A Mind Stuck on Terror
Relentless thought and memory fixation.
When anxiety and depression team up, you can find yourself at the mercy of two unforgiving illnesses. You must deal with a brain that often sees the worst option possible as the most viable and obsesses over just how catastrophic that worst case scenario could be. This can leave you faced with repetitive trains of thought that simply will not stop and that can prevent you from doing day-to-day tasks or falling asleep.
In the middle of writing an email, making a cup of tea, eating dinner, as you lay your head down on your pillow last thing at night; you feel the change. A flow of negative thoughts takes over your mind in a swirl of confusion. Time spins past as you try to make sense of it. It is almost a physical effort to pull back from the deluge and tell it to stop. Once the cycle begins, you are engaged in a battle of conscious and subconscious wills. Giving in would be so easy, the stream of images and disjointed ideas pokes at your chest; telling you to pay it heed.
Memories of failures, embarrassments, disappointments, regrets: unbidden they circle, waiting to pounce. The knowledge that they are impervious to change is powerless against them. You want nothing more than for them to stay buried in the forgotten recess of your mind but they taunt you. And then, one leaps forward to torment you with every last excruciating detail that you didn’t know you still harboured. ‘It’s just a memory,’ you tell yourself. ‘Go away,’ you tell it. But it’s useless. It resurfaces anyway, leaving you feeling powerless against a brain determined to relive all of your worst moments.
On what seems like a whim, your mind turns its attention to hypothetical situations. It drops in intrusive thoughts for you to consider, from the seemingly benign to the downright menacing. However they begin, every idea has the potential to terrorise you. Thoughts escalate swiftly into disaster scenarios. An unanswered phone means a relative lying dead at home. Silence from downstairs means your pet might have died in the night (spoiler, it’s in perfect health). A noise outside late at night means you’re about to get robbed. Your brain goes into ‘what if’ overdrive, fixating on every single worst possible outcome.
In the Grip of Fear
When this intense fear and catastrophising takes hold, it leaves you terrified and often feeling unable to see the point in doing anything at all. It fills you with the maddening worry that at any moment, any fragile sense of peace that you have managed to achieve will be shattered in an instant.
Your brain fogs over. Nothing outside of this unrelenting thought pattern can penetrate or even seems relevant. You consider logical alternatives to the disasters your mind presents but the negative options seem to carry more weight. Your brain is so convinced that the outcome will be negative that hearing positive alternatives can feel pointless or overwhelming.
Occupy and Distract
No one thing is a panacea for everyone with anxiety and depression. As such, the following are some ideas that may help if you’re feeling overwhelmed by ‘what ifs’ or the thoughts conjured up by a mind resolutely pursuing the worst it can find. Equally, they might not. This is simply my go-to list, shared in the hope it might help someone else. If you’re not looking for suggestions, skip over this list.
The main goal with each of the suggestions is to occupy or distract your mind in some way.
• Stretching – try focusing on counting and breathing.
• Yoga – this one seems to be able to split opinions. I find it helps because you focus on breathing, listening to instructions (from a Youtube video for me) and the movements. Additionally, it helps me to release some of the tension that builds up from intense bouts of anxious thinking.
• Doing something outside – I’m a sporty person so for me this can mean running, cycling and walking, but also gardening and doing jobs outside. I find that the movement encourages the thoughts to run their course. In addition, having to think a little about what I’m doing seems to reduce the power that the catastrophic thoughts hold over me.
• Videogames – this is pure distraction. Sometimes it’s the only way to get some peace from the thoughts, by filling my mind with something else.
If you experience similar feelings, I hope you can find a way that works for you to get some relief.
Managing depression and anxiety can take a herculean effort at times. You don’t want to constantly end up with negative conclusions, you don’t want to be presented with intrusive thoughts that spiral incessantly and you don’t want to feel like you are perpetually losing control. However, sometimes this is what life with these mental illnesses is like. There are all sorts of measures and healthy coping strategies you can put in place to help deal with them, but the reality is that it is a constant effort to manage these symptoms.