Now the Whole World Knows How Anxiety Feels
Not that we'd wish this on anyone, but for some of us, it's so familiar.
Posted March 19, 2020
For billions out there now, panic is novel, new: like some strange toy as yet unfondled that spits tacks. To us, the chronically afraid, this is just one more terror, teetering contagiously atop the rest.
It turns us into walking-talking red-alerts, of course, but also makes us silently rebuke the world at large, which always scorned our screams and tremors: Tsk tsk. See? Now you know how it feels.
If you have ever told us "Just think positive" or "Grow up" or "Get over it"; if you said, "Some threats such as unemployment and infection are legitimate; your silly fears are not," we could have said, "My brain is my mass media, my 24-hour news cycle, and even saints and geniuses struggle to disbelieve their brains."
Watching fear leap across the longitudes right now, let we-who-were-already-fearful not forget:
We walk toward mental wellness on a long path, monumental because our main — often only — tool for fixing a malfunctioning brain is a malfunctioning brain.
Imagine plumbers using broken pipes to replace broken pipes. Imagine having only purple paint, then asking why you cannot paint green grass. Imagine trying to set broken legs with broken legs.
And yes, brains can be trained. Neuroplasticity exists. Biology wields miracles. But brains are so much trickier than other body parts. Knees and intestines won't deceive you. Brains are even trickier than eyes.
This is because brains think, and thoughts can kill. Brains sense, assess, process — then broadcast instantly, insistently, nonstop, to every organ, system, cell. At any point(s) along the way, they might misfire.
But when that happens, how are we to know? What are we, what is knowing, besides brains? We are wired to believe them. Malfunctioning machines, brains included, cannot diagnose themselves.
See what this does to us? Besieged by history, injury, chemistry or neurocircuitry, the brain shouts: Danger! Death! What part of us could possibly dismiss, defuse, decry, deny? Only the poor benighted brain.
But how? Can captives soothe their cruel captors? Do the savaged sagely contradict their savagers? Do the carjacked calmly retain their keys? Could you ignore a shrieking siren that was bolted to your head?
No. This is anxiety — as the world at large now knows.
Not to underplay illness, which makes millions anxious any non-pandemic day: But the fear raging globally right now is, for us, so familiar. We have spent whole lifetimes hearing screaming sirens, hoarding virtual spaghetti to survive storms in our skulls. Assailed by mixed signals calling themselves correct, we want to both be diagnosed and disappear, so stand six feet away.
We want to fix them, but brains thinking about brains are unlike brains thinking about fingers or chairs. A brain broadcasts self-hatred, shame or paralytic fear and that same brain tells that same brain not to believe that same dang lying brain. A brain predicts disaster and that same brain bravely tries to talk it down, but that same brain says "Run!" and it is all we have.
A brain seeks strategies. It prays, reads, meditates, attends therapy, repeats affirmations against its own catcall-siren-static soundtrack. "Shut up, stupid! Waste of time!"
Picture a flaming life-preserver made of lead.
Often, our brains feel not like single organs but assemblages of parts functioning separately, like strangers in a crowd. One part wants to stop hurting. One part wants to starve. One part hates all the other parts.
We use our malfunctioning brains as best as possible to ape functioning brains, to seem normal and get things done despite the shrieking sirens and obstruction and false signals and acres of razorwire they generate.
In these strange days, remember: We were on a long hard road already. Universal fear renders it harder still. So if your sirens sound acutely shrill right now, tell yourself this: I am doing my best.