Please allow me to begin with the customary, “Well, it’s been absolute beards since I posted anything, soz about that,” and pretend that anyone cares or even noticed.
Life has got in the way and I’ve felt pretty uninspired. Recently a few ideas for posts have popped up, though, so over the course of the next seven years I may actually get around to writing them. Imagine!
This particular post has been inspired by a couple of particularly fun recent experiences that got me thinking about how my anxiety affects me in different ways. A couple of months ago I posted about the weird habits or behaviours I’ve developed due to anxiety. These are a little more abstract, the physical or mental symptoms that I’ve lived with for years and never really considered to be part of my elite mental health struggles.
Without further ado I’m going to smash straight into it. It’s more than likely anyone else out there who lives with anxiety (big up) has experienced these too, so the more we talk about it, the better. Unless I’m the only one, in which case I’ll take my addled brain and fuck off.
It’s difficult to pick a favourite of my weird symptoms, but this one definitely comes close. It took me until the ripe age of 31 to realise that I was actually experiencing auditory hallucinations even though they have happened on and off since I was a teenager.
I remember being younger, still living with my parents, and the number of times I would be convinced they’d left the radio or TV on downstairs. They never had. I could hear very faint talking or music, indistinguishable as anything recognisable, but just enough to make me think there was an external cause for it. I never really thought much of it apart from to briefly entertain the fantasy that perhaps the house was haunted.
Fast forward to my early twenties when I experienced a pretty bad anxiety episode upon starting a new job (absolutely classic Lindsay, by the way). Even once I had calmed down a little, I started noticing some very exciting symptoms.
When I tried to sleep, for example, I would hear this loud noise that sounded like a snap of electricity. I can’t describe it properly other than it sounded as though electricity was crackling over my brain. Inside my head. I was not, dear reader, hooked up via the brain to any electrical devices at the time.
A bit of research led me to believe that this was a delightful phenomenon known as exploding head syndrome (yes, really). It’s strange because what I felt and heard sounds very similar to brain zaps that can be caused by tapering down or coming off some SSRI antidepressant medications. At the time, though, I was completely unmedicated. The fact these occurred as part of my sleep cycles leads me to believe it was exploding head syndrome.
Incidentally, I’m thrilled that I’ve just written that sentence with no trace of irony whatsoever.
I’m dumping this bizarre symptom in with auditory hallucinations because it’s basically the same thing, the brain making up some mad shit for me to listen to when it’s feeling a bit cheeky. The hallucinations themselves are different, though, and have changed a bit throughout the years.
The hallucinations have stepped up a notch in adulthood. I used to put them down to having ringing ears after a night out, as I experience them most often when I’ve been out drinking or stayed up particularly late, that sort of thing. It’s almost as though consuming alcohol does weird things to an already anxiety-riddled brain, but let’s choose to ignore that for now, eh?
The hallucinations would be louder and more aggressive, which is why I thought it was some sort of post-very-loud-night-out banter. I can have an evening with perfectly pleasant decibel output, however, and still experience them.
One of the reasons I decided to write this post was because the other night I experienced them so loudly it was as though someone was right next to me, shouting at me. Weirdly, I could actually interact with them and I could hear properly decipherable words which had never happened before.
This happened as I was brushing my teeth. I wasn’t even trying to get to sleep. It’s a completely bizarre phenomenon, and it’s interesting to me how it’s changed a little in its presentation over the years. Clearly, a tired and/or alcohol-soaked brain doesn’t help, but I maintain that the root cause is most likely based in anxiety.
Ah, the joys of sleep paralysis. If you’ve never experienced it, allow me to explain briefly. Sleep paralysis occurs as your body is moving between sleep cycles, usually between waking and sleeping. Your body hasn’t quite caught up to your mind, though, and essentially it’s like being awake and unable to move or speak. Many people experience a feeling of heaviness on their body, as well.
The real fun starts, though, with the accompanying hallucinations, feelings, or nightmares. The first time I had sleep paralysis was the night before I started my very first proper adult job. Seriously, me and jobs. Get a grip.
So, despite being in a period of relative mental stability, my brain was probably a little over excited. Plus, I lived in the attic of this old, cramped house with mega bad vibes. I’m not a militant believer in the paranormal, but the stress and general shit time had by every occupant of that house in the short time we lived there probably meant my sensitive brain picked up on some of that fun.
What happened the first time was I woke in the middle of the night completely unable to move. Cool. To make things worse I was also rather plainly hallucinating that someone, a child-like being wearing striped pyjamas that I can still picture over ten years later, was crawling up the stairs to my room and attempting to climb under my bedroom door.
