The Mighty Logo

When Your Brain Can’t Handle a 'Small' Change in Plans

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

It was actually the best day I’d had in a while after an on-and-off week of darkness, and I remember feeling proud of myself for purposelessly spending time with my boyfriend without dissolving into a million pieces.

That was until the dinner plans changed.

I thought we were going out for dinner. When I got out of the shower, he was cooking dinner for both of us. A miscommunication. Not a big deal.

But this flipped a switch in me. Thoughts, first appearing one at a time, suddenly multiplied and crescendoed into an indistinguishable buzz. I had stepped backwards into a deflating body, and whatever was sucking the air out of me was taking my breathe with it. Not a specific worry but multiple worries had broken through the confines of linguistics, transforming into physical blows.

I’m embarrassed to tell you the rest.

I’m embarrassed to tell you the rest because when this happens it doesn’t feel like “me.” In my everyday life, I appear relatively easygoing. I hate drama and shrivel at any sign of conflict. I don’t consider myself a picky eater. I can hold it together in many situations that would be considered stressful.

But this — on this day — this is what broke me. This is sometimes how anxiety works. I had planned on something happening and now it wasn’t happening the way I thought it would. It was small, and it didn’t matter. But it was enough.

So after the dinner plans changed, the following string of embarrassing events occurred:

My boyfriend and I getting into a puny fight. (Me, calling him out for saying, “We didn’t have time to make dinner.” Him, clarifying. He meant we didn’t have time to go shopping since I infamously cannot complete a shopping trip in less than 30 minutes. Me, denying this, even though it is a 100 percent true); Me, crying, announcing I couldn’t go out with friends anymore; Me collapsing in his bed, unable to find a position that felt “right,” thoughts racing fast, chest tight; Him holding me.

But what’s always worse than the reaction is the corresponding pile-up of shame. Shame because my boyfriend was once again going to have to explain to my friends why I wasn’t out. Shame because my boyfriend was comforting me though another mini, pointless breakdown. Shame because I knew this wasn’t even an issue because I’m lucky to have dinner and someone to make it for me. It’s this shame that held the most weight as I curled up in my boyfriend’s bed, trying to find my breath.

If this sounds dramatic, it’s because it is. But the drama doesn’t make it feel less real.

I’m not sure why change is a trigger for me. This doesn’t happen around everyone or even all the time.

It’s when I’m in a safe place — when I’m with someone who loves me unconditionally. It’s like my brain can be its true self: inflexible and always in search of certainty. After bending and trying so hard to fit into my everyday life, and succeeding at it, my brain is tired, and it waits for any reason, a shift in the wind, to release the tension that’s been building up from passing in this uncertain and overwhelming world.

When I was crying that day, it really wasn’t about dinner. It was about how stressful it can be for me to pick out meals because I want to be certain I’m choosing the “right” thing. It was about always needing to know the plan because I’m constantly anxious about the anticipation of everything. It was because I had gotten some upsetting news from home that day, and although I had handled the phone call “surprisingly well,” in reality it was tucked away, waiting to be provoked.

I did end up getting myself together and going out that night with help from my incredible boyfriend, who knows how to support me without patronizing me. Because in these moments, I don’t need to be told I shouldn’t be reacting this way or that it doesn’t make sense to react this way. I know that. I know it so much. My rational mind starts beating myself up over it the moment the anxiety starts.

What I need to be told is that it’s OK — that this one reaction doesn’t define who I am, suddenly make me a “drama queen” or void how well I was doing during a structureless day that would usually be hard for me.

Although a reaction — like having an anxiety attack when things change — seems dramatic and seems irrational, it doesn’t make you dramatic and irrational. And I think if we accepted this and released ourselves from the weight of shame, it might become a little easier to find our breath in these moments of panic.

Because in an ever-changing world, if one thing is consistent, it’s that things will pass, and that we’ll be OK.

Image Thinkstock photo by bruniewska

Originally published: January 20, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home