Brain chemistry in the age of anxiety

I’ve had plenty of opportunities over the last 12 days to observe how my body and mind respond to stress, and I’ve learned something really interesting.  Specifically, my “mental illness anxiety” is quite different from my “fear/rage/stress anxiety.”  This is a useful thing for me to know personally, but it also relates to the way society has trouble understanding that mental illness is an illness and not just a bad day.

The mental illness is irrational.  It can be triggered by anything or nothing.  I’ve written before about what this anxiety feels like.  It is paralysis.  It is wanting to make my brain just stop it, accompanied by a frantic search for what is bothering me so I can make it go away.  Except there isn’t any particular thing causing it, and so my brain just keeps searching and panicking and pulling up every possible thing that could be a problem and making them seem worse and awful.

The fear-anxiety is rational, and so it manifests in my brain in a very different way.  Sometimes it’s overwhelming, and I cry in grief and terror and collapse for a while.  Often, though, it’s motivating.  Instead of freezing up and freaking out, my fight-or-flight mechanism actually kicks in correctly and I make plans to fight or flee.

Oddly, my physical reactions to these two anxieties are distinct, too.  In my post about anxiety, I wrote that it’s “a tightness in your chest, your arms, your jaw.”  If it’s really bad, it almost feels hard to breathe.  This is the reaction to the irrational malfunctionings of my brain.  The rational fear?  It leaves my chest alone but knots my stomach to the point where I cannot eat.  It twists my guts in knots—the same kind of knots that show up before the starting gun of a race.

In one case, my brain is reacting the way it has evolved to do.  It senses a threat, and it responds.  This is normal.  This is correct.

In the other, my neurochemicals are just totally out of control.  This is the illness.

They are different.