I was frozen, but thankfully I knew someone who’d had sleep paralysis before and was able to vaguely comprehend that what was happening wasn’t real. I remember fighting to get some movement back, turning the lamp on, and falling back to sleep. When I woke up in the morning and the lamp was still on, I understood properly what had happened.
I haven’t had such a vivid experience since, at least not until last night where I woke up paralysed with an accompanying sense of dread and the feeling that someone or something was trying to pull the covers off me. I couldn’t move to turn my head, but I knew precisely where this ‘being’ was and frankly, I’m glad I didn’t get a look.
For the first time, though, I actually managed to scream twice which woke me up properly. Normally I’ve been internally screaming but unable to make a sound.
My parents, bless them, didn’t hear a peep so it’s a good job I wasn’t being murdered by the crazed madman you just know stalks this small, peaceful village every night.
For the most part, my experiences with sleep paralysis have largely been innocuous. Feelings of being pulled out of the bed or of something sitting on me or the bed, that type of thing.
Sometimes I get it recurrently in the morning, where I’ll repeatedly think that I’ve got out of bed and am trying to drag myself, still semi-paralysed, around the flat. Surprisingly, I never have. I’m always still firmly tucked up. It’s kind of exhausting to go through it in concurrent cycles, though, and much harder to wake up from.
Sleep paralysis is the cause of some old paranormal tales such as the hag. In fairness, in the days before the blessed internet I can imagine that waking up paralysed and seeing or feeling something sitting on you would be quite the cause for alarm. Incidentally, sleep paralysis is also the subject of one of my favourite paintings, Fuseli’s The Nightmare. It’s comforting to know how common it is, but that doesn’t make it fun when it happens.
Okay, so I feel as though this one is a little more palatable because it’s such a common thing. Whether it’s anxious leg-or-foot-bouncing to the more delightful enormous pre-sleep twitches, I feel as though a lot of people experience this.
I’m sure a lot of people have been sitting waiting for a doctors’ appointment or an interview and had the nervy leg bounces. Whilst it may alert people around you to your slightly anxious state, it doesn’t really get in the way or cause too much bother.
Apart from when it does.
When I’m particularly tired or anxious my legs go, for want of a better phrase, completely fucking haywire. It can get to the extent where it’s impossible to sleep because I can’t control the constant movement of my legs or feet. It also makes me, as I’m sure you can gather, an absolutely delightful bedtime companion.
Even when I consciously try, I simply can’t stop them when it’s bad. Even when it’s manageable I’ll still rub my feet constantly against the bed, presumably in an attempt to soothe myself that actually just makes me more agitated.
Often, if I do manage to begin falling asleep my entire body will start twitching just for the shits and gigs. Bodies do this as part of sleep cycles, but the pre-sleep restless legs are a nightmare.
I think it’s adrenaline-based, which is why I assume it’s caused by anxiety. I say this because the couple of times I’ve had really massive panic attacks, my legs have been super twitchy afterwards as the adrenaline runs rampant in my body.
Being overtly anxious raises adrenaline levels, and clearly this is best expressed by uncontrollable movement of the lower limbs. I mean, why not, right?
I’m surprised to learn that there is actually a restless leg syndrome that causes involuntary movement of the legs alongside other sensations. I’m not sure if this is the culprit, if it’s triggered by anxiety, or it’s a separate thing entirely. It can be disruptive and at times makes it really hard to get to sleep, or to get back to sleep if something else exciting like sleep paralysis has woken me up.
I’ve written about my skin picking before, but it deserves a mention here as well. I know I’m not alone in this physical manifestation of anxiety, and in the years since I’ve spotted it in myself I spot it in other people, too.
There are three main areas where I focus my skin picking. My face, my upper arms (and now, excitingly, my lower arms too!) and my hands. I’ve always had spots that I picked relentlessly as a teenager and never got out of the habit.
Now, if there’s any sort of small bump or potential spot on my skin I will locate it and pick it. Ostensibly to ‘get rid’ of it, but we all know what that really means. It means I’ll pick at something barely visible until it becomes extremely fucking visible and then continue to pick at the mess I’ve created until the end of time.
Small, barely noticeable blemishes become proper spots. Then they become scars. I become conscious of the state of my skin, but I still can’t stop. On my hands and fingers, I pick the skin around my nails. I bite it, pull at it, and in the past I’ve been known to use nail clippers to clip bits of skin off until my fingerprints are barely distinguishable. Smooth.
