When you notice your mind jumping to conclusions, projecting, and leading you down a path of catastrophic thoughts and fears, do you believe them?
We often assume our fears are facts, even when there is scant evidence to support them. And we often underestimate how much our brain chemistry colors the way we perceive the world.
Here are two examples:
Story #1: My patients’ experience
I’m an integrative psychiatrist, and while I use holistic and complementary approaches in my practice, I also prescribe medication where appropriate. When I do, it never ceases to amaze me how much a simple change in my patient’s brain chemistry will positively change how they see their life and the world.
When the patient first comes in, they’ll tell me all of these stories and catastrophic fears — negative thoughts about themselves, fear that their problems that can’t be solved, and bad things about the world. These thought patterns are very typical with anxiety and depression.
So, I start them on medication and schedule a follow-up for two weeks later. And, amazingly, when they come back, they’ll say they’re starting to feel better and they’ll tell me, “Hey, you know that thing I was worried about? That problem I thought could never be solved? Well, it doesn’t seem so bad anymore… I’ll be able to handle it.”
I find this so amazing because in these two weeks nothing about their external situation changed — only their perception of it. If our thoughts are so true, then why is it they can change so easily based on our brain chemistry?
Story #2: My experience
I recently started steroids for graft vs. host disease, a manageable complication of my stem cell transplant. If you’ve ever been on a high dose of steroids you know that the side effects aren’t pretty — I can’t sleep, I feel physically agitated all the time, I’m constantly hungry and have become crazily obsessed with food (ex: I was watching TV last week when a commercial for popcorn came on and felt like I needed to get to the store to buy popcorn ASAP or I would die).
I’m gaining weight, and my face is getting chubby. Most difficult of all, I’m finding myself becoming more anxious than usual.
I used to be a more of a worry wart when I was younger, but over time have developed good coping strategies for anxiety. I’m at the point now where I can honestly tell you I don’t spend much time thinking about having had cancer or potential fears about relapse in the future.
However, once I started on these steroids… things that did NOT seem like problems before started to suddenly feel like catastrophes. I became worried about things so much smaller and less significant than cancer — “Did that look on xyz’s face mean they’re mad at me? Did I leave my garage door open? Am I going to be 5 minutes late to my dentist appointment??”
The steroids had caused a change in my brain chemistry that was essentially the opposite of what medication does for my patients.
So, what did I do? Well, first I started a medication for anxiety, and I’m feeling so much better (I like to practice what I preach). I also reminded myself based on my experience that my anxious thoughts are not any more true now than they were a month ago.
I give myself permission to not follow the rabbit hole of my fears, because I know that nothing external has changed since I started steroids — it’s only my perception of external events that has changed.
For anyone out there who thinks they should have to overcome anxiety and fear on their own (or who maybe has a friend or family member who thinks that…), here’s my POV: if medication can help you and cause few to no side effects, then why not use it? Life is too short to suffer for no reason out of some principle of ‘I have to figure it out for myself.’
We assume our fears are true, but our perspectives are so colored by our physical and brain chemistry is that we frequently have fears that are not even remotely based on fact. So remember this:
- Your fears are not facts.
- You can choose not to listen to your negative thoughts and fears. You can feel the emotion of fear or anxiety without listening to the story it’s trying to tell you.
- You can choose to listen to the thoughts that serve you, that restore you, that make you feel good. Thoughts of hope, positivity, and compassion.