Over what? I didn’t really know. But the stories and thought loops that I added to this horrible sensation made things so much worse. Stories like “you’re broken, you’re crazy, you’ll never get better.”
I felt defeated when I asked my GP for medicine the first time. Medicine for anxiety works. But it’s not meant to be long term. It doesn’t even feel that great. You are numb. I didn’t care about much when I was taking medicine….but the panic was gone and that was a relief. And you know what? That was helpful. I needed a break from myself for just a second.
I only took the medicine for a week. From there I went into full blown study of the brain, habit loops, neuroscience and anxiety management techniques like meditation and yoga. I also had to make some significant lifestyle changes.
I’m not against medicine. I think it can be lifesaving, but I don’t think it’s the cure.
We are in a culture that promotes labels and medicine for treatment of mental health issues as the only cure and I disagree based on experience and education. Mental health issues are also human issues. Human issues involve our behaviours, thought processes and habits. It’s not just a matter of “thinking ourselves out of anxiety” because that doesn’t work. It means becoming more aware of our lifestyle, habits and influence on our own mental health.
Some find labels comforting. They hold their label closely because it’s a reason for why they feel so bad. They’re not broken…they have a condition. I understand how we get stuck here.
I’m here to tell you that you’re not broken and you don’t need that label. You are not your thoughts. You are not anxiety. You’ve never been broken, but we get lost, confused and habituated to certain thoughts and actions because of our environment. The problem with labels is, they disempower people. Believing that I have a life long condition that can only be treated with medicine because I am broken removes all personal power and puts the solution in the hands of someone else…a doctor. A pharmacist. A therapist.
Doctors, medicine, and therapists are life saving. I’m not discounting that. But after healing from anxiety myself…..and working with many who experience anxiety…the ones who heal and move beyond anxiety do so (eventually) through the practices that they do themselves. Through lifestyle changes. Through awareness. Through habit changes. Through neuroscience, mindfulness practices and sometimes yogic techniques.
Eventually, the source of healing comes from within. When we’re in the midst of the worst of our anxiety, we may not be ready to hear these things. We may need therapists, doctors and medicine to make our way through to some neutral ground.
I write about this, because I know so many who proclaim “they have anxiety” and either do nothing about it, seeing it as a life sentence…..or they rely solely on external help believing that they are broken. I see people in group two who just don’t get better and this enforces the idea that this is a life sentence.
It is within us to change.
I read a lot of material by Dr. Judd Brewer , MD, PhD. His courses and books on unwinding anxiety explain the neuroscience of the brain so well. He describes how to break the habit loop of anxiety and fear and how to change your mind.
He said that the problem with labelling anxiety is that it’s like labelling the human condition….as a condition. He teaches how anxiety is a learned behaviour and we are all innocent in it’s creation. That at some point you accidentally trained your brain to operate this way….and you can unwind these same thought loops the same way.
The number of people who experience anxiety has gone from 30% to 81% in the last decade due directly to our habits and behaviours. What I’ve always appreciated about Dr. Brewers material is the emphasis on the brain science. How we learn this behaviour and how we can unlearn it.
I’ve been attacked for writing about this before. From people who experience anxiety. When people hear the words “habit” and “learned” they misinterpret that information as meaning this is not a big issue…or that it’s somehow their fault. Habits are extremely powerful and I don’t take that lightly and no one is at fault for feeling anxious. It’s quite the opposite. What’s important about neuroscience and studies such as the material presented in Dr.Judd Brewer’s work, is that it IS within you to change. This is good news. These feelings don’t have to be a life long sentence and understanding your brain better….and your behaviours, can help you finally put this behind you.
If you struggle with anxiety there are many things that can help you unwind your thoughts. I highly suggest reading material by Judson Brewer. If you need more resources you can contact me personally and I’m happy to pass on more material.
With grace and grit,
This is an insightful commentary, Karla. Having read one of Judson Brewer’s earlier books and listening to related podcasts, I think that his neuroscience based work on habit change is empowering.