An email support reply to a question on setbacks and being hyperaware.

Original Question:

I hope you are safe and well! I have been continuing to stay focused and not do all the things I was doing to feed the subject. But then again out of nowhere I woke up Saturday just feeling not right mentally.

I can’t even explain it to you and that’s what has me concerned. It’s like I just felt my mind was ill or sick. It wasn’t anything physical but just all mental I guess. Does that make any sense to you? I have never heard others describe it like that. Of course, when I can’t define my experience, that’s what makes me think something isn’t ok with me or then I wonder if the antidepressants have messed up my brain.

I know you have told me 100 times it’s a very up and down affair. It is possible when it mentally comes back that all the habitual old feelings and thoughts come with it? I notice I immediately go back into thinking something isn’t right with me and that I’m not ok etc. This weekend I was almost scared to be in my mind and have the experience of being a person. I can’t explain that one either. I was just so excited after your last email to have the best days I have had in a long time to now feeling like I’m not ok again emotionally and mentally. I know right now is a trying time and I can never tell if it’s stress some days or just a lower mood.

Some days I wonder if it’s just the habit of being so hyperaware of my mental state that makes me feel so up and down. Most people probably have different feelings every day, but I am so aware that they make me feel not ok with how I am. How does that habit break? How do you stop thinking about your mood and thoughts so much? I noticed this morning the minute I got up and sat down to use the restroom I was already thinking about this stuff at 7 am.

Thank you as always

Nolan’s Reply:


One very important thing to remember (or to know) is that when a setback comes, it comes with the full weight of the original anxiety. So those building feelings of confidence, peace, and ‘being at home in your mind and body’ will not be there when the setback comes. You will find yourself immediately ‘impressed’ by this anxiety again: believing all of the negative, doubtful, hopeless thoughts. Also, there will be that crushing sense of added hopelessness because you HAD been feeling better; the storm seemed to be passing.

You will have that sense that anxiety finally figured you out. That everything you had been doing that was giving you that early success was nothing more than tricks, but the anxiety finally solved all of them. Because of this, the despair that comes with the setback can even seem more intense than the despair you felt when the storm of anxiety first started. Like some horror film where the actress finally thinks she beat the evil entity, only for it to pop back up with renewed intent to be her undoing.

Now for a very important thing to know: none of this is happening because you did something wrong. Setbacks will come regardless. The storm builds back up and knocks you back down. Despair reassumes it place in your mind with hope nowhere to be found. I went through numerous setbacks and each time, I was desperately racking my brain to figure out what I had done wrong.

Trying to see where I wasn’t accepting enough, where I let stress get the best of me, what behaviours I had been doing that would have brought the anxiety back. I could never find anything I was doing obviously wrong. Then the thought: ‘your recovery was only a trick and anxiety finally figured out where you were and there is no hope for you’, would come raging in, leaving me full of despair.

Then an odd thing would happen: the storm would slowly lift. I would feel at home in my mind and body again. My mind didn’t automatically focus in on the fearful/negative thoughts. I could talk more carelessly with my wife and friends again. I could lose myself in a task I was doing.

This cycle played out many times before I started to recognise that the setbacks weren’t coming because I goofed up some important thing. They were going to come and I just needed to keep on making my life bigger than the anxiety. The storm would buffet me constantly (mentally and physically), but I would still have to do the things of my life: play with my son, make a meal for my family, read a book, go out to eat with my wife and friends. The things that made my life bigger than the despair. In doing all of these things, I would still feel the weight of that despair; I just carried that weight with me as long as it was going to be there.

I would fall and do the wrong thing many times: scream out loud, beg God to set me free, punch a wall (or, embarrassingly, myself in the face), search the internet, read my many “recovery stories” I had amassed from constant internet searching. I would bring the topic up with people I would meet hoping they would hold that magic combination of words that would quell the storm.

But in all of these many failures of mine I would pick myself up and begin again. I would stop talking about the subject to others, cease searching the web for answers, no longer allow myself to scream aloud, refrain from begging to God or punch random things in a fit of rage. Along with these, I would do those aforementioned actions: read a book, play with my son, do things for other people in my life.

You said: “But then again out of nowhere I woke up Saturday just feeling not right mentally. I can’t even explain it to you and that’s what has me concerned.”

I can safely say that anyone I have spoken with about this topic (who has recovered or are recovering) has gone through the exact same thing. The mental confuse and anguish. The uncertainty as well as the building doubt: that something is very wrong and different measures are needed. It is simply the upswell of a storm, a setback.

Trying to put any of these miseries into words will almost always lead to frustration. We’re looking for some way to verbalise it, to find some fitting analogy that will make clear the pain we are suffering. And most efforts leave us thinking “no, this simply isn’t right”. The good news is that you can still recover and move beyond this setback even if you can’t properly explain the unique way it torments your mind. You do that by allowing the pain to be there and giving it no more attention than it has already (automatically) claimed. It will pull your attention towards it. That’s okay. Remember to still make your life bigger than the anxiety.

You said: “It wasn’t anything physical, but all mental, I guess. Does that make any sense to you?”

It makes perfect sense. It makes perfect sense to one (and there are many) who have ‘walked’ those pathways. It is important to not brood too deeply on it, though. So if you feel bad or mentally off, just respond with an “okay, this isn’t ideal, but so be it”, and move back on with your day.

You said: “It is possible when it mentally comes back that all the habitual old feelings and thoughts come with it?”

It’s more than possible; it’s the hallmark feature of a setback. What I stated above with the reestablishing of despair in your mind where hope had previously been fortifying itself is what happens during almost all setbacks. But though the setbacks feel incredibly strong and impress your mind and body as much (if not more) than the initial bout of anxiety, it’s all still a bluff. It will leave when it’s ready, but you should go back on with what made your life yours.

You said: “Some days I wonder if it’s just the habit of being so hyperaware of my mental state that makes me feel so up and down.”

Hyperawareness and hypervigilance are incredibly frustrating and exhausting. They adhere so strongly that it almost feels like your own skin. How does one slough it off? Accept that your mind homes in (for the time being) strongly on yourself and your actions. It’s like how some people with anxiety get little portions of songs or sayings playing over and over and over in their minds. Pounding on your head or screaming for it to stop does nothing to make it abate. But, allowing it to be there and taking on a new relationship with it is the way to diminish it from happening.

So say I have the song bit playing over and over or say I’m hypervigilant about my recognition of a certain manifestation of anxiety. I allow my mind to go there. I allow that song to play as much as it wants to, but I still do other things with my day. I allow my focus to intensify on some issue if it wishes (myself, my sleeping, my breathing, things that my anxiety lorded over) but greet it with “oh, hello again” and I go back to making my life more mine again.

You asked: “How does that habit break? How do you stop thinking about your mood and thoughts so much?”

If something is happening automatically (hyper self-focus, or whatever it may be) allow it to happen and start telling yourself something along the lines of “oh well, it will pass when it passes” but go back on with what you want to do with your life. One of the immediate reactions we have to instances like this is to struggle and pull away. But those actions just feed back into the anxiety/stress (struggling, pulling away). But, if we could graciously accept that “sometimes things will simply suck… and that’s alright” and move back on with doing the things that once made our lives our own, then we will slowly take the wind out of the sails of the anxiety.

You will develop an internal strength in doing this. I was not a strong person. I wilted under many of the challenges of life. This bout with anxiety (and all of the setbacks) gave me confidence as well as a budding sense of hope in any rough situation. I was never this kind of person before. I was not reliable when things got bad. This lengthy storm of anxiety didn’t make me hardened and bitter; it made me more flexible and understanding. It will do the same for you.

I truly hope that helps