My anxiety makes me feel really stupid, when I'm not

For those with Generalized Anxiety Disorder or Panic Disorder or both (lucky me!), when your anxiety is high or you're in the midst of a panic attack, do you feel like you get dumber? Like it's harder to just simply be a human being? Or is that just me? 

When I'm anxious, sometimes I actually feel like I'm getting less oxygen to my brain. I feel short of breath, dizzy and my brain feels fuzzy — like I'm being strangled without literally being strangled. So it makes sense, right — that when my brain is going through this, it stops functioning at full capacity?

For instance, this weekend, my boyfriend Sean and I were looking at engagement rings. I know, after four years together, I was over the moon excited that he wanted to do this! But one of my many anxiety triggers has always been pushy salespeople. And phew, people trying to get you to fork over thousands of dollars for an engagement ring — that takes the cake! 

At the last store we went to, my eyes were glazing over and all the rings were starting to look the same. The saleswoman kept trying to get us to buy a ring right then, and Sean was like, "'m not going to propose to my girlfriend in the middle of a jewelry store!" And, at that point, even though the rest of the day we'd been blissful romantic gush balls, right then I knew I was about to have a full-on panic attack.

When we finally got out of the store, I took my face mask off. Normally, this would be okay — except for the fact that this jewelry store was inside of a mall. Which meant I was still indoors, taking off my face mask. And, for a moment, I had completely blacked out from anxiety. One second I was walking out of the store and the next second, I had my mask in my hand — indoors with people walking around. Sean looked over at me like, "Wtf are you doing?!" And then I snapped back to reality; I was mortified and quickly put my mask back on my face.

My anxiety has caused me to do a lot of thoughtless things like this. Probably one of the most embarrassing — having a panic attack at a gas station, of all places, and driving off with the gas pump nozzle still in my car. (For anyone who's seen the movie "Garden State," yup —that's what it was like. Thankfully I didn't get farther than the gas station parking lot before I realized it!)

Is this normal? 

Upon doing a Google search, I saw a plethora of results with titles such as "Does having anxiety make you an idiot?" and "Stress is shrinking your brain" (oh that made me feel better...NOT). 

But here's some actual research on the subject. According to a study by Michigan State University, the brains of those who are anxious —particularly anxious women — work much harder than those who aren't. In the study, participants were asked to complete a cognitive test and then they took a questionnaire about how much they worry. 

Jason Moser, lead investigator on the project, said, "As the test became more difficult, the anxious females performed worse, suggesting worrying got in the way of completing the task. (Their) brains have to work harder to perform tasks because they have distracting thoughts and worries."

Erin Gloria Ryan, political opinion columnist, gave the perfect analogy in an article on the feminist news website Jezebel: "An unsettled mind trying to complete a simple task is the mental equivalent of setting the treadmill to the highest possible incline and trying to run the same distance as someone running flat next to you. You may still get to where you're going, but it's going to be a longer, much more exhausting process."

Greg Weber, author of Healthy Place's Treating Anxiety Blog, said, for him, when he's feeling anxious, he's easily confused, distracted and has trouble multitasking. I feel ya, Greg. Yesterday I tried to play a card game and watch the movie "A Star is Born" at the same time, and I thought I was going to have a mental breakdown. Of course, Lady Gaga won my attention in the end and I miserably lost the game!

So what can you do when your anxiety is making you feel this way? First, know that you aren't actually dumb! You are an intelligent person. But when you're feeling anxious, your brain is going into overdrive, so it makes sense then that, when this is happening, you're not thinking like you normally would. You have a lot of other stuff going on in your mind! So, give yourself a break! This isn't your fault and it doesn't make you stupid!

Some things I have found that have helped:

  • First and foremost: Taking Xanax, or whatever anxiety meds you're prescribed. For those who are undiagnosed and your anxiety is affecting your brain and your everyday life, see a psychiatrist or a therapist. 
  • If I'm able to, I will find a quiet space and either sleep or lie there in silence for 15 to 30 minutes. Oftentimes, this helps reset my brain. Since working from home due to COVID, many lunch breaks have been spent in my bedroom doing just this. And when I did work in the office, I would find that space in a bathroom stall or in my car whenever I felt overwhelmed. 
  • Focusing on your breathing. This really helps when it feels like I'm not getting enough oxygen to my brain. Sometimes this freaks my boyfriend out when I just randomly inhale and exhale really loudly. He thinks I'm sighing because of something he did wrong haha. It's really because I'm trying to get my anxiety under control!
  • Writing/journaling your feelings. That's actually what I'm doing right now by writing this blog post (don't judge me for any stupid grammar mistakes since I'm going through a foggy anxious brain today). And now, as I get closer to finishing writing, my anxiety feels a million times better because I am making myself focus on what I am feeling.
  • Sometimes just going outside and taking a lap around the block, even when it's cold outside, does wonders for centering myself and helping my brain start to return to normal. When you're feeling anxious, this is probably the last thing you want to do, but you have to tell yourself, "When I actually do it, I'll feel better!"

Some advice that Greg the expert gave in his blog is, when you're feeling like this, maintain perspective that this feeling will pass. He also said that you need to be patient with yourself.

"I didn't wake up one day and decide that acquiring generalized anxiety disorder sounded like a good idea. It's a disease, and the worst thing about it is it tells me I don't have a disease, but that I'm just lazy, stupid, and good for nothing. But that's a lie," he wrote. "You are not stupid, and you are not a failure. And neither am I."

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