Anxiety and feeling hyperaware of oneself
Many people who suffer from anxiety or some other psychological issue that is troubling them, can become very self-absorbed and preoccupied with all things personal to the exclusion of the world around them. Their interest and focus can narrow down so much on themselves and their problems that they find it incredibly difficult to be interested in anything outside of their inner world.
This constant self-focus and obsessive introspection can lead to them experiencing the feeling of being hyperaware of themselves, their thoughts and actions. They have a sense of being trapped within their own head and feel unable to truly connect to others and the world around them.
So many people have contacted me in the past and asked questions like;
How can I stop thinking about myself?
How do I get out of my head?
Why do I feel so aware of myself?
How can I stop ruminating?
Why do I feel disconnected from life and others?
What causes these feelings of acute self-awareness?
When suffering from anxiety or any other condition that pre-occupies them, the individual ends up ruminating about themselves on a daily basis. This continuous introspection occurs due to the fact that they don’t feel OK inside and all the ruminating and obsessing is an attempt to fix, escape, or make sense of how they feel. Unfortunately, this constant self-focus doesn’t solve their suffering. In fact, it has the opposite effect and has them feeling worse and more trapped than ever.
The reason people find it difficult to stop ruminating about all things personal is that they fear letting go of the need to try and fix themselves. They feel they have to keep on top of everything and keep trying to figure a way out and if they don’t, then they will lose themselves forever. Not realising that it is the very act of ruminating that is causing so many of their problems.
This obsessive ruminating is also responsible for a whole host of fresh symptoms, and so the sufferer ends up ruminating even more, which leads to a vicious cycle of trying to solve themselves. This vicious cycle occurs because the constant attempts to ‘solve’ end up creating the exact symptoms from which they are trying to escape from and so they just end up in a never-ending loop.
Symptoms of obsessive rumination
Negative effects of ruminating
You don’t feel part of life
When you ruminate about anything, then you narrow down your focus to that one object and so lose awareness of your surroundings. Think of your awareness as the light from a torch, if you shine the light on your inner world then you have no light/awareness for the outside world and so you no longer feel part of it.
People who are stuck in this cycle complain of being unable to properly connect to others and the world around them. This is also why a lot of sufferers tend to walk around in a dream state, a state where they struggle to take notice of their immediate surroundings and struggle to be present around others. The truth is you want to feel part of your outer world; then you have to shift your awareness from your inner world back on to the external world.
It wears you out mentally
Constantly ruminating also wears you out mentally and is the primary cause of mental fatigue. The brain just never gets a break and so begins to fatigue, which can cause the person to suffer from symptoms such as sleep problems, phobias, depression, irritability, lack of interest in life and a feeling of constant exhaustion.
Relationships and friendships can suffer
Continually ruminating can lead to the person unknowingly becoming very self-centred and the constant preoccupation with self can begin to damage friendships and relationships. This is due to them having little energy or interest towards the needs of those around them and so lack that closeness and affection that all relationships need to flourish.
It can affect our mental health
Constant rumination can have a detrimental effect on our mental health and keep us stuck in a cycle of negative and unproductive thinking which can lead to feelings of depression and low self-esteem. The last place you will find mental well-being is through ruminating. Rather than helping, this constant inward focus is far more likely to maintain and in a lot of cases, increase this distressing state of mind.
You feel trapped within your own mind and conscious of your own thoughts and actions
Continuous introspection can lead to a person feeling trapped within their own mind. This can lead them to feel hyperaware of their actions and thoughts and in a few cases, becoming hyperaware of the hyperawareness itself. This stage can be terribly frustrating as they find it hard to shift their attention from themselves to the outside world, creating a distressing feeling of enclosure and lack of enjoyment in life.
There are many different reasons a person may be ruminating
The person with low self-esteem may constantly worry about what people think about them, continually replaying conversations they have had during the day. Their attention is not on the world around them; it is on them.
The person who suffers from social anxiety may go to a social event and spend all their night worried about how they are coming across, what others think of them and if people are noticing how uncomfortable they are feeling. Their attention is not on the conversation; it is on them.
Someone who suffers from health anxiety may ruminate all day about some blemish, lump, or bump they have found on their body while wondering if to make another appointment with the doctor. Their attention is not on the outside world; it is on them.
The person with general anxiety may spend all day at work, continually questioning why they feel like they do while mentally trying to figure a way out. Their attention is not on work; it is on them.
Others may spend all their time searching forums, googling symptoms and immersing themselves in self-help books, letting nothing else but the subject of ‘fixing themselves’ into their day. Their attention is not on everyday life; it is on them
They feel unless they find a solution to their problems, then they must carry on with this constant obsessing about all things personal. Many do want to give up being so self-absorbed, but it has become such a habit they don’t know how.
How I overcame my hyperawareness of self
I was the same when I suffered; it was like I could no longer get my attention off the subject of me and my inner state. I was constantly agonising over how I was feeling while mentally trying to find a way out and so lost the ability to be part of the outside world.
If I was talking to someone, my attention would always be reverting back to me, which led to me feeling incredibly enclosed and no longer part of the conversation. Even when doing everyday tasks, I found I could barely concentrate: I had a constant feeling of being trapped within my head, unable to be part of anything outside of myself, it was terribly frustrating.
Even when my anxiety symptoms had left me, I was still left with this feeling of being overly aware of myself and found it hard to find joy in anything as I never felt fully part of it. I initially fought this feeling of enclosure and tried to overcome it through more deep thinking and fighting. When this did not work, I then tried to ignore it or force my attention outside of myself and when these practices also failed, I was at a loss of what to do and thought I was stuck this way forever.
