Something that many people don’t consider about those who suffer from anxiety is just how hyper-aware we are that the majority of our anxious thoughts are irrational. When I was in university, deep down I knew that my success going forward in life would likely not be affected by a low mark on an exam. When I suffered an ongoing headache to various degrees for over a year, I knew it wasn’t a brain tumor or glaucoma, because I’d had my eyes checked and even had a CT scan done to rule out worst possible scenarios (though to be fair, a year-long headache IS cause for concern). When a friend doesn’t respond to a text message for days, I know they’re probably busy, or had their phone on silent and missed the text when it came through. But just because we know, on a cognitive level, that there are millions of other possible scenarios than the worst, we still stress about it, make frequent trips to the bathroom, and lose precious hours of sleep.
Unfortunately, because we have the tendency to catastrophize, it is easy for others to brush off our concerns as merely being a symptom of our anxiety. If only I had a dollar for every time someone assured me I was “overthinking it”. And yet, a lot of the time, they’re right; I am overthinking it. I could make a career out of overthinking.
But what about those times when we’re not? When it isn’t just “all in our head”, but something negative is actually taking place?
I once went to a counselor for work stress, namely because I was the underdog and and was not in the good graces of those at the top of the social hierarchy. The first couple of sessions were fine; she seemed very open, listened attentively, and offered some great resources. It wasn’t until my third session that I began to feel uneasy, almost as if she wasn’t taking me seriously. When I explained to her some of the occurrences taking place that were taking a real toll on my mental health, it was as if she had come to the conclusion that I could no longer tell fact from fantasy. Suddenly I was hearing affirmations such as, “So you’re feeling this way because of what you think happened.” and “But are you sure X told your boss Y? How can you be sure?”
Needless to say, I left that session not only feeling as helpless as I was when I arrived, but now I had begun to doubt myself. In fact, I doubted myself for so long that eventually (many months later) it took other colleagues pointing out what I had suspected in the first place just for me to consider that I might have been right all along. However inadvertently, my counselor had gaslighted me.
Gaslighting occurs when someone plants seeds of doubt in a person, causing them to question their memories, perception of the world, and at the most extreme, their sanity. While typically used a means of manipulation, it is entirely possible for well-meaning others to steer you in the wrong direction when you confide in them, especially if they’re aware you suffer from anxiety. Whether or not it is an innocent mistake, however, the last thing that someone with anxiety needs is to further doubt themselves. What makes it particularly dangerous, especially in social contexts, is that they may grow to trust themselves less and less, and as such are less likely to take any form of action when they feel something is amiss. This is something that I struggled with for a very long time, and to a great extent, I am still learning to see the world through lenses other than that which my anxiety encourages. But with practice and experience, I’ve discovered ways to check myself when a situation is setting off warning alarms, to discern whether or not it really is “just me”.
5 Ways to Tell it is NOT ‘All in Your Head’
1) The feeling persists every time you find yourself in the situation: If your suspicions are truly due to your anxiety, then chances are, the feeling that something is off will not endure every time you encounter the situation. Someone you know might one day refuse to acknowledge your existence, leaving you feeling that you’ve done something wrong. Then the next day, it is as if nothing had happened; they smile and talk to you as usual. It is likely, then, that they probably had a bad day and weren’t in the mood for people (I know a lot of us can relate). But what if they ignore you in a group discussion each and every time it takes place? Refuse to make eye contact or to acknowledge your contributions to the discussion? And when they have no choice but to interact with you, it is clear in their body language and the way they speak that they would rather be doing anything else but talking to you? Unless that person happens to treat EVERYONE that way, it’s highly likely they have little respect for you. And very unlikely that you are overthinking it.
2) Listen to your gut: Seriously, though. As someone who has ignored their gut feelings time and again, only to wish in hindsight that they haven’t, there is something to be said about your ‘spidey senses tingling’. I’m not talking about the butterflies in your stomach prior to public speaking or meeting someone for the first time; this is different. More like a sour, steady feeling of foreboding that tucks itself to the back of your mind, patiently waiting to be acknowledged. We don’t give a lot of credence to the fact that we can detect and are vulnerable to the energies of a decision or a situation. Before I’d started my aforementioned job, I can clearly recall my first bus ride to work. Something didn’t feel right, and a nagging voice at the back of my mind warned me over and over, You’re going to regret this. Of course, with little other information to go by (I hadn’t even met half of my colleagues at that point), I did brush the feeling off as nerves or anxiety. And even before that, when my boss had called me for an interview, something in their voice set off warning bells, and left me feeling uneasy agreeing to meet. Time and again, my gut was warning me that there would be consequences, should I continue down this path, and it was right. And here I thought, for a very, very long time, that the danger was all in my head.
