UNDERSTANDING OBSESSIVE THOUGHTS AS A SYMPTOM - NOT A CAUSE - OF ANXIETY
All my teeth are going to fall out. All my teeth are going to fall out. All. My. Teeth. Are. Going. To. Fall. Out.
For approximately three months, this was the thought that constantly swam around in my head. At the time I was back at university, retraining in science communication. I had left a secure and well-paying job to try and become a journalist and broadcaster. It was exciting, but it was also scary. Looking back now, I wonder if that was the seed of anxiety that was about to snowball.
Even when I wasn’t actively focused on it, the idea that I would lose my teeth was always there. As soon as I had a moment alone, to pause, it would come up for air. I was anxious about it all the time. First, keeping it hidden, then, telling some friends and family in a joking, “aren’t I silly?!” sort of way, whilst actually feeling desperate for reassurance that my teeth weren’t going to end up on the floor or in the sink or a dentist’s hand.
TEETH AREN’T THE PROBLEM
One of the challenging things about obsessive thoughts is identifying that they are driven by your anxiety, and not the cause of it. As strange as it sounds, I knew my teeth wouldn’t fall out — but I was also really worried they would. I thought I was anxious because I might end up with a mouth full of gum. I was coming at it the wrong way around, and because of that when I finally got up the courage to go to the dentist and it turned out everything was fine, it wasn’t.
The anxiety didn’t go away. Instead it picked a new target. Next, that I would be scammed out of my savings — the savings I was using to pay my way through my university course and career change. Aside from going to see a bank manager, this time it seemed as if there was no way to redirect my fear. Misunderstanding what was happening — I let the anxiety build. I checked my bank account multiple times a day and read personal accounts of being hacked and scammed and cheated until the early hours in the morning. I felt that if I wasn’t alert to it all the time, if I went to sleep without reading just one more article, I would wake up and my bank account would be empty.
CAUSE OR SYMPTOM
It wasn’t until the intrusive thoughts finally took on a different, darker tone, that I sought help — and by this point it was pretty clear I had depression. The anxiety was in the backseat, half-forgotten. In fact, it took years and many further bouts of anxiety to realise that the obsessive thoughts weren’t the root of the problem, but were instead the first warning sign that I needed to take stock of my mental health.
It has been a long journey of panicking about housing, money, friendships, my own health. Innumerable late nights of endless googling. It is hard coming to the conclusion that one needs to stop being myopic and look at how you’re feeling generally. Accept that maybe your heart is racing not because the house is definitely falling down, but that you’re stressed and tired and mentally unwell.
Finally though, I learned to think of intrusive thoughts like sneezes during a cold. They were symptoms of the anxiety, and until I dealt with that, they would keep popping back up. Certainly, if you’re reading this and it seems familiar — take it from me, no amount of evidence or reassurance can dispel the nagging thought that The Bad Thing will happen. My best advice, take the feeling of your worry seriously. Don’t try and push the thoughts away or persuade yourself that you’re being silly. Instead think about the emotion, the feeling of panic or despair or nervousness, and seek help.
If you’re a keen Googler like me, why not have a read of my first blog post for InspiretheMind, The opportunities and dangers of predicting mental health using social media: should one status reveal the other? In it, I explore the ethics of an emerging area of research; making mental health diagnoses using algorithms trained on data collected from sites like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.