I was in agony with my teeth a couple of months ago. The gums on one side were already tender and then I chomped on a cashew nut. It was swollen, inflamed, and extremely painful over one tooth.
It wasn’t much better the following morning; I booked an appointment. The dentist said it was probably just a bit of food caught in there and that she’d ‘give it a good clean’. She proceeded to blast the life out of it. I would have screamed had there not been so many hands in my mouth! Rinsing my mouth was an experience – let’s just say, the mouthwash was a very different colour when it came out.
I cried on the way home. I told myself, ‘It’s only a bit of gum pain – the dentist said everything’s fine.’ That made no difference whatsoever. The whole right side of my face was stinging, my legs felt wobbly, and I had to lie down.
It may have been a small trigger, but it wasn’t the scale of the issue that was the problem – the problem was the effect that it had on the rest of my body and on my mind. The pain in that tiny area brought me to a complete standstill.
This reminded me of anxiety triggers. They can often be little things, at least to other people. It’s not always ‘big things’ or ‘rational worries’ that cause attacks of anxiety. In fact, at least in my experience, it’s mostly things that are ‘insignificant’.
A few too many people in a room; a phone call that must be made; a badly-timed comment; a morning in which you wake up anxious for no apparent reason; a sudden attack of negative emotions and unworthiness. Each of these might seem relatively small, and some people have difficulty understanding why they are a problem.
‘Aww, don’t worry, don’t be anxious about that – it’ll be fine, just relax,’ is often unhelpful, though said well-meaningly. It comes from focusing on the trigger point, the external issue, the ‘little thing’, rather than the seemingly disproportional effect that it’s having.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why mental health issues can be difficult to understand if you haven’t experienced them. ‘Why would you worry about that?’ they wonder. ‘That’s no big deal.’
Well, neither was my gum pain. I had been assured that nothing was wrong, but that changed nothing – in that moment, I couldn’t see past it, and it had a knock-on effect.
But at least I knew, rationally speaking, that there was nothing wrong with my teeth. Anxiety is worse because your thoughts can lie to you, and then you don’t have access to ‘rationality’ – your mind takes a darker turn.
A small matter that results in mental suffering is no longer a small matter.