When I was a little girl, my mom used to tell me that all my bad thoughts and feelings came from a mischievous demon who lived in a corner of my brain. Any negative thing that happened to me (like getting a bad grade, or losing one of my favorite toys) would feed it and make it grow.
Of course, there was no actual demon in my head: it was just her clever metaphor for negative feelings. I expected the “demon” to rear its ugly head when something upsetting happened to me. But I didn’t realize it could come out even after positive events – things that should’ve made me happy and excited, instead of worried and fearful.
Worry > Joy
A few months ago, while I was cooking dinner, I received an email from a university where I’d applied for a masters program: I’d been accepted!
At first, I was overjoyed. I thought about how fun it’d be to go back to school and start learning again. I thought about all the interesting people I’d meet and all the new friends I’d make.
But that great wave of joy soon calmed down, and thoughts of a different kind started to cross my mind. The tuition was expensive, and I didn’t have a lot of money saved up. The school was in a whole other country, far from my friend circle and the life I’d built here. The covid-19 pandemic would complicate things like getting a visa and travelling abroad. Not to mention, I’d been out of university for two years: did I even know how to study anymore?!
All sorts of doubts and worries crossed my mind.
Sure enough, the demon had come out of hiding.
The worst part was that it had latched onto something that didn’t belong to it. I’d been taught that the demon fed on bad things that happened to me – and getting accepted into grad school was, by all accounts, a good thing. Yet I’d only spent thirty seconds doing my happy dance… before ruminating endlessly about what could go wrong.
Everything becomes a source of stress
Like many people who deal with a mental illness, I’ve often felt like I had to wrestle with my own brain in order to find happiness. If negative events were supposed to feed the demon in my head, then surely there must also be food for the wholesome, “happy” part of my brain. Surely I got to enjoy positive events in peace.
But here’s the thing: for someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, anything and everything can become a source of stress. As it grows, the demon gets greedy and starts feeding on whatever it can get its hands on – even the things that were supposed to make you happy.
When I got my acceptance email from university, I felt like my brain had just been fed a big, juicy steak. I couldn’t wait to make plans and fantasize about how much fun I’d have. But I barely had time to enjoy it before it became yet another reason to worry. It was as if the demon had stolen the better parts of the steak and left me with its rancid leftovers.
Objectively, I knew that I was incredibly lucky and privileged to get to go to grad school. Emotionally though, I was drained by the time I’d spent overthinking – which, in turn, made me feel guilty for not enjoying my good fortune.
Reclaiming your happiness
Frankly, it sucks to be too petrified to look forward to exciting new opportunities. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you also deal with a pesky “demon” in your brain, know that there are ways to reclaim your happiness.
Personally, I find it helpful to boost my confidence by remembering similar past experiences – challenges that intimidated me, but that allowed me to grow as a person. It’s a good way to remind yourself of how much you’ve accomplished: you’ve done it before, and you can do it again.
Secondly, it never hurts to show compassion to yourself. You can’t control your emotions, so don’t beat yourself up for not feeling “happy enough.” It’s normal to get scared or anxious. Allow yourself to feel your feelings and treat yourself with kindness.
Finally, practicing gratitude can do wonders for your mental health. I like to write down a list of things for which I’m grateful. When your brain is trapped in a fog of anxiety and panic, it helps to literally count your blessings; and seeing them on paper makes them feel all the more real.
It’s not easy to practice self-compassion and gratitude. I’m still learning myself and it requires a conscious effort, but it does make a difference. There are plenty of wonderful, challenging, exciting things that can happen every day – whether it’s getting accepted into university, starting a new life in a foreign country, or launching the career of your dreams.
The best way to deal with a “demon” in your brain is to starve it: don’t let it get its grubby hands on the things you should be celebrating.
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