The mind is a powerful thing.
Staggeringly so at times.
I just woke up from a horrible nightmare. I was me as I am now, but for some reason I was in college. I was sitting in a large lecture hall, everyone around me was smiling and laughing, and then the professor came in and sure enough, asked cheerfully if everyone was ready for the test today. Everyone laughed and started getting out their pencils and notebooks (it was clearly college from my day because no one took out a laptop) and while I started looking around the classroom wildly in confusion. What?!! A test today?! I didn't know there was a test today! What happened? Everyone else in the class was calm and prepared and completely in control. The professor then made a joke about the practice quiz from the previous class, which I realized I had missed, and the whole class erupted in laughter while I was covered in a blanket of shame. How did this happen? I asked myself. As the tests began to be passed out my shame quickly turned to panic, as I realized that this was the first of this class I had even attended and I didn't even have the textbook yet. My heart started pounding as the panic turned to real unadulterated fear.
My mind skipped ahead to the next class, but in the same room and I was in the same seat. This professor greeted everyone kindly and then asked us all to pull out our homework. He put a copy of it up on the screen (yes, it was an overhead projector) and everyone began to take out their beautifully completed papers. It was a table type chart that was to be filled out based on three chapters of reading and these papers were covered with writing. I mean covered like it had taken hours to complete. Of course, I had nothing to show for myself. The shame returned. I hadn't even known about the assignment! It was right about now that I realized I had a plane to catch in less than 2 hours and unless I left the class immediately I wasn't going to make it. It was the only flight possible and my husband and kids were waiting to pick me up. My hands were shaking as I pulled out my phone to text my husband. My phone didn't work!! No matter what I tried the screen just kept jumping around and I couldn't make a call or send a text or use it in any way. Now I couldn't breathe, an honest-to-goodness panic attack was beginning, and the frustration, shame, fear, and intense, overwhelming feeling of being out of control closed in on me and I felt like I would drown under the enormity of it all.
I woke up trying desperately to catch my breath with my heart hammering fiercely in my chest. It took me a good five minutes or so to get my heart rate and breathing back to normal. The headache (most likely from the blood pressure spike) is still lingering and I feel exhausted despite the 7 hours of sleep I've just had.
So why am I telling you all of this?
Because as I was trying fitfully to bring myself back to reality upon awakening, I realized that all of the feelings I was having while I was asleep were real. I was experiencing real fear and real shame and categorically real frustration and panic. My body was reacting as though I was awake and actually going through these scary and upsetting experiences. Which means that, as I have said many times before, the mind is a very powerful thing and we need to be aware of that as we go about our daily lives.
We are our thoughts, and if we think that certain things are true - about ourselves, about other people, about our circumstances - then they really ARE TRUE to us and our perceptions. Even if in reality they are false, if we think them then they are true to us and we make decision every day based on what our own truths are.
For example, if our minds tell us that we are ugly, stupid, no-good, and that we'll never amount to anything, then that becomes our absolute truth. It doesn't matter if others see us differently or if we actually have the potential to do great things. (Which of course we ALL do.) Our minds keep us trapped in the prisons of what we were taught to believe and unless we wake up and see that our truth is not reality, we'll be trapped within these cells of our own making forever.
Unfortunately I've been plagued with nightmares my whole life. I've woken up countless times screaming, crying, howling, and sometimes kicking, as a result of the terrifying nature of these uncontrollable dreams. In adulthood my (incredibly caring and never-once-complaining-about-being-awakened-so-violently) husband has always reassured me with the words, "It's just a dream, it's just a dream, it's not real, it's just a dream." And while this is obviously true, what I realized today is that according to my mind and body, I actually experienced the things in the dream and my reactions are as real as if they all actually happened.
How does one stop the disturbing musings of the subconscious mind? I have no idea. (I WISH I did!) But I do know that today I need to be a little extra kinder to myself, and maybe even begin to examine why such strong feelings of shame, fear, and being out of control reared their awful heads to me as the sun was coming up and a beautiful new day was about to begin.
Last thing: I just want to say here that mental illness is 100% real and needs to be dealt with out in the open and without even one iota of shame. I have known many people who struggle with mental illness and the stigma of it in this country needs to be lifted once and for all. It's no different from a physical illness because it IS a physical illness. It distorts the brain's chemicals the same way that leukemia harms blood cells and diabetes messes with blood sugar. A person living with mental illness is experiencing emotions and reactions based on stresses in his or her mind that are absolutely real to them, as if they were actually happening, even if they are not. Their minds are essentially in wheelchairs, and they need and deserve our empathy, our kindness, and our compassion, even if we can't understand or relate to what they are going through.
"Post traumatic stress disorder starts out with nightmares, flashbacks and actually reliving the event. And this happens over and over and over and over in your mind. If you let it go on, it can become chronic and become hard if not impossible to treat." - Dale Archer
If you think it, you believe it. If your mind does it, it's real. So make a conscious effort to fill your mind with beauty, positivity, light, optimism, and faith. It may not stop the nightmares, but it may make them have to fight harder to break through to the surface.