I have anxiety.
One of the really cool things (sarcasm alert) about anxiety is that it makes you question yourself all of the time.
So, when I didn’t yet know how to deal with my mental illness, I would make a mistake doing something, and then I would immediately fall into thought spirals of doom.
What’s wrong with me?
Why am I so stupid?
I can’t believe I did that!
I have to be the dumbest person alive!
Of course, none of these words were helpful. They all made the situation worse.
But I didn’t know that at the time.
Because mental health issues like anxiety and depression chip away at your sense of self. They make you believe that you are small and unworthy.
It doesn’t matter if none of that is true.
Anxiety has a way of making it so.
These thought patterns continued throughout my teens and twenties.
Eventually, I learned coping skills by reading books, talking with mental health professionals, and just plain collecting life experiences over the years.
In the end, I learned, without a doubt, that there was not actually anything wrong with me.
It’s all about how I was approaching the situation–and how I was trained by society to think of myself.
Is there something wrong with me mentally?
Let’s start with the mind. Your mind.
I’m going to guess that you’ve doubted yourself at least once in your life. I’m going to assume that you don’t always have perfectly angelic thoughts about yourself.
That’s OK. It’s incredibly common.
What you need to know is this: your brain is designed to protect you. It doesn’t want you to go into dangerous situations.
So, when you make a mistake, or when you say something stupid to a friend, your brain makes note of that.
It says, “Uh oh. That wasn’t good. Better not do that again.”
The thing is, our modern existence is incredibly small compared to the tens of thousands of years our ancestors lived out in the open plains and rugged mountains.
When they made a mistake, the consequences could be deadly. Stumbling into a lion’s den could be fatal.
That’s not true anymore.
These days, saying the wrong thing in a meeting doesn’t have the same kind of devastating consequences that your ancestors might have experienced.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like it does.
That’s the key here.
Our brains weren’t built for this fast-paced, always-on existence. It’s too much stimulation.
So when you think there’s something wrong with you, what actually happened to you is comparatively not very bad at all.
It’s your brain playing tricks on you.
Is there something wrong with me physically?
Ok, but let’s consider this from another angle.
What if there is something wrong with you physically?
I’m going to use myself as an example again.
I used to think there was something wrong with me physically all of the time.
I used to think a new freckle on my arm was turning into a cancerous spot or that a pain in my back meant that my spine was curving in the wrong direction.
Totally irrational thoughts, I know…
But that’s how anxiety works.
It’s so important to understand that the mind and body are linked. There are nerves that connect your brain to your stomach and heart, among other important organs.
My first mental health site was actually called Nerve 10 because cranial nerve 10 is one of the most important nerves in the body for the way it links everything together.
And because the mind and body are linked in this way, it’s easy to have one thought about your mind, such as self-doubt, cascade and transform into a thought about your body.
I can hear the naysayers mumbling.
“What if there actually is something wrong with my body?”
I’ve been there.
I actually had something seriously wrong with my body back in 2012, and I had a sudden open-heart surgery to fix it.
I learned a very important lesson from that.
There are times when you must trust yourself and what’s going on in your body.
But how do you distinguish between something that might be a sign of hypochondria and something that is actually serious? This is what I suggest:
- You know your body, and you know when something is drastically different. If the pain you are feeling is not one or two times worse than what you’ve ever experienced, but a hundred, then you must take action and seek help.
- Surround yourself with people who care about you. It was my girlfriend-now-wife who told me I needed to go to the ER when I was experiencing strange symptoms related to my failing heart. The ones who know you best will be able to be more objective if they think something is actually wrong with you.
- Create a mini-plan for yourself. Something I’ve found to be helpful to keep the worries at bay is this. If I’m ruminating about something, I will say, “OK, if such and such happens, then I will do this…” I make a very clear rule about what my plan will be if and only if a certain line has been crossed. It helps to put my mind at ease because I know what I’m going to do if the bad thing actually happens to me, which it usually doesn’t