The mental torture of anxiety

It’s healthy and natural to be concerned about stuff. Humanity would have perished long ago if people did not imagine possible negative outcomes of their actions. Even people who claim they don’t worry about anything usually still wear seatbelts and helmets, lock their houses and vehicles, buy insurance, have medical checkups and try to avoid handling a cat when not wearing pants. But when does ‘safety first’ start to become ‘sanity last’?

As a kid, my mind must have sneakily made a note of the common thread running through most tales of horror and misfortune that I heard over the years. When relating the terrible event, people usually use this phrase: ‘I never thought it would happen to me.’ Somehow, my mind seems to have seized on this piece of information as a clue to how to prevent accidents. It would seem that every spinal injury, stroke and descent into heroin addiction was completely unexpected. Because being unprepared was a common theme in stories of people who had experienced disaster, it would follow that the state of NOT EXPECTING negative outcomes was somehow the CAUSE of negative outcomes.

To a point this could be somewhat true. A person who considered the possibility of breaking their neck by diving into shallow water may decide not to dive into shallow water and not break their neck. A person who is informed about early warning signs of a stroke may take action that saves their life or mobility whereas a person who brushed off their symptoms would be in a worse situation.

So my twisted little mind then seemed to conclude that if I wanted to go through life with nothing bad ever happening (not realising that isn’t a realistic goal in the first place), all I have to do is worry incessantly about every single thing. If I consider the possibility of being mangled in a car crash when I set out driving somewhere, that will somehow reduce my chances of being mangled in a car crash. After all, people always say ‘I never thought it would happen to me’. They never say ‘I considered the possibility of this happening to me on a regular basis’.

This was not a conscious decision. It probably started out with sensible precaution-taking. Being situationally aware, looking both ways before crossing the street, fastening my seat-belt, not opening the door to strangers, cooking chicken all the way through… that endless list of things that sensible people do. That list that gets longer every year as opportunities for your life to be destroyed seem to keep expanding. But in hindsight I realise I had this belief that imagining a terrible outcome could somehow prevent it, so I felt duty-bound to protect myself, my family and my pets by torturing myself with gruesome daydreams about horrific things that could happen to them. I really didn’t want to think in detail about my cat being run over, but if I could prevent it from happening in real life by seeing it in my mind, then it had to be done.

One night in my early twenties I went to the cinema with my boyfriend at the time, and I experienced a rare moment of relaxing and laughing at a silly movie without a care in the world. Suddenly I heard a voice in my head telling me that while I was goofing off laughing at this stupid movie something terrible was happening. I tried to disregard the voice and go back to feeling carefree, but I felt uneasy for the rest of the night. After the movie, I went home to discover my cat was missing. I never saw the cat again and never found out what happened to her.

This incident cemented my erroneous belief that worrying about things prevents them from happening. I had let my guard down that night, I had neglected to worry in favour of enjoying idle entertainment and now my cat was missing presumed dead. Again, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but after that night, whenever I was tempted to slack off on the worrying, I would remember my poor cat and feel afraid to relax.

This was a miserable way to live, but I had not examined my thought processes, so I continued on. Worrying is an addictive habit. I started worrying about more and more ridiculous and unlikely things and in greater and more vivid detail. One night I was staying at a friend’s flat and woke up in the night in a panic that the building could collapse. Yes, theoretically it could, but you can’t think about that sort of thing all the time and remain sane! That kind of scenario falls into a category Carl Sagan would describe as ‘possible but highly improbable’. (Such a useful phrase!)

Worrying had gone way beyond sensible caution and had turned into crippling anxiety that made everyday life unnecessarily difficult, but I couldn’t seem to stop having these thoughts. They would pop up at the most inconvenient moments. I became overly concerned about my house being broken into, so I had trouble leaving the house and couldn’t stop thinking about it when I was out. I would come back home in trepidation, vividly imagining the door ajar, the place ransacked and maybe even an intruder still lurking inside. I knew I could not give in to my fears and let them control my actions. I may have been anxious the whole time I was out, but I was not going to allow my fear to force me to stay home. I knew my fears weren’t rational. I couldn’t control them, but I didn’t want to hand my life over to them completely.

Despite carrying on a seemingly kinda-sorta normal life, I was increasingly tormented within for over twenty years. It was an invisible hell. No-one ever really knew what I went through, but I am pleased to say I am now able to relax and enjoy life and let go of the fear. There were lots of factors that helped me unravel the ever-tightening knot of anxiety, but one was simply becoming aware of my thought processes and tracing my unconscious assumptions back to their roots. Once I realised how I was thinking, I had a better chance of changing.

I won’t pretend that one day I just realised how silly I had been and then just snapped out of it. I had some serious mental health issues going on and was under the care of a psychiatrist. But self-awareness and self-inquiry were valuable components of my escape plan from the prison of anxiety.

Humans hate to feel out of control of their environments, but in reality we can’t control anything much and worrying doesn’t change that. How do you stop bad things happening? You can’t. Lock your door then forget about it. There’s nothing more you can do, and worrying will only destroy you. It’s not necessarily easy to stop, but it’s worth the effort of finding out what has triggered its genesis so you can free yourself. Anxiety quote

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