WHY CAN’T I ‘FIX’ MYSELF?
So we’ve learned that we all have a part of our brain that is operating on instinct and trying to keep us safe, and that this leads to anxious patterns in all of us. But what happens when we are really, really struggling? Is this the same thing?
A lot of us have heard about ‘anxiety’ and ‘depression’, and that some people suffer and other’s don’t, but most of us don’t really understand the whole story...
When we learn about it, we’re often learning from a textbook - a dry, technical answer that doesn’t really give us an understanding of what is actually happening and why. Which means we can’t recognise it in ourselves or each other.
The thing we need to know about anxiety and depression is that they are a manifestation of the exact same unhelpful brain patterns that are formed in all of us - except that they are much, much stronger. This can happen in our brains when we have had really hard early life experiences, or we have a history of anxiety and depression in our family (and therefore we are born with a brain that is more likely to have a really strong safety response), or we are faced with a lot of pressure or a difficult situation in the present moment. Often when we get really anxious and/or depressed, all three of these elements are present. Biology, early life trauma, and a current stressor.
That's when we get overwhelmed and stuck because our survival brain has fully taken over due to real or perceived threat to our safety/security and we no longer have access to the part of our brain that can gain perspective and think things through. Notice how I said real OR perceived threat...
If our brain THINKS something is dangerous, we experience the exact same consequences that we would if it ACTUALLY was dangerous - think about the ramifications of that for a moment!
And to make things even harder, when we are in that state, we do things that reinforce this anxious thought pattern because our brains are caught in a filtering system based on past experiences and our mind has no ability to take in new or different information (see last week’s article on hidden anxiety for a more complete description of how this occurs). And when we are really down, this pattern can become very scary and isolating.
Let’s take for example a teenager who has a family history of anxiety and depression (her parents/grandparents have experienced this - even though they were never diagnosed). Her father left when she was very young, and she had experiences growing up that led her to feel that she was never fully supported/protected. She then enters high school and encounters the intense pressure of exams, assignments, and deadlines, along with the social pressure to have enough (and the right kind of) friends, and be well-liked on social media. This combination is the perfect storm for a massive anxious reaction. When all three elements of biology, early life trauma, and current stressor are present, her mind will basically short circuit.
She might spiral down into thoughts that she can’t cope, that people would be better off without her, that life is simply not worth it. REALLY scary stuff! And this happens because her mind cannot conceive of an alternative pathway to navigating the current stressor, based on how it has been wired from a young age as a response to trauma and a biological predisposition to forming anxious patterns.
And this response makes PERFECT sense to the mind that is engaged in it. Because it is so overwhelmed and has no other coping mechanisms or templates for responding, it goes into total shut-down “abort mission” mode. So what this girl needs is HELP. Assistance in finding a new pathway, guidance to forge a different response when one is nowhere to be found in her own mind.
Just like a person in a wheelchair needs us to open the door for them, or come up with fabulous buttons that can be pressed that open doors whenever this is needed, people who are struggling with serious ‘mental health issues’ (a catch-all phrase to refer to people who are suffering from overwhelming negative brain patterns) need help in opening the doors in their minds.
The absolutely crappy thing about all of this is that it is incredibly hard in our world today to be brave enough to speak out and ask for help. We are a culture with total and utter ignorance to the inner workings of our brains, and so people with mental health issues are grossly misunderstood and mistreated. They often wind up in jail, homeless, in institutions, heavily medicated, or otherwise totally unsupported and left to fend for themselves. Ultimately, we separate "us" from “them” because it scares us too much to face the reality that we ALL have unhelpful patterns in our minds. And because of this cultural misunderstanding, it can be a terrifying and difficult path to speak up about the struggles that each of us are facing.
However, we have at least begun to try and understand. We now give people diagnoses. You’re depressed. You’re anxious. You’re bipolar. You’re psychotic. And some people really appreciate having that diagnosis because it helps explain why they are so overwhelmed, but other people don’t like having a diagnosis because it makes them feel like there’s something wrong with them. The important thing we need to remember is that anxiety, depression and all other ‘disorders’ are simply the words we have come up with to explain what happens when our brains get totally overwhelmed with negative, debilitating patterns for a long period of time. These are not in a separate category from other brain patterns, they are simply SO severe that it becomes very hard for people to shift them without help and assistance.
The great thing is that once we are aware of what is happening in our own mind, we can figure out ways that help us and help others understand us. And when we do that, we have the possibility to change these brain patterns altogether.
The important thing to remember is that if you’re struggling - it’s ok! There is nothing wrong with you, you simply have a brain pattern that's not helping you that's become really stuck. If you can find a way to ask for help, this pattern can begin to release its hold on you.
If you see someone else who is struggling - it’s equally important to remember that it is literally IMPOSSIBLE for them to shift it on their own - so if you find yourself thinking: “They should just be able to get over it…Why are they so freaked out - it’s just a test/parking ticket/break-up!” Just pause a moment and reflect that whatever the trigger is, this situation literally feels like LIFE OR DEATH to that person, and their brain is reacting to it as is if the worst case scenario is ACTUALLY HAPPENING.
Asking someone who is really anxious to “just get over it” is like asking you to simply ‘get over’ your need for sleep or your love of chocolate. Anything that is deeply patterned in our brains is very hard to overcome - it can definitely happen, but it’s important to remember how difficult it is to be stuck in a negative thought pattern and be kind to each other when you see this happening, just the same way you would hold open the door for someone in a wheelchair without a second thought.
Mental health issues are less visible - but that doesn’t mean we should remain ignorant of them. Let’s be the generation that kicks this crazy 'stigma' habit!
Want to hear more? Check out a real life account of an 18-year-old girl who was diagnosed with anxiety and depression here: