Third Level Anxiety: The Paradox of Overthinking

Anxiety and overthinking go hand in hand. It’s a chicken and the egg scenario. Does the anxiety cause the overthinking or does the overthinking cause anxiety? Hard to tell. In the end, I’m not sure if it even matters which comes first. The result is the same, discomfort, distress, and inability to make decisions. The prefrontal cortex shuts down in that all consuming sympathetic nervous system reaction triggered by the amygdala, or the emotional center of our primitive little lizard brain.

Over the years, anxiety has a way of building. The pathways between stimulus and response get more and more defined. My anxiety used to be directly related to specific instances. I would get anxious in social situations. Soon that anxiety would begin to bubble up at just the thought of being in said situations. Now it’s transformed into more of a vague fear of the anxiety itself and trying to avoid all situations in which I may start to feel anxious. I’ve reached third level anxiety, fear of the fear of the fear. This stage is practically paralyzing. It can cause you to avoid your life completely just in an effort to avoid anxiety. It can manifest in a covert way, such as the inability to make decisions.

I have to admit it is humorous to realize I’ve always tried to “fix” my anxiety by somehow thinking myself into a sense of ease. But it’s pretty hard to use logic and reason to defuse a completely illogical physical reaction. It’s counterproductive to try to think your way out of overthinking. But what else can you do?

Learning to Cope

One of the reasons I have my doubts about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy’s effectiveness when it comes to my mental health specifically and anxiety disorders in general is the focus on the thinking mind. CBT’s primary method is changing the way you think in order to change your behavior. But you can’t solve the problem of too much thinking with more thinking. A lesser known therapy called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy or DBT feels like a better fit. Rather than teach you how to reframe your thinking, this therapy helps you cope with and understand your emotions so that you can feel safe and accept yourself.

Even though in the moment anxiety feels like it’s demanding action or some solution, I’ve learned by now that there really isn’t anything I can do or think that can dispel my anxiety completely. The frantic effort to avoid it only causes more mental suffering. The only real way I can learn to handle this fear is to let myself feel it. More than any catastrophic imagined outcome, I’ve become afraid of the physical sensations themselves. I’m anxious about feeling anxious. However, that quickly dissipates when I face those feelings rather than try to run from them.

How to Face the Feelings

Coincidentally, I’ve found the advice from my previous post about how to help yourself focus and be mindful in a calm, neutral setting works just as well when you’re lying in bed on the edge of a panic attack. This time rather than being unable to focus because of the vague sense of disinterest or boredom at the everyday objects around me, it’s the exact opposite. It’s hard to focus because everything just seems so overwhelming that I don’t know where to begin. But nevertheless, imagining I have to describe what is happening in that moment as if I’m writing a story is tremendously helpful.

The next time you find yourself feeling anxious, overthinking, or distressed by indecision, take a moment to step out of the thinking mind all together. Accept that the solution you’re desperately trying to find with your mind is not in the mind at all. The solution is surrender. It’s accepting that sometimes there is no solution but to sit with the sensations. Try to describe the feelings of anxiety swirling around in your body to someone who has no idea what anxiety even is. Be as detailed and creative as possible. Get curious. What is anxiety? Where does it manifest in the body? What does it physically feel like? How long can it last? Does it ebb and flow? Does it get stuck in your chest, in your throat?

Avoid concentrating on what it is that’s making you anxious. That is irrelevant once you’ve determined that it is irrational. Let it go. Show yourself that you are capable of feeling these difficult feelings. Even if they don’t go away. That’s not the intention. It’s learning that you can handle them. When I slow down and breathe into my anxious feelings, I often realize that the feelings themselves are no where near as bad as my struggle to avoid them. I can befriend these sensations by simply allowing them to exist.

Conclusion

I know all this is easier said than done. It’s hard to do anything with intention and mindfulness when your brain and body are on red alert. However, knowing that this is an option available to you is the first step towards practicing it. You won’t be able to every single time, but the more you notice the opportunity to sit with your difficult feelings instead of trying to fight them, the easier it will become. Give yourself the time and the space and the permission to experience even unpleasant situations with patience, curiosity, and equanimity.

