After writing earlier this week about how my mental health catches me off guard, I wanted to build on that message and have some tips and techniques for people to use when the same thing happens to them. But before I could dive into that, I had a few thoughts that were nagging at me. I understood how these things catch me off guard, but I couldn’t understand why. Doesn’t everyone have thoughts that distract them? I’d guess that some of the thoughts and feelings I struggle with are similar to ones that many people have. So why do they have such a big impact on me? Before I can tackle the how, I needed to tackle the why – which is what I’m writing about today.
Dealing with depression and anxiety often involves dealing with intrusive thoughts on a regular basis. I’ll be going about my day, maybe getting lost in a task at work or one of my hobbies, and then a thought will pop into my head. Most of my energy is spent dealing with the thought itself; I do some thinking about whether or not the thought is true or accurate. Sometimes it’s decoding a thought to realize it’s not even rational, or the fear I have is logically impossible.
But what often sticks with me isn’t always the contents of the thought I have. What tends to stick around are the feelings that these thoughts have instilled in me. I don’t always remember the thought process that made me feel sad; all I know is that in that moment, I’m sad. The same goes for times when I’m feeling anxious, restless or depressed. The feeling lingers well beyond these thoughts. If I’m not vigilant, those feelings can fester and grow much stronger simply by refusing to go away.
I think a big part of why these feelings linger, and why I feel so caught off guard sometimes, is that I don’t always accept what’s happening. Even after a decade of dealing with anxiety and depression, my brain’s instinct is still to reject any unpleasant or unwelcome thought that pops into my brain. My first instinct is to try to get rid of the thought as quickly as possible, and to get rid of it on my own terms. It’s a fight-or-flight response that does the opposite of its intended effect. Rather than making the thoughts/feelings disappear, the instinct of rejection allows them to stick around longer than they would have, creating a cycle that feels impossible to manage.
Writing this also got me thinking about the role fear plays into our mental health. Fear of the unknown (which I’ve written about before), but also fear what we’ve already been through. Sometimes, my intrusive thoughts can remind me of an unpleasant or unsuccessful experience with my mental health and it can bring me back to that time. I feel stuck or lost in that moment, and I’m terrified of being back there again. Understanding why things impact us is just as valuable as how they impact us and the more we reflect on that, the more we learn – about our mental wellness and about ourselves.