afraid people do insane things
act healed, as if you already are.
I’ve come to believe that the fiercest act of self-love isn’t serenity candles or a warm bath, it’s making a commitment to stop scaring yourself.
But as a person with an overactive imagination who can easily dress-rehearse tragedy, I’ve found that I can take two neutral data points and create one hundred negative more in a matter of minutes. It’s frankly impressive how quickly I can write, shoot and produce a horror movie starring all my worst fears, without even realizing that I’m the author and only audience member.
Having anxiety is sort of like having a bad screenwriter living inside your head whose sole inspiration for new material is a collection of old scenes you’ve already seen, and instead of killing off the characters that didn’t work, he gives them their own spin-off. It’s like having a remote, but the rewind button is the only one that works, and it’s super finicky, so you keep accidentally pressing it, ruining all the best parts. They say anxiety robs you from pleasure, but it also robs you from the present.
It’s hard to know when you’re in a downward spiral because the negative reality you create in your mind is so impeccably believable. That’s because it’s curated for you, like a perfectly designed algorithm. All your limiting beliefs become the intellectual scaffolding solidifying and crystalizing the indictment you’ve crafted about yourself, another person, or a situation. That’s why even when you get contrary information, it can be dismissed entirely. Like a ravaging cyclone, your downward spiral takes down anything in its path and uses it to make it stronger. Like, let’s say you think that your boss is mad at you. Even a kind gesture or a positive interaction with her can be intellectualized to further mount your case. “She’s just being extra nice because she’s about to fire me,” your bad screenwriter will tell you, leaving you convinced of a catastrophe that doesn’t exist.
If you’re really in the thick of it, your nervous system becomes implicated which means that your body now believes the story your anxiety is telling you. You’ll have physical symptoms that embody the reality you’ve created and it will be undistinguishable from the the truth. Even if you’re not in danger, your body will start preparing you for it. Unbeknownst to you, it will begin releasing stress hormones like cortisol or adrenaline and activating your sympathetic nervous system. Without even realizing it, you’ll start breathing faster to propel nutrients and oxygen out to your primary muscle groups. Because your physical body is persuaded that you’re in serious danger, it will prioritize survival and therefore interrupt basic functions like digesting, resting or tissue repair.
And while it may seem like your brain and body are conspiring to work against you, I actually believe the body’s complicity in the brain’s shenanigans is the biggest opportunity for behavior modification. We often think that we need to fix our brains to reshape our behaviors but I actually think it’s the other way around.
When I was a researcher in the science of happiness during my graduate program, I found that the most profound takeaway from all the data I analyzed about wellbeing, is that thinking yourself happy rarely works. We don’t change our actions by changing our minds, we change our minds by modifying our actions. In other words, you don’t need to wait to “fix” your anxiety before you start acting differently. Act healed, as if you already are.
So how do we actually go about doing this?
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