Anxiety is the most malicious and stunning masquerade beneath the mental-illness family, that fucked-up collective of forces that wreak havoc over their reluctant human hosts. The most common mental disorder, anxiety is the partner in crime of depression; more often than not, the story goes – if you receive regular visits from one, you get to know the other pretty damn well.
Anxiety feeds off the mundane, flourishes in the banality of routine and ordinary existence, and creates such dislocation between reality and perception that attempting a description is almost futile. The ordinary becomes threatening. Revelling in the presence of a few friends over a late Sunday lunch at a beachside café transforms into a malevolent, hostile environment in an instant. The laughter resounding from friends’ relaxed smiles is suddenly a piercing aberration to the ears. Physical touch is equal to being brandished with a white-hot iron poker and existence feels momentarily unbearable, as the adrenal glands release an unpleasant rush of sensations throughout the body. The heart feels like a tennis ball that is being slammed from the inside out by a furious competitor. Shortness of breath simulates the illusion of suffocation, and the incremental sweats that break out across the body warn of imminent demise in this menacing terrain.
I haven’t been inclined to touch illicit drugs or alcohol all my life. When I have witnessed related side-effects like bad acid trips, emotional breakdowns, panic attacks, disorientation and dissociation, I don’t feel as though any would be novel for me. Skydiving, shark diving, bungee jumping, BASE-jumping – fuck me, just develop yourself a panic disorder if you want to know intense fear and lucid, physical symptoms. You’ll get them for free too – just at the cost of your sanity.
Dissociation is a pernicious beast of a symptom. If you want a mind-fuck of an experience, get on that bad boy. I deserve an Oscar for the amount of convincingly charming and polite conversations I’ve carried on while mentally hovering about the room and preparing for the detected danger to strike. It’s remarkable how capable we are of enacting conditioned social cues while fronting an internal battlefield.
But for all points on its impressive reign of terror, the real tragedy of anxiety is in its evolutionary purpose.
Anxiety is the gap in development between our primitive brain – the system that evolved to keep us alive on the desert plains thousands of years ago, and the intellectual brain – the systems of thought we have grown congruent with social progress. If we weren’t able to detect danger, how else would we have survived?
Think of Caveman ignorantly entering the lion’s den. Mumma Lion, pissed off that Caveman dares venture near her cubs, belts him with a few predatory swipes. He survives and retreats to the plains, only to feel cautious when he next nears the den, as his instinctive memory knows last time he was there, shit went down. In preparation to run from Mumma Lion, his heart beats faster to pump more blood. His breath becomes short, to allow his lungs to adjust to running, and his palms start to sweat to cool him down as he flees. He becomes disconcertingly aware of any sensory activity. He flees the discomfort and the threat of Mumma Lion’s full wrath. Indeed he never returns, having acquired a phobic response, but this ensures that at least one threat to survival is eliminated.
If Caveman hadn’t developed such a reaction, he may have wandered back into the den and met his end. And if he hadn’t had any business time with Cavewoman, there would be no Cavechild, and should the pattern repeat itself across his Cave Brethren, there would be no you or me, or any other great-great-great-great… (and so on, and so forth) cavechildren.
The challenge for me is that my primitive brain will react to the late Sunday lunch at the beachside café as though it is Mumma Lion’s den. This is because my amygdala, the chemical centre for fear generation, is an over-active region in my brain. It “fires” a faulty panic response in situations that contain no real danger, and fires repeatedly and with increasing urgency because I do not remove myself from the “danger”. This is where the intellectual brain – which harbours rationale, logic and reason – comes into play and assesses the situation from a modern human’s point of view – not that of the caveman.
But anxiety’s not your enemy. It’s your friend, albeit a misguided and sensationalising one. All it wants is for you to survive and escape danger. If depression is the prick that not only kicks you when you’re down, but belts you with a sledgehammer too, anxiety is the over-excitable, doom-and-gloom companion who seriously loses their shit, all the fucking time.
We all have to customise our methods to ride it out and get through. One technique I’ve used lately is to imagine my anxiety as a golden Labrador puppy, weeping, carrying on and crying. I pat him gently behind the ear and let him know everything’s sweet (this may or may not be due to the fact that my beloved childhood Labrador, Max, acted this way, and was in fact medicated for anxiety in his later stages of life. Sorry boy).
One social media presence drawing promiscuous likes to its posts and insight is the “I Fucking Love Science” blog and Facebook page. Adopting a similar attitude to anxiety, first knowing and then loving the science, may help you accept your neurotic shadow for what it is – just an over-active component of the amazing evolutionary system of human anatomy that allowed me to write this and you to read it.
So anxiety, I fucking love you. You need to calm down, but I know you got my back. Thanks.