Brain-Taming 101

 “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.”

– Soren Kierkegaard

They say anxiety is a future-focused problem. Depression is past-focused. Some of us are lucky enough to have both at the same time, meaning the present pretty much rolls along without us. We exist like ghosts just waiting to live again, wishing we could take on someone else’s healthy soul.

Too creepy? Well that’s how I felt, anyway. I slipped into a lifestyle where the years blended together into one dismal recurring nightmare. It felt like I didn’t have the right to live.

Humans can withstand lots of things like natural disasters, pain inflicted by others, and even poverty. But it’s a strange and startling struggle when your mind turns on itself. To clarify Kierkegaard’s quote I’d say that anxiety is the dizziness of not being able to handle our freedom. After a few years of freedom mismanagement I woke up, finding myself constantly dizzy with daily stomachaches and a new prescription to heart medication. I would get daily adrenaline rushes from the simplest perceived “challenge.”

As it turns out, our brains can adapt to whatever we tell them. (Even if what we’re telling is insane like, “Panic. The neighbor’s dog is plotting to kill you.”) The amygdala in your brain can actually grow larger like a muscle that works out a lot. This is said to play a role in the formation of PTSD. There is such a thing as too much emotion, or an overactive amygdala that interferes with practicality. This is probably why Van Gogh cut off his ear and Poe raved erratically for most of his life. Both were geniuses, but likely had a serious need to get their amygdalas under control.

We develop these neurotic quirks from our delicate belief structures. The problem is that we might oversimplify, developing beliefs about ourselves or the world that aren’t entirely true. I don’t know what Van Gogh’s belief was, but it must’ve been along the lines of ear betrayal. Mine was, “You’re behind in life. Catch up.” While this led to a ton of hard work and achievement in a short period, it also led to severe mental and physical exhaustion. Not an ideal trade off.

If our amygdalas had it their way, they probably would have devoured the rest of our brains by now, leaving us as nothing more than screaming, babbling bundles of crazy. To keep this from happening, we don’t need to learn anything or do anything. Rather we need to undo and unlearn the negative patterns. It’s actually easier than the original routine, which is like self-torture. Instead, we can avoid stress, sit quietly, think less, etc. Strive for simplicity and enjoyment. Stop every time you berate yourself or act based on a faulty belief structure. This is unlearning.

It’s important to know that mental health is just like physical health in that there’s upkeep. You wouldn’t refrain from going to the doctor for five years (insurance issues aside), yet few people will admit that they’ve been to a shrink even once. Why is that?

Yes, we used to lobotomize schizophrenic people and treat depressed people as social rejects. But for as far as we’ve come, there’s still much further to go in learning how to treat mental illness. If we can recognize our problems and define them, that’s a start. If we can dig around and discover why, that’s half the battle. Then we work to undo the damage through lifestyle changes, talking to people, or whatever works.

Anxiety may be the dizziness of freedom, but simplicity and understanding stop the spinning.

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