I chew my lips and the insides of my cheeks. It all gets worse when I’m anxious or upset, and then the state of my skin makes me more anxious and upset. Currently I’m rocking at least three very noticeable, very red spots on my face that, had they been left alone, would probably have just faded into obscurity.
Skin picking seems like the sort of thing that people just do. People pick at spots, scabs, the like. It’s difficult to know when it becomes a problem and when it’s just a bad habit, but the correlation is usually there for me.
A particularly bad picking session usually stems from some anxiety, uncertainty, or unhappiness. Surreptitiously chewing at my cheeks or biting my fingers means I can engage in the behaviour any time, any place, and half the time won’t even realise it’s happening.
Sensitivity to sound and touch
Finally, this is something that again I’ve only fairly recently realised is related to anxiety. To be honest, I just thought it was my terrible personality. When your brain and body are on high alert, I think it’s easy to become sensitive to these things without realising why.
In times of distress or high anxiety I would feel so guilty for wanting my partner to just get away from me or for craving alone time, thinking it meant that I didn’t love him any more or something.
Really, what I needed was space, peace, and quiet. People can be so comforting, but equally the smallest thing can tip you over when you’re already vulnerable. In the past, I’ve been known to straight up burst into tears at unexpected loud noises because my guard was already up so high.
There are little things, too. I’m not saying that I have misophonia, because quite frankly I do not. Sounds don’t always tend to trigger an emotional response, and it would be irresponsible of me to claim that they do. Instead when I’m already experiencing an emotional response sounds can be something that make the response more heightened.
For example: I cannot stand the sound of people eating at the best of times, and when I’m anxious it makes me want to calmly strangle the culprit with a tea towel. I used to live in a house with a load of my friends, and one of them and her boyfriend ate so loudly I had to leave the fucking room whenever they sat down to eat.
I once transcribed a recording of a focus group where the group had a break to eat some pizza, and the sounds were so fucking rancid I nearly threw the computer across the room.
It evokes a silent rage in me like nothing else. Mouth sounds in general when I’m anxious are pretty much a no-go, and don’t get me started on breathing. Do not breathe around my face. I do not want your breath on me. Shudder.
It’s difficult being sensitive to sounds, particularly ones that can’t be helped or no one else notices. So, I bottle it up and don’t say anything unless it’s something that can be directly controlled and the culprit is someone I know very well.
Clearly, that won’t help my mental or physical state, but what else can I do? I can’t just start shouting at people on the bus for having a normal conversation.
There’s an almost heartbreaking loneliness to be surrounded by one’s friends or loved ones and want nothing more than for them to please, for the love of Satan, shut up and leave me alone. The guilt of trying to maintain a conversation with someone whilst battling an inner turmoil that makes me want to run away, shout, or sleep forever is quite potent.
It makes me feel isolated, guilty, like a terrible person. In reality it’s just that my mind is already so over stimulated that there’s nothing left for me to give, and no space for me to take anything else in.
Touch is a bit different, and my aversion to it happens less frequently. It still racks me with guilt and only serves to make the spiral worse as I furiously overthink why it is I don’t want someone to touch me.
Still, there are moments when I’ll avoid touch not because I’m particularly anxious but instead because I worry about what the other person will think. If I’m sweaty (so all the time, then) I will refuse hugs or squirm away from touches lest the toucher deem me too disgusting to interact with ever again.
Sharing is caring
It’s all about levels, and even until I started writing that I didn’t realise how much social anxiety changed my social behaviour. It’s either fascinating or very, very boring.
I’m naturally inclined to think the latter, of course, because most things I do are exceptional only in the rampant boredom they induce. However, writing about these random and sometimes distressing symptoms has been quite soothing. I started this blog to be accountable to myself, to record my experiences, to share with others. Doing so has helped enormously, and I’ve missed it.
I remain firm in the hope that someone can relate to this and think, “Oh thank fuck for that, it’s not just me.” I realise things like hallucinations or sleep disorders can seem really frightening and tend to be associated (particularly hallucinations) with mental health issues that are ‘dangerous’ or ‘scary’. I won’t pretend to have an iota of understanding what it must be like to live with regular hallucinations or anything like that. What I will say is perhaps it’s more common than we think.
Brains are immensely powerful and can get up to all sorts. There’s no shame in talking about the ways they deceive us or make our lives more difficult, and I hope that’s apparent. If you made it this far, thanks for reading, and for keeping your mouth sounds to a minimum.