- Mental Health
Living With the Bear
Everyone who suffers from anxiety knows all too well that overwhelming, sickening feeling in the stomach that comes with the “fight or flight” response to external stress. Sometimes it feels like stabbing pains, sometimes it feels like your whole stomach is going to drop out of the bottom of your body along with the rest of your guts. At times you feel like you could pass out, although you never do. Your body is filling you with adrenaline in order to prepare you to either fight the perceived threat or to flee.
The problem is, your biological mechanisms are enabling you, in terms of evolution, to either fight the hypothetical bear or run away from him. Your increased heart rate allows blood flow to the muscles so that you can perform better physically in your upcoming bear predicament. However, for those of us suffering from anxiety, there’s usually no bear at all. Sometimes the bear is an invisible threat and quite often the threat comes from inside our own heads. But still our body is telling us to either go to battle or to run as fast as we can. But what about the times when there is nothing to run from other than our own mind?
I can remember feeling this overwhelming, deep-seated, “oh sh**t” (as in, “oh sh**t there’s a massive snarling bear right in front of me) feeling deep in the pit of my stomach, way back to when I was a kid. Eventually, through various forms of running away, from moving schools to later moving countries several times, I learned that fleeing from the bear was much easier than trying to fight him. The bear is big and he’s an unknown quantity – who knows how vicious or hungry he might feel at any given time; whereas running away is a known quantity – it always leads to a place of safety. So I learned that when you leave a place and start again, everything is OK.
One of the problems with this is that when the brain releases adrenaline and noradrenaline to prepare you to fight or flee, it also shuts down the thinking centre of the brain and affects your ability to focus. This is a self defence mechanism to prevent you from wasting time wondering pondering over your immediate situation and just fight the damn bear. So in essence, when you suffer from anxiety and are feeling The Fear – which could be over a real perceived threat or through anything like a conversation, an argument, the presence of a particular person in the room, or a thought process in your own mind - the brain loses its ability to think clearly. To everyone around you – you’re being very weird right now. You might come across as standoffish, cold, distant or unfriendly, usually uncomfortable but definitely always totally awkward. It’s not your fault, I mean there’s a freaking bear in front of you causing untold internal meltdown.
I’ve personally lost a dozens of jobs and career paths through this state of bear-awkward, not to mention the litany of epic social disasters. It’s a horrible situation where you’re trying really hard to be “normal” but are struggling with a thousand gazillion years of misplaced evolution. Sometimes he’s a 900 pound grizzly who is about to chew the side of your face off. Sometimes he’s a polar bear, and you just freeze completely and are unable to speak or respond. Other times he’s just a baby brown bear and even though he isn’t going to kill you, he’s still climbing all over you and has his foot in your eye and is gnawing at the back of your heels – so how the hell are you supposed to act normal in the interview goddammit.
Right now I am in retreat. I’m in my cave. I ran away from the bear to four different countries over different continents and in the last one my marriage fell apart. I kept running and arrived in Spain, where I chased him away with alcohol which was “helping” me through the stress of my separation. Eventually I got sick and here I am now, coming to terms with my life and with the fact that he’s here to stay. Maybe I don’t need to fight him. I know I cannot run from him any more because I’m tired. And I’m done. I’m going to learn to live with him, make friends with him. Maybe he’s just a silly panda, wanting to come sit with me in my cave, and be weird together.