Life is in a lot of upheaval for my boyfriend and me lately. We’re both looking for jobs, we’re looking at apartments (together?!?!?!), I’m thinking about grad school, and generally we’re both spending a lot of time trying to figure out what we want and how we’ll get it in the upcoming year or so. As we’re going through this process, we’re both learning a bit about the other’s style of approaching new opportunities and situations and it’s become highly apparent that bad past experiences can leave a person hard pressed to be open and willing to try new things.
It’s obvious that past experience can affect what you think in the present. But many people underestimate what that means. As an example, after some severe bullying from my brother as a small child, I came to believe that I didn’t deserve the space I took up and eventually developed an eating disorder. Past experiences can interact in subtle and complicated ways, often leaving you feeling as if you can’t stop yourself from acting in the same patterns over and over again to protect yourself from a harm that may or may not be real. Certain things become reminders of the past in such a way that you might become overwhelmed with past feelings or memories. It sucks and oftentimes turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
If you’ve been hurt in the past, it’s easy to spend a lot of time finding imagined flaws in every possible job/apartment/date/school/opportunity/anything that comes up. It’s easy even to interpret simple miscommunications or bad situations as intentional (that landlord purposefully left out a picture so that we wouldn’t see the uglier room. He was lying by omission! I can’t trust him! RUN AWAY!). Anything can look like a sign of an international conspiracy to ruin your life. Unfortunately, not only does this hurt you, it can start to get in the way of your relationships, as the people around you don’t understand why you’re making the choices you do. This only builds on the anxiety because then you’re second-guessing yourself and trying to keep others happy as well.
Of course it makes sense to learn from past mistakes, but brains are funny things, and it is not learning when your brain short circuits itself to avoid repeating a past experience. It turns into something like paranoia, a smaller form of phobias that won’t let you live your normal life for fear of something bad happening. It’s dangerous to keep past experiences from letting you accurately see a current situation and it often means that you miss out on things that could be great. Just like in dating, it doesn’t make sense to become an old spinster because you had a couple of bad breakups. Instead, you might want to ask yourself why those bad breakups happened, how you can protect yourself, and then move on while looking for positive things in the future.
So all that sounds just fine and dandy, but how do you make yourself stop when your mind immediately personalizes everything, when the first thoughts that pop into your head are always “they want to hurt me”, when you’re worried that you’re starting to lose it? Well as someone with a bona fide anxiety disorder, let me reassure you that you are not broken or alone or horribly wrong in any way. Sometimes brains go a little wonky. They’re built to make quick connections that keep us safe, but those connections are not always handy in modern society and sometimes the connections are made too deeply or in ways that leave us short-circuiting new information. You’re probably not even on the scale of something diagnosable, just some minor anxiety that’s not really doing its job anymore. So never fear, there are ways around the pesky jerkbrain.
Seeing everything as always shitty is relaly not a pleasant way to live though, so I’d suggest doing something about that. You can’t just stop thinking and feeling the way you do, but you can try to retrain your brain. Some people who don’t have a diagnosed mental illness seem to write off the fact that they can still have less than perfect mental health, and that their mental health still deserves time and attention. This is a good time to remember that regardless of how “serious” your problem is, if it’s causing you harm then it deserves attention and a solution.
The first and most important thing to do is to recognize that sometimes your anxiety, while totally valid, does not accurately reflect what is happening around you. When you start to come to the conclusion that your feelings may not be helping you, then you can start to do something about them. At this point I’d suggest seeking out the help of a therapist if at all possible, because they’re generally useful people and they can give you resources and tools that I don’t have. But if that’s not an option, here’s some thoughts.
Mindfulness: one good way to keep yourself from wallowing in the past is to be as fully in the present as possible. When you notice that you’re starting to spiral into thoughts of the past, choose something in the here and now to focus your attention on entirely. If you’re driving the car, only drive the car. If you want to sit and pay attention to your breath, only do that. Whatever you are doing, do it completely. If you notice your mind start to wander, simply notice and then bring it back to what is happening right now. This can help you to notice what’s actually going on and stop your emotions from falling back into a negative cycle.
Checking the facts: when your emotions start to take over, you begin to look at your interpretations of facts rather than at facts themselves (I am aware that we always interpret facts, but this is a shorthand so bear with me). Instead of looking at someone and thinking “their eyes are scrunched up and they’ve pursed their lips”, you think “they’re angry at me”. When this starts to happen, go back to the very basics. Describe things as simply as possible. If you’re still having trouble with jumping to conclusions, then check in with someone else who might have a different perspective on the situation.
Distract/sensations: If you simply need some relief from anxious thoughts in order to give yourself space to calm down, distraction can be really helpful. Some people can make this happen just by watching a movie or reading a good book, others need to have a friend around to talk to, and some people find it extremely challenging. I personally find it the most helpful in those situations to focus on sensations. I’ll take a hot bath and pay close attention to how the water feels. I’ll light candles and watch or smell them. I’ll go find my cats and pet them. I might buy something extremely tasty and focus on eating it. Sometimes this can be enough to bring you back into the here and now.
Challenging thoughts: When you’ve started to get a bit more settled, you can start to challenge the negative thoughts that you have. Each time you notice yourself making a negative judgment (e.g. this job will be bad, this isn’t worth the time), think of a fact that is evidence against it. Don’t simply contradict yourself, but try to reframe what you’re thinking. Oftentimes negative thoughts are all or nothing: “Every job I look at is horrible”, “No matter what I do, I’ll never get a job”. In these cases, even one instance of the opposite is enough to shoot down the myth. “The job I saw yesterday looked good”, “I got offered a job last year”.
Exposure: This isn’t something I would suggest doing with no planning or without some help from a professional, but if you’re feeling up to it and you’ve got a backup plan in case of emergencies, then it’s up to you. The basic idea of exposure is to slowly put yourself in situations with the thing that causes you anxiety. In the case of having negative feelings about new situations, it would be applying to new jobs, looking at new apartments, putting yourself out there and trying new things.
Skills handbooks: If you’re looking for more suggestions of how to deal with constant negative judgments, there are lots of skills workbooks and handbooks out there for anxiety. Try checking one out and seeing what you can try.
If you’re spending your life looking through black tinted glasses, you’re not alone and you’re not hopeless.