3. Other people acknowledge what is happening: It is not a given that this will happen, as others are not as intimately attuned to your personal situation as you are. But sometimes, it really is just so obvious something is amiss that people will approach you out of genuine concern. Conversely, I am not saying you should solely rely on the perspectives of others; sometimes, though well-meaning, they do happen to be wrong. Or, some might forget that they are supposed to be responsible adults, and purposely stir the pot because they know it will get you upset (hint: people like this are often at the heart of the problem). If you are unsure, you can ask a number of different people for their input, but try to do so without leading questions. Instead of asking, “Do you think X has it out for me?”, you could try something along the lines of, “I’ve noticed that X is okay when Y does ____. I wonder why they’re not okay with it when I do the same.” That way, you’re indirectly prompting their opinion, without putting them on the spot in a way that might make them feel uncomfortable, or in a position where they feel like they need to lie. All the same, take care who you ask, if no one comes forward. Approach those with whom you have a good rapport, and whose opinions you trust, and if you feel you can’t trust anyone, that it and of itself is a sure sign that something is amiss.
4. Your quality of life outside of the situation diminishes: If you suddenly find yourself more tired than usual, less inclined to see friends, or even to pursue hobbies that make you happy, that’s because something is dragging you down that has gone unaddressed. You might be convinced that it’s ‘all in your head’ when you attend that one college class with the professor who thinks you can do no right, and try to live your life around the issue. Or (like me), you might be convinced that it just takes some getting used to, and that the situation will magically improve over time. The truth is, you can’t get used to feeling like absolute crap and wish that it will go away on its own. That was always my excuse; ‘It will get better’, ‘It just takes time’, ‘I won’t feel like this forever’. It wasn’t until I completely left these types of situations behind, or dealt with them head on, that anything changed. The longer I endured them, the less ‘human’ I felt, and it would take its toll on my relationships and general sense of worth. Sometimes you don’t realize just how heavily something is affecting you negatively until you withdraw from it. Kind of like breathing polluted, city air, and then moving to the country, where your asthma symptoms suddenly diminish. You can’t run from everything that makes you unhappy, so I’d first suggest (as hard as it is; trust me, I know) confronting the problem or the person to see if the issue can be fixed. If it can, then great! Not only have you solved your problem, but you’ll probably find a big boost in your confidence. But if the issue remains unresponsive to your attempts to rectify it, then 1) it is definitely not in your head, and 2) you need to remove yourself from that smoggy city air.
5. Try to observe a tangible pattern: When all else fails, and you just aren’t sure if it’s ‘just you’ or the situation really is as sour as it feels, try keeping a CBT Though Record (I’ve attached one at the bottom of this post). Essentially, it is a cognitive behavioural therapy-based type of journal, where you record events, thoughts, mood, and behaviour whenever you experience an unpleasant emotion in any given situation, but it also allows you to challenge your negative thoughts with rational explanations. Take some time to keep this journal going for a little while, and try to rationalize your beliefs with questions like, ‘Can I rationally support this believe?”, ‘What evidence can I draw on?’, ‘Has this been true in other situations?’, and ‘Has my behviour been influencing this belief?’. The goal, however, isn’t to find a rational explanation to dispute single negative emotion you experience. Of course, if you suffer from anxiety, you will find some thoughts ARE in fact influenced by maladaptive thought patterns or behaviours. But–and be honest with yourself–if you can answer ‘yes’ to some of these aforementioned questions, and you find that there IS evidence and a pattern to what it happening, then you can rest assured it’s not all in your head, something negative is taking place, and it is affecting your quality of life. This is perhaps one of the more tried and true techniques to determine the source and cause of discomfort, for those of us who prefer something more concrete than gut feelings, or to further investigate our suspicions.
It is good practice to question troublesome thoughts when you suffer from anxiety. Don’t simply assume the worst without considering other possibilities, or else you will never come to recognize which negative thought patterns are controlling your life. Yet, simultaneously, do not eternally discredit yourself and your suspicions just because of your anxiety. I cannot stress that enough. Having anxiety does not necessarily mean everything that you think and feel is wrong or imaginary. Certainly, it amplifies all of the bad, and time and again it will influence you to assume the worst. But if you feel that something really is amiss, take these strategies into consideration and do a little more introspection and investigation. The more angles at which you tackle it (i.e. the more strategies you use), the more likely you are to come to a logical conclusion.
Stay happy, and stay healthy! And add this CBT Though Record to your anxiety toolkit; you won’t regret it!