“Worrier” is a label that has fit me for as long as I can remember. As a child most of that worry involved an obsessive fear of people breaking in our house at night or me/my family getting bit by a dog (or when I was really little, of wolves who know how to use doorknobs coming in to eat me–THANKS DAD. Although to be fair I did ask for scary stories before bed…) However, it wasn’t until junior high that my mental health became an issue interfering with my life. And it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college that I started to even have a concept of mental health and how to maintain mine well.
So in the time between junior high and my 2nd year of college, I struggled immensely (and secretly) with anxiety and depression. It was crippling sometimes. The closest thing I had to understanding these state of beings were the vague ideas shaped by my interactions with Christian circles and my Bible. I therefore was under the impression that if I would just “let go and let God” or just “trust Jesus” or just read my Bible more or just pray with more faith, I would be at peace. Just. Just. Just. As I tried these things and failed over and over again, I began to fill to the brim with shame. I was ashamed of how I felt. I was ashamed of my thoughts. I was ashamed to be me. And I thought God felt that way too. I thought God was like, “Why can’t you just get it together?”
I get kind of sad whenever I think back on it. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself all the things I’ve learned now and have my break-throughs just a tad sooner. I could have avoided being miserable for such a large portion of that time, spewing hateful things about myself to myself, and coming eerily close to suicide on a couple of occasions. But I can’t. However, I can share these things with you. Maybe this is a foreign topic to you, anxiety and depression. But maybe it hits close to home, and maybe somehow the strategies I’m learning to use to live a little more peacefully will prove to be useful to you as well.
To start off, I want to stop calling it anxiety and depression. It’s easy to write those words off, because everyone kind of has a different image in their minds of what that looks like. It can be a reflex to be like, “Oh, that could never be me!” or “Overdiagnosed!!!” without true reflection, at least in my own experience. Also, for me, like for a lot of people, anxiety and depression are not neat categories of my mental states, but rather realities that are complicated, are intertwined, and often share symptoms. So I like to refer to it as “wonky brain,” and it can mean a lot of things, like…
I feel paralyzed with everything I could or should be doing so I can’t get out of bed no matter how many times I brace myself to move. My body feels so sluggish I could sleep for hours or just sit there staring off into space. Everything feels impossible, even the simplest of tasks. My thoughts are racing a mile per second like if my brain were drawing my thoughts, it would be scribbling messy circles at lightning speed, the kind of scribbling you do that makes the paper tear. My chest is tight and I can’t get a full breath of air. I can’t complete a thought, like every thought I try to carry out is a softball pitch that only makes it halfway from the mound to the batter. Like the little person who lives in my head and is in charge of operations unplugged herself from the wall and is just sitting in the corner banging her own head against the wall. I’m overwhelmed for no reason. I’m overwhelmed for a thousand and one reasons, 95% of which didn’t bother me yesterday and probably won’t bother me tomorrow. Like I’m buried so deep inside myself that it actually takes all my energy just to say words that are barely audible, and if someone asks me to repeat myself I cry. I can’t relax, because my body is on edge for no reason. The world is moving too slowly all around me. The world is moving too quickly all around me. Like a worry is stuck to my hand and I’m trying to get it off because it’s stupid, I know it’s stupid and I shouldn’t be obsessed, but I just can’t let it go even when I unclench my fingers, it’s stuck on me like glue.
You get the idea. Or maybe you don’t, but let’s move on.
Below are just a few strategies I’ve gathered on my way. It’s not all of them. I have more for a part two. Maybe a part 3 (I’m learning new ways all the time.)? Quite frankly, my attention span is a little less than desirable and I probably would have already stopped reading and started skimming for the words in bold by now. Or clicked away, because too many words, uugghh.
Anyway, most of the strategies I use for the more terrorized by anxiety side of my wonky brain. Some I’ve learned straight from the Holy Spirit Itself, others from my counselor, and some from strangers on the internet who wrote about what works for them. I won’t go into a lot of detail about where I learned them, because, quite frankly, you probably don’t care!
The Alphabet Game
I find this to be more helpful when I’m feel generally uneasy or I feel like my thoughts are starting to race. I pick a category, like “characteristics of God” or “people I met this year” or “cities” and then I have to come up with something that fits in the category for every letter of the alphabet. When my counselor told me about this, I thought it sounded super cheesy, but it works for me sometimes, especially on nights whenever it’s hard for me to relax to go to sleep.
Anxiety as a Person
I personify anxiety to be a more frazzled, caricatured version of myself, and visualize my mind as a house. I imagine Anxiety knocking on the door and me answering. I tell her that she can come in, but first we have to breathe 10 deep breaths together and/or I make her agree to the rule that we can only talk about one fear or anxiety at a time. I let her come in and sit down. I ask her what is bothering her and what she needs. To go to bed? To eat? To have her fears validated? Tea time with Jesus? To talk it out? To take another action? Then we brainstorm together. So yeah, I’m kind of talking to an imaginary person in my brain, but whatever. There really is something about separating myself from my anxiety that gives me a sense of control and confidence that I need to overcome my wonky brain.
