Phase 3/4 of tapering off the antidepressant medication is going well. No signs of nausea yet (touch wood), and because I’m able to eat properly my energy levels have been fairly stable too. I’ve not even had any more of those horrible brain zaps either. We’ve got your basic dizziness going on, sure, and I wouldn’t feel safe operating any kind of machinery, but I think that’s a given. The only thing of real note that I’ve been noticing this week is that my brain has decided to become really-super-weirdly-uber-hyper-paranoid and insecure, specifically when it comes to social situations.
It’s out of character for me to feel this way. Of course, as humans most of us will experience at some point in our lives certain levels of self-doubt or insecurity within ourselves, especially at times of high stress or pressure. In moderation, I believe that self-doubt is not a bad thing in itself- it helps us to weigh up risks, keeps us safe, and moves us to reach out and ask for support from those around us when we need it most. Feeling like we aren’t 100% in the right 110% of the time prevents us from getting into potentially dangerous and risky situations, socially or otherwise – and also has the added benefit of preventing us from becoming overly self centred and pretentious in our mannerisms. Thinking about it like this, experiencing some level of self-doubt and insecurity when you’re growing up could actually be seen as quite an important part of developing your mental wellbeing.
So long as it doesn’t take over, self-doubt could be seen as a major part of working out your place in the world, discovering how to deal with more complex thoughts and feelings, developing your relationship with yourself and learning what self-worth really means to you, as well as what you can do to boost it.
However, as with most things, where it does start to become a problem is when it goes out of balance. High levels of self doubt and insecurity can effectively take over your life, blocking you from being able to see things rationally, creating high levels of paranoia, overwhelming you emotionally, and preventing you from being able to connect with anything that’s going on around you.
And it does seem that as a culture today we tend towards this extreme. As a teenager, and especially as a girl, growing up in this media/material driven culture we’ve created for ourselves, there can’t be many of us who can say with absolute confidence (ironically) that their teenage years weren’t overshadowed, if not ruled, by high levels of self doubt and/or insecurity. I am very aware that I am possibly one of the lucky ones, I did experience self-doubt and insecurity- but I was never plagued by it.
And since leaving high school I haven’t really had many issues with it either. Even at my most anxious or depressed, I would never find myself analysing my interactions with others or questioning if other people liked me or not. I was always more worried that something I might do might make them feel insecure. This became much more prominent when I was severely depressed in late 2015 and I was constantly worried that I would come across as rude to people (especially those I’d only just met), when of course that I wasn’t meaning to be, I was just too preoccupied already by the demons in my head to hold any sort of conversation.
Now, over the last few days – and I presume that this is a temporal thing, a chemical imbalance due to withdrawal from the antidepressants – I have suddenly found myself struggling with truly surreal levels of social paranoia, self-doubt, and insecurity like never before. It’s bizarre. And really kind of fascinating. Live in the action inside my own head, it kind of proves to me what I’ve believed now for many years- that our thought patterns can be, and often are, very drastically altered by what’s going on inside the brain chemically.
I believe that chemical shifts in the brain are not just caused by powerful mind-state altering drugs like antidepressants. I believe that chemical shifts are an inevitable part of being. We live in a constant state of flux and movement. And our bodies and brains are built to react to stimulus around us. Reacting on a chemical level to all of that data constantly streaming into our consciousness. That stimulus is always changing, moment by moment. And therefore it makes sense to me that this is going to create shifts and patterns of chemical release inside of us; inside of our brains. Balance and imbalance, depending on the data received.
From my albeit limited knowledge of how our brains and our bodies works, I believe that any sort of chemical shift inside our brains, whether it’s caused by outside stimulus, illness, medication, ongoing stress levels, or anything else for that matter, has the potential to change not only what we think, but how we think. And the bigger the shift, the more drastic the change in our thoughts.
So why is it that most of us, as humans, give our fluctuating thoughts so much power to dictate over our moods, our actions, and our lives?
Think about it for a moment (or don’t, as the case may be). Do you consider your thoughts as definitive and absolute? Do you ever think that you are your thoughts? Do you think that your thoughts define who you are? You think, and therefore you are?
My present situation, and my past experience with depression and anxiety, teaches me otherwise.
This new, socially paranoid being that my thoughts have currently become cannot be me. And I say that with confidence because I know myself, and this is not how I usually think; ergo this is not who I am. My thoughts are not me – they are part of my experience, sure, but they do not dictate the whole. This shift in my thought patterns has come about suddenly, most likely it seems therefore, linked with me lowering the dose of my antidepressants. And I conclude from this therefore, that I am not my thoughts, in spite of what Decartes may tell us.
Let’s take a closer look at this in action. I welcome you into my head.
It all starts with a stimulus. I’m having a social interaction, a conversation with someone else. Perhaps I pick up on a slightly off tone of voice, or their body language is not completely open, or maybe they mishear or misunderstand something I say, maybe I mishear them; either way, the data coming in is telling me that there is some sort of discontinuity in communication going on, something is not quite ‘right’. My brain goes on to translate that this incoming data is an indication that there is something else going on, possibly in their thoughts, or in their lives that I don’t know about.
