The Delusion Of Feeling

Yes, yes. Very dramatic title. Apparently I’m feeling dramatic right now.

I just had a strange realization that has been culminating for a while. (and some of you may already be like, “well, duh”, but maybe some of you are on this ride with me.)

For a few weeks I’ve been developing the idea that my anxiety is merely a set of uncomfortable symptoms of experience, as opposed to a sign that something is genuinely wrong. It’s a side effect of an over active, overly sensitive sympathetic nervous response.

And then the other morning, I woke up feeling extremely anxious. And I realized that there was an underlying thought pattern that I hadn’t noticed before. It was the almost overwhelming feeling and thought of “something is wrong.”

Before I consciously realized that, I had begun to mentally run through a list of things that had happened the day before to identify something problematic. Not finding anything legitimately wrong, I realized the feeling and underlying thought pattern.

Today, John Green posted this video detailing what he called “The Liger Delusion”. (watch the video. It will make sense.)

Immediately after watching this, I realized that I was running through a similar kind of delusion. I felt the symptoms of anxiety, and drew a conclusion that something must be wrong. And then began to work backwards from that conclusion to find evidence that supported it.

After a quick Google search, it turns out that others are way ahead of me on this one.

Which, honestly, I’m quite glad about.

Here’s the Calm Clinic Link, and here’s the Psychology Today link for those interested.

So knowing that my worries that something is wrong is a kind of delusional thinking, far from being discouraging, is relieving! It’s a powerful tool I can use to argue with myself and not freak out.

Because I’ve also realized. Just because I feel a certain way in no way means that I need to act on that feeling, or have it reflect in my behavior, as it so often has in the past. I’d say that’s another kind of delusional thinking. At the least it’s fallacious thinking.

You see, I used to think that my feelings were an accurate representation of reality. Then I figured that my feelings were an accurate interpretation of reality and an interfacing tool for interacting with reality. And maybe that second line of reasoning isn’t wrong. But the first most certainly is.

Just because one feels like something is a “good idea”, or a “threat”, or really anything, does not mean that it actually is. Nor does that feeling indicate that action is required. It’s more like a suggestion.

So we can go on feeling anxious, or angry, or happy, or depressed. But none of that requires that we need to act like we are those things. Because neither are we our emotions. Humans are much too wiggly and complex to be just that one thing.

So what to do about it?

I suggest saying (out loud) something like, “Wow. I feel like I’m experiencing anxiety.” Then, stating the physical sensations, and why they might be happening, “I’m feeling my heart race, and breathing has sped up. My stomach is feeling a bit twisted. I know this is because of adrenaline and cortisol being released in my system, preparing me to fight or run.” Them examine your thoughts. Do you want to avoid the thing triggering your anxiety? Do you want to abstain from doing anything? Perhaps explain to yourself this sensation that that it is occurring as an instinctual and/or conditioned response to fear. Remind yourself that facing it head on will decrease the fear response, and then the anxiety will be reduced as well. If you’re like me, and don’t seem to have a stimulus you’re responding to (like with GAD) and are searching for a cause of the feeling, remind yourself of that kind of delusional thinking.

Talk yourself through adjusting your perspective. If the anxiety gets too severe to be able to do this, I’ve been taught to list “three real things”.

Pick three things right in front of you. Like the sidewalk, or your desk, or a bird. Describe it to yourself. Don’t pick anything abstract, like ideas or concepts. Pick something you can touch. Look at it, touch it, maybe smell it if you can. Only lick it if it’s food, clean, and belongs only to you. I also avoid picking people.

Modify these tools however you like, but remember the basis that they are meant to root you back in a more or less objective reality, and pull you out of the subjective!

If you have any thoughts or relatable experiences, please share them in the comments!

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

-Dr. Seuss, Oh The Places You’ll Go!

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