When You’re With Me

I start to get frustrated when you're away
I forget all the reasons I love you
seeds begin to stir inside my subconscious
spinning stories of mistrust and cynicism

I fill the space between us with thick shadow
unshakeable doubts that make me shudder
cringing at my own incompetence in communication
afraid of looking foolish in the face of disinterest

Prepared to push away when you pull me in
rehearsing my preemptive rejection for self-protection
perpetually surprised when I immediately melt
and let you fold me tenderly in your arms again

Set at ease by your soothing, sultry smell
the stability of warm skin under soft fingertips
stilling the tumultuous tide churning deep inside
replacing it with gently waving fields of sweet grass

Stay with me a little longer
let me linger in this sacred, silent connection
let it seep into my cells so that I cannot forget
the simple, supple harmony between our hearts
 

Quick Fix

At some point alcohol became
the weighted blanket for my mind
something solid to make me feel secure
a heavy shroud to hold me down
in the present moment

Over ten years of diligent practice
I've become a master of self-medication
caffeine, cannabis, kratom, and liquid courage
a witch's brew of corrosive ingredients
to subdue my writhing soul

Quick fixes never work for long
so many mornings left picking up the pieces
of poorly planned promises to myself
smoothing over the soft doubt deep down
that this really will be the last time

Sometimes it is strange to see others
experience true joy without chemical assistance
I wonder if my synapses are too damaged to do that now
Imagining a life without my caterpillar quantity of crutches
seems just as alluring as it does absurd

Still nothing could be worse than this ritual self-denial
this refusal to allow myself to exist as I am
accepting that I am unable to overcome my small fears
by burying them stealthily beneath bottles of booze
next time I'll try harder to be brave

Tsunami

Frightened by the violent riptide
of my own raw emotion
carried roughly away in rapids
of self-righteous anger

The sick, unshakable desire
to stay inside this horrible hatred
helpless to harness the grotesque
venom of this self-harming state

The sheer force of resistance
soft heart turned to steel with
heavy doors welded at the seam
fortress of wild, agonized isolation

Short moments of insanity
disregarding the searing flesh
of a hand clutching tightly
onto a white hot coal

Seduced by the spell of spite
the toxic illusion of power promised
to a soul that has been swallowed up
and blinded by uncontrollable rage

Sinking below dark waters
a whirlpool of god-like wrath
left trembling at the loss
of all control

The Sickness of Shadows

Attention torn away from
the hot victory of the sun
distracted by shadows
that dance in dark caves
the slow drip of time
crashes with violence
against the surface of
the well of history
cadence of madness
a frenzied race into
all consuming blank space
that blinds and binds
the invisible magnetism
of addictive illusions
shrouding the coal black
soot of the inevitable unknown

Different Shades of Loneliness

I don't know which is worse
to be truly and utterly alone
or to be alone with someone
who doesn't even see you

Is it really better to have a warm body
that can never bare witness to your soul
than to be emotionally and physically on your own
in this over-populated, under-connected world

there is a sickening angst that curdles inside
bitterness and resentment grow in the shadows
where the light of being known never touches
sometimes disregard stings worse than rejection

A fiery desperation to be acknowledged
the falling sensation of a love without foundation
an inner self left writhing under skin-crawling falsity
rising in rebellion against half-hearted affection

Disgust and denial say this cannot be salvaged
but fear leaves me lingering in the decaying doorway
memories of what I once thought this might become
daggers that flare up passion in a desolate heart

Nothing could be worse than the violence of indifference
stepping out from a shelter that blocks all possibility of sun
to submit myself to the endlessly overcast, unprotected sky
not knowing if storms will come or the sun will rise

Self-Doubt

The maddening drumbeat of self-doubt
filling up all the silent spaces
pushing out all other sounds

A low rumble that underlies existence
made natural and unquestioned by repetition
unnoticed like the soft rustles of steady breathing

The regular and consistent rhythm I've come to rely on
looked for reluctance in any new endeavor
the steady signal flash of certain failure

Siren song inside my head that guides me
towards the rocky shore of inner oblivion
a false friend I've always carried with me

Trying Too Hard

I can feel myself getting frustrated again. Picking at all of my perceived imperfections. Comparing myself to everyone I see, and feeling like I come up short. This cycle has become so familiar, but it doesn’t get any easier with repetition. One week I’ll feel good, motivated, like I’m making progress. Then the next I’ll feel utterly desperate about the futility of all the work I do for personal growth and self improvement. It’s particularly pronounced when it comes to my life-long struggle with body image.

Despite my best efforts to avoid the triggering, toxic images I used to purposely flood myself with online, somehow they’ve started creeping back in again. Perfect little vegan fitness models and casual yogis. It’s bad enough that they have bodies I could only dream of, but it stings in an especially painful way when I see just how much MORE work I put in for so much less satisfying and aesthetically pleasing results. I know I have a distorted view of my appearance to some extent. And I don’t think I look bad. But after years of diligent, intense, advanced exercise routines, I expected to actually look like someone who prioritizes fitness in their life. Not just someone who works out for 20 minutes once or twice a week.