Now previously to this social-paranoia phase that I’ve been in for the last day or 2, I understand that the world doesn’t revolve around me, and therefore that someone I’m interacting with probably has a lot of other stuff going on in their lives aside from me. If someone’s body language isn’t quite open, or they seem to misinterpret something I’ve said, I understand that it doesn’t mean they have a vendetta against me- all it shows is they have a lot going on. They are complex and holistic and whole and human, just like me. And just like me they are part of a larger whole. We all carry with us our histories and our ongoing stories. Some of us carry heavier burdens then others, but we all have something else going on, some bigger context. When I interact with someone else, their story is briefly overlapping and intertwining with mine. So when I notice these discrepancies in our interaction, I see it as a signal to slow down. Maybe, my thoughts tell me, I should check in with them and ask if everything is ok, or maybe just let them know subtly that I am here if they do want to talk. Our interconnected lives are a dance of give and take, touch and go, and this life can be beautiful and purposeful when we are open to each others needs and willing to connect and support each other through it.
That’s one way of my brain interpreting the incoming data- the way I have trained it to, the way that I am used to.
This new socially paranoid Roo, however has a very different viewpoint on the whole situation. My brain reads the incoming data – somethings not quite right – and maybe because of imbalance or maybe it’s due to some sort of vulnerability and subconscious fear inside me, but either way my head tests the water by sending out a new thought to me; that it’s possible that the reason this person is acting this way is because they simply don’t like me.
And with that thought of course, if I let it sink in, comes an extreme emotional response. Hurt. Stress. Panic.
In an attempt to protect myself from any further emotional or physical attack, my body drops automatically into a protective state of sympathetic fight or flight. The energy that has been thus far going to my prefrontal cortex for my decision making and rational thinking is almost instantly shut down. Without my prefrontal cortex in place, the brain goes into autopilot stress mode. In this mental state of panic, the subsequent thoughts that flash across my mind are beyond my control. My brain jumps to the worst case scenarios, so that I can prepare myself and protect myself as best as I can. Thoughts blare across my mind. Telling me absolutes such as; they obviously hate me; probably they have always hated me; and they probably always will hate me; there’s nothing I can do or say that will ever change that, so there’s no point in trying.
Helplessness and hopelessness ensue: more panic.
Still trying to protect myself, my brain works as quickly as it can to link to bigger and bigger assumptions together, and these flash up in my thinking as factual statement; everyone else hates me too; the whole of my life is a lie; friendship is just a concept that’s fed to us; the world is an awful place.
From there, with my prefrontal cortex effectively out of the game due to stress, it’s too easy for my brain to jump into that negative cycle of thought that I know all too well from my depression. It’s habitual, so my neural pathways can effortlessly make those links. It’s actually less effort for me than trying to think straight. My brain says; the world is an awful place; there’s war and over-farming and global warming; humans are a cancer on the earth; we’re draining natural resources; I too am adding to it every day; I destroy this beautiful planet a little bit more with every second that I’m alive here; if I can’t enjoy it and I’m not helping it then what’s the point in me even being here; I should just go kill myself; the world is an awful place.
Like I said, my brain has had a lot of time to create and practise these thought patterns. I have been struggling with depression for 3 years. They may seem extreme to you, but in the thick of it, my brain reels these things off as facts.
Finding itself now stuck inside its own self-made problem, and with my prefrontal cortex still pinned down under stress, my brain decides to kick into action by helping me out in the only way it knows how. Understand that I am no longer consciously choosing to respond to my thoughts in this way, this is a subconsciously reactive response. I am not really in control any more.
So let’s problem solve. And how the brain does this is by digging through the archives and comparing my current emotional state to other times in my life when I have felt similarly. It’s trying to see if it can find some sort of link or pattern and therefore come up with a solution. Fantastic in theory (and works very well for it in most other problem solving situations), but terrible in practise. All my brain is effectively doing is adding to the emotional trauma I’m already experiencing. So I start having flashbacks to when my singing teacher yelled at me when I was 15 and told me I had gone behind her back and hurt her feelings. I was so confused and felt so guilty and regretful and just pain. And remember that time when I was was really cold towards that boy who I actually really liked, destroying our friendship, and probably breaking his heart. It hurts so much. And what about when I was 21 and I ruined my sisters wedding by being so stupidly stuck inside my own head. Why did I do that? How did I let that happen? Regret and hurt and just so much self loathing. If only I’d had a bit of self-awareness, and realised what I was doing. But I can’t change it now. And I always seem to do these things. I hurt these people, and it keeps happening over and over. I am a selfish and cold hearted person. And death, and war, and global warming. I wish I could die.
Just saying, if we were playing spot-the-typical-depressive-cognitive-thinking-patterns right now, I would definitely be winning all of the prizes.
