I need to change my narrative.
Corny Facebook sayings don’t usually get to me, but today one did: “You will keep living the stories you tell yourself.” I think that’s really true. I’ve been telling myself that everything will hurt, that my anxiety has gotten out of hand. That might be true, but there are things to be done about it. Like any other mental illness, anxiety is a mix of biology and environment, right? And I can tweak my environment. The first step is to talk to myself using more hopeful language.
So I’ll work on changing my narrative. The thoughts that insist that washing my face is stressful are useless. I’ll crack open my dialectical behavior therapy manual and look for tips on how to feed myself happier thoughts. I don’t expect it to be easy, especially at first, but I need to commit to doing something to reverse this cycle of self-fulfilling predictions of doom. If I don’t try harder to treat this issue, I’ll just keep accidentally cheering it on.
There’s a lot of weight in that phrase: “try harder”. Aren’t I trying hard enough not to feel anxious? Aren’t I willing away the stress as forcefully as anyone could expect?
I suppose that’s kind of a trick question, because by willing myself to feel well I’m actually doing the opposite. Willfulness means I’m in denial. I can’t just tell myself “don’t feel” and expect it to happen. I’m just setting myself up for failure and disappointment when I convince myself everything will be okay because I want it to be. It’s not an intelligent narrative, it’s an oblivious one.
It’s also exhausting. Blocking out my anxiety takes constant energy, and I feel drained all the time. My own willfulness is contributing to the 12 hours I sleep every day. If I let myself feel stressed instead of pretending I’m fine, it might suck at first, but it won’t kill me. And the mental energy I clear up when I accept reality for what it is will give me more resources to use in changing my gloomy thought patterns.
I’ll try to set up an exposure therapy rhythm for myself. Spend three minutes a day just accepting that I’m stressed. No retreating into old patterns of willful self talk about how everything’s okay. Just for three minutes. Let the pain happen.
Let myself survive it. Get through those three minutes to find the world, my living room, and my mind are the same on the other side. Notice that it feels nice to let go of my denial about the state of my mental health for three minutes. Do it again the next day, and the next, until I can let go for a little longer. Keep practicing. Learn that it’s okay to feel what I feel.
I know the science behind exercises like this is sound. I also know that panicking and hiding behind old habits will negate a lot of my progress toward becoming less willful. So will pushing myself too hard at first. Exposure therapy is a step-by-step process. It doesn’t work wonders overnight. Like an arachnophobe confronting a spider to treat their fear: the process won’t work if they run away every time. That just reinforces the fear.
So I pledge to step up in front of my anxiety as if it were a giant spider. I’ll hate it, but I won’t push that hate away. I’ll sit with it, for three minutes, and see how I feel.
I don’t like this idea, but I don’t have many alternatives. I already have a doctor and a therapist and lots of pills – solutions that involve other people. But I still feel scared of the day when I wake up in the morning. Deep down I know that’s because I’m not putting in the work. Therapy is nearly worthless if I don’t use it, and the medications can only do so much. I’ve known this for a while now, but I’ve been too afraid to face it. Afraid that the pessimistic narrative I’m living has made me a lazy person. Afraid that I’m a long ways off from being out of the woods. Afraid of the work it’ll take.
Afraid I can’t do it.
But fear isn’t a thought – it’s an emotion. That’s why telling myself it isn’t there doesn’t make it go away. Irrational emotions don’t respond strongly to thoughts. They respond to conditioning experiences, which is where exposure therapy comes in. I know, rationally, I can get ahold of my anxiety. I just have to tell that to my anxiety.
The first step is changing my “I can’t do this” narrative, three minutes at a time.