Anxiety: Do You See What I See?

Emotion is a matter of perspective

Anxiety is like looking through colored glass
Anxiety is seeing through glass

Anxiety is that whisper in your ear which tells you that you’d just embarrass yourself if you go to that party. It persists constantly, laying out the details of what you’ll screw up at work the upcoming week, and telling you how bad that important talk with your loved one will be.

All mental disorders including anxiety have a few things in common:

  1. They affect every decision a person makes.
  2. They live deep in your mind.
  3. They cause those who have them to see the world incredibly differently.

Seeing the World through fearful Glasses

“Beauty is in the eye of a beholder.” This quote, attributed to Margaret Wolfe Hungerford in 1878 was an echo of a sentiment long held by such thinkers as Benjamin Franklin who wrote: “Beauty, like supreme dominion/Is but supported by opinion.” This in turn was influenced by William Shakespeare’s: “Beauty is bought by judgement of the eye…” (source)

My brothers and I had an ongoing debate when we were kids. Do we all see the same color? Is the color I see as “blue” the same “blue” you see in your eye? I used to love imagining what the world would look like if the colors were inverted.

I pictured huge fields of red grass, blowing like fire in the wind under a violet sky. Here, leaves turned azure in the spring, and only when the last leaf of autumn drops, do they turn a brilliant green as they decompose.

Needless to say, I sided with infinite color.

Childhood me wrote this article

It turns out, my hopes and dreams may not have been so far off after all. I don’t mean in a literal sense (although that may be true, that’s just a different blog).

The way we view the world is different from person to person. So, in a sense, the world that I once pictured as a kid exists.In other words: we can have totally different reactions to the exact same experience based on our differing perspectives.

You are what you Eat, Learn and Experience

Our perspective is based largely on our life experiences. With enough repeated patterns, those experiences become expectations, and our brain starts to jump the gun.

JULIAN HOCHBERG of Columbia University describes this phenomenon in a 1981 paper, On Cognition in Perception: Perceptual coupling and unconscious interference. He suggests that experiences become unconscious expectations in 3 steps:

  1. We begin to recognize cause and effect patterns.
  2. These patterns embed themselves in our subconscious beyond conscious perception.
  3. These subconscious expectations build mental structures which color our reactions to the original stimuli, and the world in general.

As a result, we begin to believe that we know how things “usually are”, and react not to the world in front of us, but the world we’ve built up in our heads.

“Channels of direct sensory response…do not contribute directly to experience. The expectation of what patterns of sensation any given sensorimotor exploration would bring… was taken as the percept.” (Hochberg, Julian 1981).

In other words, we’re about as skilled at separating expectation from reality as Pavlov’s Dogs.

Flush the anxiety

In his talks, The Nature of Consciousness and The World as Just So, Alan Watts states that a “whirlpool is a definite form, but no water stays put it in it. The whirlpool is something the stream is doing,” and that, “Life is flowing all the time…”

Watts suggests that it is folly to ever approach the same situation in the same way twice. There are bound to be countless unseen variables that prevent the two situations from ever equating, and yet, due to our preconceptions from past, we react as if they are identical.

This can often get us into trouble and lead to misunderstandings and arguments. When we expect the worst to happen, that can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This lens is not only colored by our past experiences, but to those of us living with Anxiety, Depression and other mental disorders, each of these lend their own unique hue.

I SAW mommy kissing santa claus, and so did my self-esteem

Quite frankly, I’m luck to be married.

A lot of the things I did before I got treatment for my Bipolar were embarrassing. Sometimes I was downright cruel (I’m so sorry).

The frustrating thing is that for the most part, they were reactions to an elaborate, fictional tragedy that I had created in my mind.

As much as I hate to admit it, I have a jealous nature. It was cold outside and I was drunk, but that is no excuse.

My then-fiancee, now wife and I were attending the after party…of an after party…of my company’s Christmas party (that should have been my first clue that things were about to go downhill).

I was pretty close with my co-workers and I considered them all friends. We’d hang out outside of work, mostly buying each other rounds at the bar.

Hands full of our fifth or sixth round that night, I turned from the bar to discover my wife chatting and laughing with one of my co-workers. He was mid joke, and I could see her anticipation of another punchline.

Normally this would make me smile, but then, inexplicably, my heart sped up.

My depressed glasses zoomed in to gather evidence to support my low self-esteem, and after calibrating to account for the drunkenness, it discovered indisputable evidence that she was fond of him, and was clearly looking for another, better mate:

She turned her head to the side and…

Flipped. Her. Hair.

You know, in THAT way!

Et Tu Fiancee?

Where had I seen that hair flip before? It made me remember something–something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

It stirred up more of an emotional memory. Pain. Loss. Abandonment. I tried to shake it off. Her eyes narrowed as she laughed. Hurt. Fear. Embarrassment. Her hand touched his shoulder. Jealousy. Despair. Anger.

What proceeded was one of the worst fights my wife and I have ever had, all sparked by a story in my head.

To this day, I don’t know what set me off that night (I’m working on that in therapy), but it was powerful, and deeply rooted. Somewhere along the line, I developed this fear that I am inferior, that I am a second choice and that everyone, eventually will abandon me.

Wherever it came from, be it my Anxiety and Depression, or a traumatic event, it will always color the way I see the world and how I react to life-situations.

You can’t change the color of the glasses, but you can learn to clean them.

Breaking the pattern of Anxiety

don’t fear fear itself

Anxiety and Fear are often bedfellows. In some cases, they can feed each other in a vicious cycle which spirals into panic attacks and extreme depression.

Fear breeds Anxiety which breeds Anxiety of Fear and so on and so on. In my case, I had fear of abandonment, which bred anxiety about my wife’s interaction which bred a fear of abandonment.

If you’re getting dizzy, don’t worry. We all are.

check your facts

If your brain is anything like mine, it is a really captivating story teller. It weaves these stories in secret, beyond the reach of consciousness, waiting to dig them out of the archives at will.

Christopher Bergland writes in his article that there is one question to ask before reacting to anything:

“Is This Fear Based in Reality or Created by My Imagination?” 

It is hard to remember that thinking is a creative process. It combines reality and fiction into a personalized view of the world. As difficult as it is, it is worth the time to examine your assumptions and differentiate it from the realities of the situation in front of you.

This pause can be the difference between acting on gut reaction and acting proportionally, which can do wonders for relieving anxiety and will help to maintain better relationships.

When in Doubt, assume the best

I proposed to my wife partly because I trusted her. Yet in times of panic and insecurity, my anxious mind takes over and starts to tell me stories to make me doubt that. The fact is, I know my wife loves me (she says it about 50 times a day). I have absolutely no reason to doubt her.

Who do I really want to believe? My wife who I love, or my delusional brain?

Trust. Forgive yourself and others. Work with the present, and forget the past.

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