I was teaching a relaxation class to a group of students recently, when I likened the feeling of anxiety to being on a treadmill. You start with a slow walk which increases to a gentle jog – not always pleasant, but manageable – and the next thing you know you’re hurtling at a pace, faster and faster: you find yourself running at a terrifying sprint. You keep going, trying desperately to stay on the machine knowing, if you don’t keep up, you’ll fall off and get hurt. You can’t just halt the machine either; you have to bring the process slowly to an end so you don’t do yourself a serious injury. The challenge is how to make the situation safe, when you don’t know what to do. So, when people say “just calm down” when you’re having a panic attack, you can’t – something’s not “safe”, as far as you’re concerned.
But who is controlling the treadmill?
I often hear people saying that poor mental health – and actually, happiness – is a choice. As part of World Mental Health Day, and to fight the stigma associated with it, I wanted to explore the idea that when our mood is negatively affected, are we always in control?
I have worked with people with poor mental health for over a decade and consistently they tell me they feel really misunderstood; that they’re not attention seekers and if they could just “snap out of it” they would.
In truth, often they don’t understand why they’re anxious or low any more than the next person. Sometimes their anxiety has no story line and the panic/depression just takes hold – it’s a challenge to manage anything when there is no obvious cause.
There may be triggers when the experience is unravelled through talking therapy, or it may be that a series of factors including lifestyle, lack of sleep and relationships are involved – but sometimes there is no apparent reason at all.
Nearly all of the people I speak with recognise having a noisy mind, one which is difficult to tame or quiet.
Living with a noisy mind can become second nature: it’s not always a precursor to a panic attack but can be a cause of anxiety and depression, especially if the noise continues over a prolonged period of time.
People will learn not just how to hide their noisy thinking from others, but find unhealthy coping strategies, like alcohol or drugs, or suffer with obsessive compulsive disorder: performing rituals to combat and control any thoughts, feelings or concerns that something bad will happen if they don’t.
The noise is ineffable, it’s not necessarily a voice although sometimes it is the “should and shouldn’t” sound – “I shouldn’t be resting, I should be working/cleaning the house/studying” – and it becomes yet another stick to beat ourselves with, something else we’re getting wrong or failing at. It may look a little like worry to someone on the outside but it’s beyond any sort of worry we would class as “normal” or “day-to-day”.
Like the speedy treadmill, sometimes the first a person knows they’re in the grip of something awful is when it’s become a real problem. Sometimes other people notice before we do, and it may only be when we get physical symptoms like headaches and stomach problems (with no obvious medical cause) we make the decision to address it.
As far as controlling negative thoughts is concerned – and therefore our mental health – especially when those thoughts are automatic, leading to habitual, unhealthy responses, it takes time, education, effort and support to get better. It’s when understanding how the brain works in fight or flight is useful (I teach more about this in CBT sessions and wellbeing courses), and in particular finding out more about anxiety and what helps.
The choice to manage our mental health comes in once a person is aware there could be a problem and aware there is something positive which can help. Here’s some ideas:
1) Have a chat with your GP if you’re finding the noise is difficult or unmanageable. A certain amount of worry is normal and sometimes necessary (eg. when going for a job interview, it keeps us on our toes). If you are feeling overwhelmed, your doctor may refer you for private therapy or talk through other interventions which may be useful. If you have been having thoughts about harming yourself, you can also talk to the Samaritans.
2) The nature of the mind as we get older is to be busy. You can re-train it, to become less noisy, through healthy coping strategies like Mindfulness and consider attending wellbeing courses either privately run or through local charities. Have a look at the Mind website to see if there’s anything happening in your area.
3) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy offers tools you can add to your list of things which can be useful, especially when you need to challenge unhealthy overthinking which is getting out of control.
You may also find this video of people sharing their experiences – and what helped – useful.
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