Recently I've read an article about anxiety sensitivity, and it highly resonated with me. For many years I have been struggling with generalized anxiety disorder I developed fear of sensations that I experience while being nervous.
Many factors have contributed to the development of my fear. To name a few: social pressure (I am worried that other people will see me anxious and judge me), current health obsession in the Western world (constant worry that stress and anxiety are bad for me), fear of failure (nothing that I do helps). Let's talk about each one of them individually.
I personally had a few incidents connected to "public shame". Sometimes I am so anxious to speak that I forget words or say something stupid (especially if it's not my native language). I also had moments of severe anxiety when I started to feel extremely nauseous and even fainted. Naturally my brain remembered these situations and as a result I became extremely fearful of experiencing them again.
I think there are mostly two types of people in the Western world: those who are obsessed with their health and those who don't give a f**k. I will be honest; I belong to the first group. I am constantly educating myself on health-related topics, and as a result I often read and hear that stress and anxiety are bad for us. I think it is indeed bad, until the problem becomes even worse: when we start fearing stress and anxiety, which are natural responses of our body (although sometimes not perfectly regulated), making it even worse. When I pay way too much attention to how I am feeling now I start worrying about my health even more: I am anxious, it's bad for me, it causes my chronic pain, inflammation, etc.
Fear or failure
I am a person who likes to be right. And I am also a person who thinks that she already knows a lot, therefore I should be able to help myself feel better. Of course, there is a pride talking but also more than that. Each time I think I found the solution I am very hopeful and excited about it. After many "failures" I started to worry that maybe nothing will help or if something helps temporarily I am anxious that the symptoms will come back. If I am not feeling good, I take it as personal failure sometimes, and I also have perhaps way too high standards and expectations of how I should feel.
All these factors impact my mental health. I developed anxiety sensitivity over time, and it certainly doesn't help me deal with anxiety disorder. The more symptoms I experienced the more I started to hate my illness.
I have been reading a lot about acceptance lately. And I think it's important to look at our mental illness a little bit differently. It is not something to hate or combat, but it is what we should pay attention to and try to understand.
What can we do about these factors
- I first started to use self-talk when I was trying to overcome my anxiety to fly on the plane. I am not scared to fly, but I can't sleep on the plane, which causes my nausea. Of course, as a result I have to constantly go to the bathroom, "disturb" other people, etc. It is not the best situation, trust me. Worrying about it prior to the flight used to make me so anxious, I'd not sleep. As a result, I was more tired on the flight day and self-fulfilling prophecy would come to action. It was a vicious circle.
I started to tell myself: so, what if you stand near the bathroom the whole flight? You won't need to bother anyone, and you will also be "safe" in case you feel nauseous. Of course, it's going to be exhausting but you can do it. And I did. I am no longer terrified to fly, because I know that even if I need to stand near the bathroom all the time, it's ok, I will be able to make it and it's alright. With this kind of thought I am usually able to fall asleep before the flight.
I use self-talk a lot when it comes down to fear of social pressures. I try to think of possible outcomes and the worst scenarios, and how they can possibly impact my life. It's not always great thoughts, but at the end of the day most of those possible outcomes are nothing I'd not be able to face and deal with. It's a trivial solution, but it works only with practice and patience.
- I use a little bit different method when it comes down to health obsession. It's a work in progress, and the goal is to establish good relationship with my body, accept my emotions and learn to live being uncomfortable at times whether it's pain or anxiety. Like I said, stress is bad for you, but obsessing over it is much worse. It's ok to be anxious, and the reason for it can be very simple sometimes. For instance, on some days I drink too much coffee. Shortly speaking, I am learning to be ok with not being ok, and through that I am able to have more peace in my life.
It's not to say that if someone has a very bad condition, they should suck it up and be ok with it. I am talking about conditions that you know they are already there, you saw a doctor for that, and now all you can do is to work on the best possible ways of living with it, doing your best to recover.
- Last but not least is lowering expectations, being ready for possible outcomes and not getting discouraged if/when things go wrong. Of course each one of us wants to feel their best and be control of our health and lives in general, but many things are out of our control, and in order to make it easier for us to cope I think we should be ok with the thought that no everything is going to work out. Maybe new medication is not going to work, or you will actually have a terrible flight, etc. But at the end of the day it all comes down to remembering, that no matter what you are going to be ok.
You can always try something else. Your next flight might be better. The only thing you have control over is the way how you see a particular situation, and how you are able to deal with the aftermath. There is always light in the end. That light for me is pillows of my home when I'll feel peace and comfort again, and trees where I will find rest and rejuvenation.
 Noam Shpancer Ph.D. Anxiety Sensitivity: When What We Fear Is Fear Itself, article, 25 February 2020, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/insight-therapy/202002/anxiety-sensitivity-when-what-we-fear-is-fear-itself