I am on the train at the moment and I am feeling rather anxious, as I typically do on trains. I put it down to a combination of these things: being stuck in a relatively small space (with the noxious smell of someone’s half-demolished cheese sandwich filling up the carriage like Stephen King’s ‘The Mist’), being out of control (I do not know the last thing about operating a train so I’m sure it would be more anxiety-inducing if I was, in fact, in control), the scare-mongering of the media after terrorist attacks (why they would want to target the late night service to Hayes I am yet to ascertain) and going through stations where I have memories with people I am no longer close to.
This last one sounds silly but I am a silly, sentimental soul and this does cause me genuine grievance; I try to avoid routes, places and activities that remind me particularly of someone with whom my connection has become painful. Due to the fact that I have no choice over which route my train chooses to take (and, really, the time it arrives given Southeastern’s penchant for ruining my life), so I am forcibly plunged into Memoryland when I am already feeling rather vulnerable. This is, in essence, to do with ascribing a sad and unfortunate significance to a place when there are lots of different and equally relevant associations I could choose to make. But this is not really what I want to talk about, so you will have to forgive the tangent and let me reign my thoughts back in.
NOW: This is where I talk about instinctive and emotional reasoning and the problems they can pose. (I may well have fabricated the first one, but I know that the second one is a well-recognised cognitive error.)
Firstly, I need to learn to treat my ‘instincts’ with some scepticism. This seems counter-intuitive and, frankly, sinister after all of the years I have been told to ‘just go with my gut’ or ‘trust my instincts’. This type of philosophy has become dogma in popular culture. It is only recently that I have realised that this is not a useful instruction for living, especially when it concerns an anxious or depressed individual.
Our ‘instincts’ are evolutionary nudges away from threat or harm. They are geared towards survival. Just refer back to my ‘fight-or-flight’ response on the train: no real, imminent danger was being posed (our amygdala cannot distinguish between a real threat and a perceived threat). Besides, when it came to what was actually making me distressed (the small space, the being out of control, the smell), this response was doing nothing to arm me against it; it was actually making me far less able to behold it in a rational light, making it worse. There is a phenomenon called the ‘genome lag’, which refers to this miss-match of internal and external realities. I will try to elucidate some examples of this below:
We no longer live in the type of environment we once did, where child mortality was high and incubators and neonatal heart surgery did not exist. Therefore, we needed to mate a lot and with someone who was ostensibly the picture of fertility and health. These days, a relationship based solely on these factors would breed boredom, resentment and conflict; the nature of modern co-existence requires far more from two people than their breeding abilities. We, also, no longer live in a world where foods high in sugar and fat are a scarcity and, hence, something we need to hoard when available. With sugar and fat’s abundance in the modern diet, you have, most likely, seen this innate behaviour cause health issues galore. If you are from the UK, you are likely not surrounded by poisonous insects and even if you did come across one, there are known antidotes available to you. Yet, being fearful of spiders, for example, is common. 18% of people in the UK have a full-blown phobia of them! I suggest we rigorously question our instinctive responses and their usefulness before we trust them.
Now, I will try to briefly discourage reasoning on the basis of EMOTION.
The type of mood you are experiencing can be due to anything from faulty cognitions and imbalances in neurochemistry to not having had breakfast or a good night’s sleep. It can definitely be hormonal. I can link certain changes in my mood with certain stages of my menstrual cycle, for example. It can even be the weather (Seasonal affective disorder). Why are we using such a faulty and temperamental metric to draw conclusions on how our lives are going?
I feel, therefore it must be.
No! Just because you feel sad, it does not follow that your life must be sad. You could have lots of things going for you, but your emotions (plus the illogical conclusions you draw from them) are distorting your view of the world and blinding you to this. Just because you feel alone does not mean you are alone. I am being presumptuous, but it is likely you have someone in your life who loves you, who is waving their arms in front of your glazed eyes and horror-gaped mouth, waiting for you to come back up from your self-deluded state.
I mean that last bit in the most sympathetic way I can muster. I appreciate that it is extremely hard to see an external reality clearly when your internal world is screaming “RUN!” or “THIS IS AWFUL, I’M GOING TO DIE” at you. Learning to spot the unrealistic and disproportionate nature of these feelings or instinctive drives takes time and discipline. Now, I try to do it each time I get on a train and feel that panic rising inside of me. I acknowledge that the panic is there, and I allow myself to feel it, but I also acknowledge that it does not follow that something bad is going to happen to me, and that it wouldn’t be useful for me to act upon it. I am also going to try to do it whenever I feel the sadness that certain triggers seem to bring on. Just because I feel sad and lonely does not mean that my life is inherently sad and it does not mean I am alone.
I LOVE YOU
(P.S. I am going to write some more of the short story I started on here. Just to let you know. Props for getting to this point, wow)