Tornado Brain: Taming the Whirlwind of Anxiety
Anxiety feels like showing up to the start of a marathon with zero preparation. You haven’t trained a day in your life, and you have no idea what you’re doing. Common sense tells you this is a long race, you need to pace to survive. But without warning, and out of your control, a powerful force won’t let you. It takes over and you sprint the first few miles, burn out, then fall to the side of the road confused and frustrated.
Is everyone else experiencing this? How are they able to control their speed and finish this race?
Anxiety serves us well in situations where we need our fight or flight reflexes engaged. And some anxiety is normal, helpful even. However, anxiety that requires constant attention can have negative emotional and physical effects. As researchers at the Bio Behavioral Institute state, “anxiety is a single word that represents a broad range of emotional intensity. At the low end of the intensity range, anxiety is normal and adaptive. At the high end of the intensity range, anxiety can become pathological and maladaptive. While everyone experiences anxiety, not everyone experiences the emotion of anxiety with the same intensity, frequency, or duration as someone who has an anxiety disorder.”
I have a long history of family members suffering from anxiety, and until I reached college I didn’t recognize my own struggles with it. I was not well-educated in mental health and spent years sucking it up, thinking my issues were part of a personality flaw. When I met my in-laws, I had new introspection and an encouraging platform to start researching and taking control of my own care plan. I spent time studying and speaking with others, and eventually ended up in counseling, which I now use as a critical resource for many areas of self-improvement.
When the nerves of anxiety are firing, I am aware. I work to slow them down and spread them out, calm the fear instinct and rationalize my way down. But as many who suffer from anxiety can attest, my brain lacks the ability to cooperate. While the onset is unpredictable and can happen anytime during the day, my struggles mainly present in the evening. When the day is over, and the list is accomplished, my mind has nowhere left to run, so it creates its own new track.
Studies have shown things like deep breathing, meditation, exercise, healthy eating, therapy, and when necessary medication can all be helpful strategies for managing anxiety. I personally implement them all, and at times struggle regardless. For some, anxiety is a chronic condition that needs constant monitoring. Attention to management tactics and what works best for our own personal spice of anxiety is critical. This past year I have found two new strategies that have helped my sense of restless mind-racing: books and podcasts.
Before this year I was not much of a reader, I simply didn’t want to invest the time. What I discovered they offer me is an escape from my tornado brain. Books have provided a way to feel productive but shut off the part of my thoughts that feel necessary to constantly be on the run. Being able to disengage while reading means I don’t have to fight my thoughts, even if just for a small amount of time each day!
Podcasts have had a similar effect. They provide free access to endless information and encouragement — and education in a variety of subjects. I never was a bookworm and didn’t particularly excel in school, but I have always enjoyed learning new things. Podcasts have proved to be a productive way to shut my brain up. Something about being productive with my mind helps it wear down enough to disengage.
Some days I wonder what it’s like to live with a mind that is easier to control. Where it’s not necessary to constantly be on guard with management strategies ready in place. I realize I may not be able to cure anxiety and the effects that follow it. But there won’t be a day I stop working to find ways to improve its functions, and advocate for others to educate and reach for help themselves!
Jacofsky, M. D., Santos, M. T., Khemlani-Patel, S., Neziroglu, F. (2018). Normal And Abnormal Anxiety: What’s The Difference? Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/articles/normal-and-abnormal-anxiety-what-s-the-difference/
Hertel, A. (2018). Tornado Brain: Taming the Whirlwind of Anxiety. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 23, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/tornado-brain-taming-the-whirlwind-of-anxiety/