Even when I’ve felt for years like I couldn’t possibly do any more exercise in a day, I’ve slowly added on more and more things. It never makes any significant or noticeable change though! All it does is make me feel obligated to continue at this more draining routine for fear I’ll somehow gain weight if I stop, even though I didn’t lose any when I started. I’ve recognized for a long time now that this is an extremely unhealthy mindset that impacts my self-esteem, my physical health, and my social life. Still I feel helpless to change it. My fear of looking worse than I do now is all-consuming. I feel resigned to this unsustainable, ever increasing physical workload that will never do anything for me besides keep me where I already am. A place that does not even bring me satisfaction or happiness. It’s no longer about progress, it’s about avoiding an even more pronounced level of self-hatred and disgust.

One thing I have been trying to convince myself of, is the importance of slowing things down/lessening my reps and speed in order to focus on truly good, mindful form and activating the right muscles when I’m moving. Logically I do believe this would be more beneficial. But that disordered, self-hating, fearful side of my brain panics at the thought. But what if I slow down and gain weight? What if I can’t pick it back up again? What if I do go back to what I’m doing now, but am stuck with whatever weight I may put on forever?! It’s these unhealthy thoughts that keep me from changing anything despite my dissatisfaction with my results or lack-there-of.

In the last ten or more years, I’ve never allowed myself a proper “rest” day from exercise. There have only been a handful of days I haven’t worked out, but even those days are not true rest because I workout extra the days before and after to “make up for it.” My ego takes some form of pride in this fact, while also cursing all the people I see taking regular rest days multiple times a week and looking 50x better than I ever have. I’ve just been believing that there is something wrong with me. Their bodies just work better than mine does somehow. Surely if I took rest days, I’d have made even less progress.

I’m beginning to finally open myself up to the possibility that isn’t the case. I was already toying with the concept of rest being valuable and important so that my muscles actually get a chance to heal and build themselves up stronger. I don’t really notice myself gaining muscle mass or strength with the way I’m doing things now. I basically stay where I am. In addition to that, I’ve been reading a lot about the effects of cortisol and weight gain.

I assume I have ridiculously high levels of cortisol in my body at all times, just based on my stress level. What I didn’t realize is that this may not be solely due to my anxiety disorder. Exercise naturally raises cortisol levels, which isn’t a problem in moderation and can even be beneficial. However, excessive exercise can lead to unhealthy levels of cortisol. I don’t think it’s up for debate whether the amount of exercise I’ve been subjecting myself to for the past ten years is “excessive” or not. Have I been shooting myself in the foot this entire time?

It seems too good to be true to imagine that I could do less and have the same or an even better body. My self-flagellating mind simply cannot accept that possibility. Then again, working harder hasn’t seemed to work out at all the way I thought it would. Maybe I really am doing myself a disservice by pushing myself so much. What if I was able to do less, better quality exercise, enjoy my workouts again, have more free-time, feel less tired and stressed, AND look/feel better in my body? It’s so difficult for me to contemplate, let alone begin to test.

I know if I really want things to change in my life and in my body, I’ve got to actually start doing things differently. One of the big road blocks in my way is the fact that to truly know if the changes I implement are working, I need to see where I am right now and monitor that moving forward. It’s so unbearable for me to weigh myself or, god forbid, take photos or measurements. *shudder* But I’m afraid if I don’t, I’ll be too afraid to change anything because I might gain weight without realizing it. Dear god, I need a therapist so badly. Unfortunately I live in the greatest country on earth and that isn’t a feasible option for someone working full-time in the MENTAL HEALTH INDUSTRY!

My sheer ability to ramble on for so long about this topic is evidence that there is a problem. I want to follow that little spark of excitement and curiosity that tells me to switch things up. I know it’s worth it. I know it would be good for me mentally at the very least. I wrote something that struck me as profound last night while I was journaling: Fear is a powerful motivator. I am just afraid of the wrong things.

No Closed Doors

My soul is an impressionist painter
finding beauty at a blurry distance
so much potential and excitement
still waiting to be discovered

Feeling sick inside as I slide forward to notice
the soft edges have become hard and defined
repelled by the rough realness of reality
that contains concrete corners and lines

My eyes frantically search for another
frothy formless future far away
where everything can be perfect
suspended in ideals and imagination

The grass is always greener because
you can't see it well enough yet
to notice all the biting beetles hidden
beneath and between the bright blades

Dreams manifested can never hold a candle
to those yet to be reached and realized
the mind is the only place things can be perfect
a pleasant pile of pros with no cons

Fixed a few feet away from fantasy
the tantalizing glow behind a half-opened door
my essence is the same as a dissatisfied cat
unable to commit to open or closed

Savoring the sweetness of desire
before the bitterness of defeat
or the horror of an unanticipated
too sharply real success