I visualize a star. I picture inhaling as going up one side of a point and exhaling as going down the other side of the point. Then I go all the way around the star. It’s helpful to me because it gives me something to concentrate on for a brief period of time, while also tricking my body into relaxing some. I’ve noticed when I make myself do this before letting myself freak out, I end up feeling calmer.
Wonky brain can make it hard for me to feel hungry or to feel motivated to make/get something good to eat, but whenever I don’t eat right, and especially whenever I don’t eat at regular intervals even if it’s fast food, my mental health suffers. Like being hangry but more intense and internal.So when I eat regularly and when I eat well, I do better. It’s not like eating a certain way will cure wonky brain forever, but it can be used as somewhat of a preventative measure.
Whenever anxious wonky brain hits, sometimes I am fixated on and obsessed with one fear. But a lot of times, it is more of a state of being, and fears of all sort come at me from every direction. It feels very chaotic, like a nightmare where a million bats surround you, freaking out and flying in your face. So, I sort through the fears. I visual having different boxes in front of me with labels like work, spiritual, friends, relationship, family, night-time, etc. and then I place each anxiety into its proper category. After that I put all the boxes in a closet in that house I mentioned earlier. I shut the door, and I tell myself, “You can take out one box and pick one fear from that box. Only one, no exceptions. Then you have to put the box away and lock the closet the door. Whenever we’re done addressing the fear you picked, we can get another, but not before then.” It can help to work with one thing at a time, in a line, rather than trying to juggle them all at once.
I don’t see a counselor anymore, but I did for about a year and a half. And as life changes and new stressers are introduced, I will probably go see one again at some point. You can get duds with counselors of course. But I happened to hit the jackpot. It really helped to talk about what I was experiencing internally out loud. I’m not someone who likes to be the center of attention; I like to be the listener. So rambling about my wonky brain with a friend or family member wasn’t helpful. I felt uncomfortable and I was also worried about making my loved ones scared or worried about me when I told them about the dark and unhealthy thoughts I was having. And I tend to be the person people lean on, and so at the time when I started seeing a counselor, I felt like I couldn’t be their rock and fall apart. I also am very intimidated at the idea of talking about my feelings because I’m not super great at articulating them. Being with my counselor was a safe spot where I didn’t feel like I had to have exactly what I wanted to say perfect before I spoke. And I didn’t have to feel guilty about talking too much, about scaring anyone, or about being misunderstood. It really helped me untangle a lot of wonky thoughts that had been accumulating for years, like the way you comb through tangled hair.
I don’t do this a lot, but when I’m not sure how I feel or when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I write. Sometimes I write letters to someone who’s hurt me or to myself. Other times I just write about what’s happening and how I feel. Or I sometimes even write poetry. I never think it’s going to work, but once I get the ball rolling, I find I more quickly get to the core of the issue, uncover what I’m truly feeling, and begin to be able to start finding a solution. Also, by writing my thoughts down, it makes my brain less cluttered and weighed down.
When my counselor first asked me if I would consider taking medicine for my wonky brain, I was like, “Um, no.” Too scary! Chemicals that mess with your brain????? Don’t even get me started with all the horror stories on the internet. Then God suggested it. I said, “No, thank you! Useful suggestions only!” But, about 8 months later after (it was a few months after I had resolved that the only way to escape the wonky brain was to kill myself and had begun planning the details of my suicide–which, obviously by God’s grace I didn’t, thank you to several humans unknowingly saying just the right things at just the right time) I decided to give medicine a shot.
Like with the counselor, I got lucky with the first medication I tried (Zoloft). It wasn’t immediate and there were some side effects, but it is one of the best decisions I have ever made. It really helped restore a balance in my brain. It was kind of like I lived in a dark, stupid basement and wanted out, but my legs were broken. So no matter how hard I tried to get up the stairs, I was stuck. And Zoloft was the doctor who came and put me in a cast so I could start to heal and regain the ability to walk up the stairs. But instead of being in a basement, I had a messy, wonky, unbalanced brain, and Zoloft came and balanced the chemicals out, so I could start to implement the strategies I was learning to manage my mental health more effectively. After 8 months, I did stop taking it, and that was also a really good decision for me. However, some people take medication their whole lives. And that’s okay! It’s not shameful. You should be proud you are giving your brain what it needs! Good job! My brain just needed it for a short period of time, that’s all.
Jesus could have handed me a restored, peaceful, and balanced brain. But instead, he took me on a difficult, messy journey. And I mean that it was messy. Being suicidal. Wanting to harm myself. Being angry at God. Being skeptical God existed. Thinking even if God existed that God wasn’t good. Feeling defeated and tired by wonky brain. It was lonely and painful. And these are things I even still wrestle with on some days. I’m not ashamed of that. If there’s one message Jesus has been trying to drill into my thick skull, it’s that there is no shame to be felt rightly. It’s forbidden, so stop it! (Easier said than done, amirite?).
What is your wonky brain like? What are some strategies you use?
PS- I am an open book about this stuff. If you have questions about my wonky brain,my spiritual walk, those dark times of wanting to hurt/kill myself, or anything, just ask, okay? I won’t think you’re weird and intrusive. I would love to share with you, if that would help you. Really. A negative is a little less negative when you get to use it for good, even if it’s just once.