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My Anxiety Makes My Brain Feel Like a Broken Hamster Wheel

Anxiety is my body’s way of responding to stress. It’s the exact opposite of calm. Having anxiety is a normal part of my life, but when I don’t process stress in a healthy way, my brain keeps churning day and night. And when the symptoms take over, I feel like a hamster running in a wheel.

Here are my five telltale signs that anxiety is about to take over.

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1. Obsession, or an endless thought loop that leaves you exhausted

When I find myself writing “I’ll not control my family. I’m not in charge of anyone else” repeatedly, it’s probably a sign of anxiety and not a reaffirming practice to let go.

Sometimes this happens in my mind instead of on paper. When I’m around my relatives, I start thinking about what each person is or isn’t doing.

Did he load the dishwasher? Is she looking at her phone (again!)? Did he just turn up the music? Are those his T-shirts on the couch?

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The thought loop repeats.

By the end, I’m exhausted from the process I’m putting myself through. It’s tough to remember the easy details even while I’m going through them.

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2. Avoidance, or ignoring what you need

Even though I want to feel less alone, less crazed, and know that I’m not the only one to go through this … when anxiety takes over, I avoid talking it out.

As a follow-up to obsession and a prelude to restlessness, I start to lack perspective on everything else that’s happening to me. While there are plenty of trusted folks who could offer a sympathetic ear and help get these pressing and troubling thoughts out of my brain, I tell myself I’m too busy doing and planning to have someone listen to me.

Avoidance of talk therapy — a recommended tool to manage anxiety — can be dangerous for people who need help with anxiety and mental health issues. When I won’t talk about my problems with another person, the problems tend to feel secretive and larger than what they really are.

3. Overplanning, or trying to control the uncontrollable

Sometimes my “helpful” ways become bossy and don’t consider the logistics of planning, especially when it comes to a family gathering. I exaggerate plans to try and control the people in my life. This ignores reality — that my relatives are human, have agency, and are going to do what they want.

When I’m putting so much energy into a dinner or day that’s so far ahead in my calendar, it can be unrealistic.

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4. Restlessness, or not being able to sleep

The more tired I get, the more I ponder a million details per minute. This inability to rest and stop worrying can be a giant sign that things are out of control. Perhaps I’m trying to crowd out my own thoughts and emotions by thinking about others. This helps me avoid things that are perhaps too painful to face, acknowledge, or process.

When I look outside into the dark morning and realize that my eyes are tired (and likely bloodshot), I find myself wishing to sleep. It should be obvious then, but the hamster wheel comes back.

5. Traces of deteriorating physical health

Everyone has habits that come out during high times of stress or anxiety. For me, the shorter and more ragged my nails are, the more likely I’m restless. Picking at my nails becomes a quick and routine way to deal with my ongoing anxiety.

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I first started having short and unkempt nails when I was in a romantic relationship that was pretty toxic. It started as a coping mechanism for my youthful anxiety and returns when I need to cope. It’s a physical sign that I’m not sure how to let things unfold or let things be.

The bottom line

It’s tough to recognize the signs and react right away. I thrive on doing too much and being a hero. But I’ve been anxious my entire life. Only now in my 40s am I learning my signs and how to let go for the sake of letting my anxiety go.

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Fellow anxious types should know that letting self-care backslide increases exhaustion and sorrow may follow. When I find that I’m feeling like a hamster and spending most of my waking time thinking about others, I’m not experiencing life on my terms.

There’s always help available through prevention and treatment. And at the end of the day, it’s nice to let that hamster rest a bit.


anxiety

Mary Ladd's writing has appeared in Playboy, Time Magazine’s Extra Crispy, KQED, and San Francisco Weekly. She’s a member of the SF Writers’ Grotto and a co-author of “The Wig Report,” a graphic novel on catastrophic illness.

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