Oh yeah and all of this happens in about the same amount of time that it takes you to blink.
2 totally different thought paths, creating 2 totally different emotional outcomes, both sprouting from exactly the same incoming data, and all just based on the chemical balance of my brain on this particular day.
How mad is that?
Both times my brain tells me these things with such certainty. It’s crazy. And more often than not I will buy into these thoughts and emotions too, I give them energy and I let them play out to the extreme. Love, connection, and life. Or hate, fear and death. Those 2 wolves fighting inside of me, and I’m told that the wolf which I choose to feed will be the one that wins.
Maybe the choice seems laughably obvious from up here, but I know full well that when I’m in the depths of my depression I do occasionally lose sight, and sometimes I just don’t know any more.
Besides, my brain goes on, who can say for certain what is the truth? I certainly don’t know. How do I know what’s the right from those 2 paths to choose from? Who am I to choose? And what is right anyway? What does that even mean? It’s so confusing and exhausting and never ending.
No wonder I just want to sleep all the time.
Take a deep breath. I’m still here.
But anyway. Back to this particular instance. Back to me coming off the meds.
Like I said, these feelings of hyper-social paranoia, with the accompanying thoughts of ‘they don’t like me’, are not something that I am used to. So when those thought patterns do dash across my neural pathways, and before it can set off that chain reaction of emotional trauma, it lights up in my awareness as being something a bit different to what I’m used to. I notice it, I become aware of it. It becomes something I’m observing. It’s almost like I’m watching from the outside as someone else’s thoughts are laid out before me.
And because of this I can step back and not get dragged down emotionally into that negative cycle. The thought comes, I register it, I even acknowledge it for what it is, but I don’t get swept up into the drama of it. It’s like watching a storm cloud drift across the sky of my mind; I see it arrive, I acknowledge it with the respect it deserves (maybe I put up a precautionary umbrella or two, just in case it does decide to unleash some rain on me), but more importantly I don’t try to fight it, and I don’t run away from it, or ignore it- I don’t feed it additional energy. Instead I sit still with myself, I stay calm and dry, and I observe it passing above me. I remain patient, and I wait. And then it is gone.
Have the thought, acknowledge it and respect it’s space. But don’t become the thought, don’t feed it. When the time is right it will pass, learn to let it go.
This process – being aware of thoughts, acknowledging them, and then being able to let them go without getting caught up in the emotional side of them- is exactly what I have been training myself to do through practising mindfulness. When I first started, I found it incredibly upsetting, difficult to grasp, and just downright exhausting. I struggled to sit with my thoughts because it was kind of like trying to learn to swim in a whirl pool full of piraña. I desperately needed to find a way of dealing with the intense emotions I was suffering under, and mindfulness just didn’t seem to help. It was yet another let down. I felt like nothing and no one would ever be strong enough to lift the burden of my thoughts from me.
But the antidepressants did help a lot-they actually gave me the energy to get out of bed, and live a little, and give myself some space not to think. I needed that. Time passed and that gave me more breathing space. Slowly slowly catch a monkey.
Once I’d had some space, I was then able to begin to practise meditation and mindfulness from a place of ease. I was practising in the shallow end, even playing with it a bit, testing out the water. Over the years, my technique has become stronger, and it has become steadily more and more natural to me to be able to stop and observe my thoughts and emotions before I get caught up in them.
And this week, for the first time, it feels like I’m actually starting to take my feet off the bottom. This social-paranoia I’m experiencing has real potential to develop itself into extreme depressive thinking patterns, but I feel like, maybe, just maybe, I actually do know how to swim. I’m no longer as I was, at the absolute mercy of my thoughts. Instead now I have a choice, I’m kind of free.
I’m tapering off the meds very slowly and deliberately- staying alert to any chemical changes or imbalances I might feel as and when they arise. I’m giving myself lots of space from the pressures of life to stay stable, and calm. I’m very blessed that I’be been able to take time off work and do this at my own pace. And while I know that I may not always find it easy, and maybe I’ll even have to go back up a dose to give myself a little extra support, I also know that I do actually have the skills I need to be able to swim with the monsters and not drown.
I’m aware that this is just the beginning, that these socially paranoid thoughts are relatively easy for me to deal with, in comparison to some of the more habitual thought patterns I may have yet to face. But with each one that I sit with and overcome I am calmly and slowly proving to myself in small ways that I do indeed have the strength and mental clarity to sit with more negative thoughts and feelings, and let them pass me by in their own time without becoming destructive or distractive to myself. I am learning that I do have the courage and patience to face negativity even when it comes from within myself. I am learning that I do have the strength to lift this burden from my life.
As an emotional being I have found freedom through practising Mindfulness.
And while I remain unsure about whether it is artistically better or more truthful or whatever to dive into those strong emotions as they arise- at least this way I feel empowered, and that I am able to choose.
Bring it on brain zaps, here we come. 🤤
I hope both you and you’re loved ones are well.