Black and white diver inspecting a brain coral

This is my brain on anxiety… and this is my brain on drugs (pt. 1)

Brain weasel update: I’m lucky enough to have found a psychiatrist who really seems to listen to me and to have good ideas about what I need (it only took two tries – would that everyone in the mental health care system could be so fortunate).

After concluding fairly definitively that my major (perhaps only) weasels are variations on anxiety, he’s put me on an SNRI antidepressant to try out (SNRIs can also be effective in treating anxiety) – and since this style of antidepressants take effect only after four to six weeks, and since we’re ramping my dosage up slowly to see what happens (therefore requiring even longer), in the meantime he’s also put me on clonazepam, a benzodiazepine-class tranquilliser.

A new perspective

I’ve been on antidepressants before, with very mixed results; the best to date had me feeling really good about myself, but seriously messed with my sleep patterns, so that eventually exhaustion was making me just as useless as anxiety had (that was the point when my GP decided I needed a specialist).

The clonazepam is different. There was no slow build-up, no unfortunate side-effects, no “Is this the drugs or am I just having a good day?” The transformation was immediate and obvious – and magical. For the first time, I feel I have really been in a position to observe the differences in my patterns of thought and behaviour with and without anxiety.

I keep catching myself thinking, Is this what life is like for healthy people? And I know it’s not as simple as that, but honestly – I had no idea how much better my life could be.

Here’s what I’ve observed. If you’ve never had anxiety (or if you don’t know if you have it), I hope this helps you understand what the world feels like to someone who does. I’m posting it in two parts, because it turns out there are a lot of ways anxiety was messing with me.

Part 1: Impending doom

Our brains are wired to look for danger – it’s a survival instinct dating back to when ignoring the rustling in the bushes could easily lead to a swift death by consumption. Anxiety takes that instinct and turns it up to eleven.

Before clonazepam, I was constantly plagued by a vague sense of doom. So ubiquitous that I rarely registered it on a conscious level, it nonetheless attached itself to every decision I had to make, large or small; to everything I wanted to say – or write, where others might see it; to every action I might take; to every priority I wasn’t immediately dealing with.

Everything felt like a disaster waiting to happen.

In situations where there was nothing immediate to attach that feeling of doom to – taking a shower, say – my brain would start trying to solve random possible future disasters. I might break my phone sometime – what would I do about that? Oh gods, I might post something accidentally problematic on my blog, how would I deal with people calling me out?

My brain would go over and over possible solutions for imagined scenarios – despite the fact that speculating about fuzzy future problems was far more stressful than it should be to just deal with something when it happened – emphasis on “should”…

Handling setbacks (a how-not-to guide)

Because when something actually did go wrong, whether through a mistake or poor choice on my part or simply bad luck, it was the end of the world.

My stress levels would spike in an instant, bringing with them tears and recriminations. I would either have to fight to hold back tears or break down and cry uncontrollably. The negative thoughts would roll in, looking for any way to make this all my fault or, failing that, for ways to frame it as the world being illogical and messed up and turned against me.

Against this torrent of emotions, stepping back enough to applying rational problem-solving to the issue at hand took a massive effort of will; and because I was struggling so hard to think at all, it was easy to compound problems by making genuinely poor choices in trying to fix things.

Revisiting setbacks

So things going wrong were hard enough at the time. But as if worrying about the present and future weren’t enough, my brain’s other hobby in quiet moments was dredging up the past.

Mistakes I’ve made, times when things went seriously wrong, situations where I still wasn’t sure I’d done the right thing (even years later)… I would lie in bed circling around and around a situation long-since done with, still trying to “solve” it so I could somehow make myself have done better, somehow make the bad thing not have happened.

Not just a mental thing (some physical symptoms I’ve experienced)

  • Jaw clenching on a day-to-day basis.
  • Bring brought close to tears – throat tightening, breath heaving, struggling for control – by anything vaguely emotional (positive or negative). Songs, news stories, fiction, and sometimes, just for fun, by completely random experiences with no apparent emotional impact on me at all.
  • Churning guts – the inevitable aftermath of any stressful situation.

Clonazepam and taking a step back

On clonazepam, my physical symptoms are largely gone. The sense of doom has vanished; there’s no automatic fear looking for thoughts and words and actions to attach itself to.

Decision-making comes easily;I no longer feel the need to go over and over and over the options to determine the empirically “best” one. If more information would help, I do some research, but in the end I’m willing to make a call and trust that if it doesn’t work out, I’ll handle it.

I’ve lost the nagging, urgent sense of needing to remember or deal with every priority in my life at once – the feeling that while my eyes are on one ball the rest are plummeting. I can focus on the thing/s that are important right now and trust myself to deal with other things later.

And when something does go wrong, as things inevitably will? It’s annoying, sure – sometimes even deeply disappointing – but that’s all. I can acknowledge that I wish things hadn’t gone that way and get on with finding a solution.

When I think about future unknowns, it’s with a sense of curiosity rather than terror – I don’t know what will happen, but I trust myself to handle whatever does. And when I think about past events, even if I still wish they had gone differently, I feel like I have some perspective on them. I no longer have to go over and over them trying to make some new sense of them.

Everything just feels manageable.

The old me, the new me… it’s all me

I still get worries popping up from time to time; that’s an old habit for my brain now. But now anxious thoughts are followed easily and naturally by thought-challenging – a skill I used to struggle with even after much practice. Now without even thinking about it I’m talking gently to myself, reassuring myself, asking myself: is this something I need to worry about? How likely is it, and will it actually be that hard to deal with if it does happen?

I’m not a zombie – I’m still me with all my interests and aspirations. It’s just that now my mood is much stable. It takes a lot to make me especially tense or sad, or for that matter especially excited; most of the time I just feel content, alert, and interested in whatever I’m working on.

Tune in next week for part two, when I get to the symptoms I never realised had anything to do with anxiety…

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