My Therapist Changed My View of Mental Health by Asking Just One Question
I lived on autopilot for many years while silently grappling with anxiety and depression. I was living a life of negativity and self-doubt because it was all I really knew. I believed that everyone felt worthless and unlovable with the assumption that I just couldn’t cope because I was weak. Instead of taking action, I convinced myself I was permanently broken and helpless. In those distorted moments, here are the types of thoughts I had daily:
“I’m not smart enough; I will never be smart enough.”
“I’m not trying hard enough.”
“I am a burden to people.”
“I am an imposter.”
“I do not deserve success; even if I become successful, I will fail.”
“I am not sick enough to ask for help.”
“I am a failure.”
“Why can’t I just get over my anxiety like everyone else in the world?”
“I am not good enough; I will never be good enough.”
The inner-critic got so loud and repetitive, I couldn’t sleep for nine days. On day 10 of the breakdown, my family didn’t know if I was “going insane” or if I was simply sleep deprived, so they took me to a local hospital’s psych ward. After three days of observation and treatment and therapy and social work meetings and care coordination and whatever else I’ve left out, I began to resemble a somewhat functioning adult again. From the doctor came a referral to the partial hospitalization program (PHP); from PHP came a therapist I vibed with; from the therapist came life-changing insight.
The first few therapy sessions consisted of me complaining about my anxiety, highly sensitive traits and negative self-talk. My therapist patiently listened as I went on and on with examples of how life would be better if I didn’t experience these things, if I could just turn off my brain and emotions when I needed to. From a pocket-sized marble notebook (the one my therapist always laughs at), I had read off a very specific list of all the ways in which my conditions have and/or will hinder my life. Once I was done reading, my therapist posed the following question:
“Heather, what if nothing is wrong with you?”
“Then I wouldn’t be sitting here in this chair,” I said. Duh — what a joke, I thought.
My therapist kindly posed the question again and added, “What if you look at feeling deeply as a positive trait? What if feeling anxious is ‘normal’ and brings some good to your life? Not many people in this world can say that they care and feel deeply enough to feel anxious. And if you look at the statistics, most highly creative people live in similar ways. Are you sure you would give this part of yourself away if given the opportunity? I mean, if you broke your wrist, would you cut off your entire arm because physical therapy was difficult?”
This wisdom sunk into me like water into a sponge. So much so I felt as though I was plummeting into my chair. Was she right? Why would I want to give such a vast part of myself away? Probably because I was told I was too shy, too sensitive, too anxious my entire life. I could continue to tell myself I’m broken, but why? In doing that, I would be depriving myself and the world of sensitivity. Moving forward I had two choices: continue to believe feeling is a bad thing or focus on the fact that I am brave and have made it this far with what I was given. Sure, anxiety can make your hands tremble and leave you bed-ridden on bad days. But anxiety can also motivate you to be courageous, take risks, empathize with others and so much more. In a way, it has gotten you exactly where you are today.
Believing you are broken is a vicious cycle. Fighting your thoughts, pushing them away, instead of accepting them for what they are, just thoughts, makes them occur more often. Eventually willfulness becomes a comfortable place. Like a warm bed on a winter day, it’s hard to crawl out of. In believing mental illness makes us less-than, we are defining ourselves by the passing conditions we experience. If we define ourselves in this way, why wouldn’t the rest of society? I am not anxious. I have anxiety. This too shall pass.
Why do we all encounter such negative bias and how do we overcome it? Whether it’s primitive or inherited or due to conditioning, my therapist’s suggestion was to objectively notice the feelings — positive or negative — that come, without judgement, and let them go. But how? Here’s what has been working for me:
This daily practice has helped me hone the skill of redirecting my thoughts. While focusing on my breathing, a thought will arise and then another and another, but I’ve learned to redirect my thoughts back to my breathing. Some days I need to do this a thousand times in a matter of five minutes, but I have the power to do it. This power has carried into my everyday life.
2. Scheduled “worry time”
This is my favorite technique. During the day, when negative thoughts and fears pop into my head, my body often reacts with sweaty palms and a racing heart — fight or flight, if you will. However, each morning I allow myself four minutes to worry. In those minutes, I analyze all my fears and each possible worst outcome. I don’t find a silver lining. I do not argue with myself. I let the negativity flow through me. This has helped my body develop a resistance to these thoughts, which in turn has minimized the bodily responses.
Becoming aware of exactly what I’m feeling and experiencing and the highly researched term for such has brought me much relief. For example, when I am sitting in a meeting panicking that I think I’ll have a seizure and wake up to a crowd of co-workers standing over me, I can stop to think: “Sure, this could happen, but what is the probability?” to fight the cognitive distortion instead of having a panic attack. Knowledge is power.
Living in the moment is the most magical thing. After all, the now is the only time we have here on this earth, right? We can’t change the past and we aren’t guaranteed the future, so stop and stare at your favorite building for no other reason than it brings you joy.
Now don’t get me wrong, my inner-critic still has a lot of terrible things to say, but I have managed to change the relationship I have with it and this has made all the difference in the world. We are not our thoughts. We have these thoughts, but it doesn’t mean they’re true and they too shall pass. I wrote that question, “What if nothing is wrong with you?” in my tiny notebook and so many months later I still carry it in my back pocket like some people carry their credit cards: in case of an emergency. I suggest you consider doing the same.