Welcome to the first “Dear Naomi” column for Sweatpants & Sanity. Thank you to everyone who wrote in. I will reply to everyone, but for this edition I have chosen three to share with the community here as I think they reflect issues that any person may be struggling with.
All three ultimately come down to anxiety—something that is a rising problem in modern society. However, as you can see, the reasons behind them are very different.
Even I, as a therapist, battle anxiety, but with a bit of shared experience and knowledge we can find ways through it together.
Wishing you all a brighter day,
I have an observation/question. I am a mid 50’s woman who has had a challenging life, and have managed to work through pretty much most things. I have always been a worrywart, consider myself incredibly empathetic (to my detriment), a chronic insomniac and struggle with food issues. Seriously, I am fine. This info is just for reference. Where my question comes in is that I made a post in jest about my worrying about every little thing and a comment came in about perhaps I suffered from anxiety disorder.
Well, I was offended and hurt. I am just a normal person dealing with normal stuff but I wondered… do I really have some sort of anxiety problem? How would I know?
I just thought it was who I was based on my past, could it be more???
Thanks for getting in touch and welcome.
A few observations about your message. You have described yourself as incredibly empathetic, to your detriment, a chronic insomniac and you struggle with food issues. Yet you feel fine. I am sure you are and I applaud your perseverance in the face of these challenges; however I would say that there is indeed such a thing as being a functioning depressive or functioning anxious person in the same way you can be a functioning alcoholic or addict.
We all respond differently to life’s curve balls and some of us have a remarkable capacity to seem resilient as we carry on regardless. Not always, but often this can stem from the attitudes our parents held about expressing negative emotion and how we were reacted to as children if we got sad, scared or anxious. If we were told to pull our socks up and get on with it then we can develop a shame around admitting vulnerability.
Often, this is what I encounter with clients. They see vulnerability and being authentic and honest about how they are feeling as a weakness. I, however, see it as extraordinary bravery. I feel the thing that unites us as human is our ability to feel both joy and pain. The more we share this vulnerability with the right people (and that part is crucial) the more confident and whole we become as we realize we are not alone. This is why a therapy room is a great place to seek help, as it is empathetic and non-judgmental. Equally, the wonderful community here at Sweatpants & Coffee, who share real experiences.
However, what can often happen is we open ourselves up to the wrong people, and instead of support we get negativity or judgment in response. Then we will learn to shut down, and whenever we feel vulnerability creep up we will bury it down or deflect it, even numb it.
You mention you have had negative experiences and you found your way through them. Good for you and well done for being brave. When we go through negative experiences, we are living in a permanent state of anxiety. Our brains are searching for the next threat to protect us from. It worked—as it did protect you—you have made it through and are still here living and breathing. However, it does sound as though what has happened is your brain is still looking for threat as it is used to living on high alert.
Consider a zebra in a field. A lion approaches and chases it. The zebra senses it’s a threat—it reacts with a fight response and will run, but then will shake it off and continue munching the grass. If we were to encounter the very same lion we too would activate that threat response system, but once we had escaped the lion, we would tell everyone about it. We would probably think about it over and over, imagining what could have happened had we not gotten away, and would be constantly jumpy and checking to see if the lion had returned.
You may be over your negative experiences but it sounds as though your brain is still functioning in vigilance mode, as it has had to for some time. What happens is our general anxiety levels raise slowly, almost unnoticeably, and we indeed end up with a general anxiety disorder, which means we worry about the potential negative outcome of everything we encounter. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we are simply being safe rather than sorry. However, the reality is that being on alert like this is exhausting, both physically and mentally.
It is interesting you mention insomnia, as I suspect this is linked. When we sleep, 20% of our sleep pattern is REM sleep. You are probably aware of this—it’s when we dream. This REM sleep is vital to our mental health. During this time our brain is processing all the day’s events and emotional experiences. It turns them into narrative memories. This is where ‘it will feel better in the morning’ comes from, as if you get a good night’s sleep and you awake, you will remember those emotional events but they will not feel raw or immediate.
However, if you are not getting that essential REM sleep, you do not process the events properly so when you awaken, those emotions remain raw and you essentially wake up already stressed. That then means any tiny potentially stressful event will seem huge and you will overreact emotionally, thus giving your brain even more to process that night, and if you yet again do not sleep properly, well, you can see how this cycle can cause someone to live in a constant state of worrying about things.
So it seems your past experiences of living through a negative time have left you on high alert and your lack of sleep is contributing to keeping your brain in that state.
My advice would be to try a hypnotherapy track at night as I really think it will help. First, because it will help switch off your worrying brain and give you something else to think about when you sleep. Second, it will help get your brain back into a routine of sleeping. When we have kids we teach them bath, book, bed as a routine. Their bodies and brains learn this pattern means its time to wind down. However, as adults we go to bed after watching TV or having a stressful day and expect to just drift off. Using the same hypnotherapy track every night means that as soon as your brain hears that music it knows its time to sleep.
I would be more than happy to send you one – just drop me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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