A woman walks in the forest and comes across a bear. Her body immediately goes into fight-or-flight mode. That is a natural, healthy response to an existing threat. A woman walks in the forest and is told there’s a bear behind one of the trees. Picturing the bear in her mind, her body goes into fight-or-flight mode. She is now prepared to face a very possibly realistic threat. That is fear mechanism doing its job: saving her life by allowing her to avoid or prepare for potential danger. A woman walks in the forest and all she can think of is bears. Behind every tree, around every turn. Bears, bears everywhere. That is anxiety.
For me…I walk down an urban street, in a city where bears have never ever been spotted, and all I think about is bears…countless bears, lurking around, stalking, threatening me.
I have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). That means that my brain, the brain that evolution has trained so well to scan for threats in order to prepare for them and save my life, is doing its job way too well and is constantly on alert. Everywhere I look, I see potential threats. My fight-or-flight response is always revved up, which means that my senses are always acutely heightened. It is an essential feature of the fight-or-flight mechanism, because it means we’re more easily able to respond to our environment in a dangerous situation. But in day-to-day life, what it means is that my brain can blow literally anything out of proportion: a word someone says, an out of-the-ordinary sound, an object out of place, a facial expression to reaffirm and reinforce the sense of danger I already experienced.
I can feel the fear surging inside me. My senses obsessively look for more signs, more information and my thoughts start racing, my brain picturing all the bears and all their hiding places, starting to strategize. My body shuts down, nausea starts creeping up my throat, my mouth feels dry and in my chest I feel a panic rising. It’s getting harder and harder to breathe. I breathe and breathe, but it doesn’t feel like oxygen is getting into my lungs.
The fear goes from zero to 1,000. It’s not just worry, it’s not just feeling preoccupied; everything in those moments feels like it’s a life or death situation. In those moments I have lost all sense of reality and I truly feel like I’m in a fight for my life, or someone else’s life, someone I care about. Because my anxiety isn’t exclusive to me only. Quite the opposite. I worry more about my loved ones than about myself.
Throughout the years, I’ve learned the best way for me to deal with that is to breathe and start questioning. Does this make sense? Is this a realistic fear? What are the odds that this scenario that is playing in my head is actually going to happen? Trying to debunk my own anxious thoughts is a basic principle of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and it’s an effective tool.
But having to question my own mind and doubt my own thoughts is a practice that also fills me with great sadness. Yes, my anxiety comes from my brain, probably from a faulty biological mechanism, and I have learned to accept it as part of me and to find the compassion inside me for my own self, my own terrified self.
But no matter how long I’ve “had this” or how long I’ve practiced many ways to deal with this, it is still a big part of my life; a very vivid, upsetting, exhausting part of my life. And as a result, it is a big part of the life of everybody who loves and cares about me. And it saddens me. It oftentimes makes me feel like a burden.
That is why I wanted to share a little bit of what it feels like to live inside my brain, inside my body. If you suffer from GAD, I hope you feel less alone now. And if you love someone who suffers from GAD, I hope you can help them feel less alone now.