After much reflection, I finally came to the conclusion that all my desperate attempts to try and defeat this symptom had me back to thinking about myself and so my awareness was on me more than ever. It also became obvious that the very act of trying to ignore it was also another way of thinking about it. Much like the ‘Try not to think of a pink elephant’ and so all you do is think about pink elephants.
I now understood that my awareness was continuously focused on me through nothing more than a habit that I had created. All I had thought about for years was me and my inner state, and so, of course, my awareness was now focused there. I had a profound realisation that it wasn’t me that was thinking about myself; it was the habit I had created in my brain that was. This was the very reason I could not defeat it or instantly stop thinking about myself, as this habit was overriding all my attempts to do so.
So, the way out was to finally give up obsessing about me and this feeling of enclosure, to stop trying to constantly solve myself and just go back to living. While doing so, I also had to understand that the habit to think about me and my inner world would most likely go on for a while, but I would now accept and live alongside this habit while no longer trying to escape or fix it.
Freedom eventually came through me, allowing myself to experience this feeling of hyperawareness without trying to solve it. This is what eventually took the concentrated focus off me. While I saw it as a problem, got frustrated with it or tried to solve it, then my attention was back on me and so I stayed in a loop. All my past attempts at solving it just had me retreating back into myself, which obviously made things worse because the loop happened precisely because I was overly turned inward.
Previously, it was my fear of it that was the problem, my fear of the feeling itself, the fear I would be stuck this way forever and would never be able to enjoy life again. Because of this, I was constantly fixated on what my brain was doing, what I needed to do to make this feeling go away and so of course with this approach I was only feeding the habit further and why nothing changed.
The more I feared it, the more I obsessed about it and tried to solve it. I finally realised that this was never about trying to fix it or distract myself from it; it was about becoming more accepting of it even when the habit was present. Trying to solve it or distract myself from it again came from a place of fear and just kept it at the forefront of my mind.
Learning to put my attention back on the world around me
Learning to put my attention back on the world around me
At first, it took a huge leap of faith to no longer obsess about all things personal, as this had been a habit for so long. When I gave up, there was a huge pull to go back to doing so. This is what the brain does with a habit; it tries to drag you back into the familiar, just like the smoker who has a huge pull to put a cigarette back in their mouth.
My habit was to fall back into trying to fix myself, and it took some willpower to override this pull. I just knew I had to change and so just gave up all the obsessing and attempts to solve myself and went back to living my life while accepting myself as I was, especially this constant feeling of self-awareness.
Learning to finally let go
I called this stage ‘my ultimate drop’ where I just surrendered and gave up trying to change anything. I would just completely allow everything to be as it is. I concluded that if I did this, then the mind would have nothing left to obsess about, control, or attempt to fix.
As I said previously, the obsessing and ruminating was due to me not feeling OK inside and so the way out had to come through me now being fine with not feeling OK, even if I felt an irritable, anxious mess.
I finally realised I could never get out of this state I now found myself in through ruminating more, as it was the very ruminating that was responsible for me feeling so self-aware and having little to no connection to others and the world around me
I knew on a very deep level that if I wanted to be part of the world around me, then I had to take my focus off my inner world and put it back on the outer world. I actually had a huge insight into this very fact when I was attempting to communicate with my mother while she was writing an email. As she so was engrossed in the email, all I got back from the conversation was the odd mumble. It was evident that she couldn’t talk to me while her attention was on what she was doing.
I then realised that this is why I didn’t feel part of life and why I felt so half-baked and detached from my surroundings, as none of my attention was out there, it was always on me. My mother wasn’t part of the conversation because her awareness was barely on it, she couldn’t put it on two things at once, just as I could not put it on my inner state and my surroundings. This is the only reason I felt so detached and not because something was deeply wrong with me.
I now realised why I struggled so much to be part of a conversation, as it was very difficult to be interested and part of a conversation when all my attention was focused inwards. I finally saw that there was nothing wrong with me and again I was responsible for the way I felt, and it was me and only me who could get my way out of it this cycle I found myself in.
By putting my focus more on the outside world, I don’t mean that I tried not to think of myself, as this would have been counterproductive. It was just a natural occurrence once I stopped obsessing about all things personal, accepted the habit I had created and ceased trying to solve myself.
I knew this wasn’t going to happen overnight and I would have to stay committed to it. So, the first thing I had to do was to stop obsessing about me, my inner state and this very feeling of hyperawareness. I had to accept that I had created this habit and it was going to run for a while, but I was no longer going to put any more fuel into it by trying to fix or escape it.
I could not get frustrated with this past habit; I could not defeat it. I had to go back out there, begin to live and engage with the world around me with this feeling there or not. Trying to defeat it, only made it more problematic and so just increased my focus towards it.
With this new understanding and approach, the habit of thinking about myself started to fall away and my awareness slowly but surely shifted back to my surroundings naturally. With this shift in awareness, everything seemed much more colourful, almost in 3D and I began to notice and appreciate things I had not seen before. I started to see the beauty around me instead of being constantly obsessed with myself.
I had finally understood what was causing this problem and cut out the root of it rather than continue working on the symptoms and was now able to overcome this terribly frustrating part of my life.
To finish, here is a reply from a contributor to my blog to someone who asked how he got over the habit of thinking about himself.
“Without trying to, the more you resist or react to this feeling with dread, the more it persists. I just basically said: ‘OK I guess this is what I will be thinking about for a while now’ I didn’t try to defeat or overcome it in any way and it eventually left me”.
This article is taken from my book ‘At last a life and beyond’ the follow up to my best selling book on anxiety ‘At last a life’ which has now sold over 100,000 copies and is recommended by many therapists and is now on prescription at many doctors surgeries.