What it’s like in my head

(For Mental Health Awareness Week)

I’ve been trying to understand what my mind does myself for years now. Getting that down in words isn’t easy.

But one pattern that has been consistent now is cycles. These cycles might, when anxiety is prevalent, last less than a second. But when depression is the dominant force, they can be weeks long. They’re not really the same as each other, but I find this the easiest way to try and communicate it all.

Anxiety Cycles

The ultra-short, rapid anxious cycles are repetitive thoughts that barely form in my head, but are long enough to withdraw an emotion from. For me, these are most often to do with future conversations. Maybe with someone at work; my girlfriend; or family. Sometimes I’m thinking about a difficult conversation, and in that sense, I’m not too bothered with them.

But sometimes, it’s completely unfounded. I might be heading to meet a friend for a drink. On route I think of what we might talk about. I find a subject in my mind, and the cycle starts. Slowly at first, rapidly quickening in pace. With each cycle, I go over the conversation that we might have; each time becoming increasingly negative. Maybe I say something that they take offence to. Maybe they say something I don’t believe. Maybe they are meeting me to tell me they hate me and never want to see me again. Over and over. Ten, twenty, a hundred times.

I go over almost every possible outcome of a conversation that I might, or might not, have. And with each of those cycles, the emotions associated with that version of the outcome come. Fear, guilt, anger. They swirl around my head with the continuing cycles. Gaining momentum and gravitas with each new outcome.

Depression cycles

These tend to be longer. A few hours to a few weeks in length. And rather than being in my head, it’s a bit more real world. With each cycle, I often come back to where I was before, just a little bit more beaten down than the last time. Depending on the length of these cycles, the total length of a ‘set’ of cycles could be months.

Each cycle starts (or is it ends?) with a change; something that gives me the leg-up I need to get out of the rut I’m in. Maybe it’s an idea; a bit of news; or maybe it’s something real. Maybe it’s some form of placebo.

Opinions of the world and others are temporarily faded into the background. The heavy fog that has been halting any real cognitive processes is lifted. I can make decisions. I can feel productive.

Over time: a minute; an hour; a day; a week; those opinions and fog crawl slowly back in. Not consistently. But in steps. Each cycle has 6–8 steps. Maybe. I’m not really aware of it at first. The first few are just hiccups in my plan. But a few steps in and I’m staring back at the situation I was in before. Imagine an M.C. Escher Waterfall, but with the water running backwards.

Allow these sets of cycles to go on long enough, and a wall appears. The water turns to tar. And it’s harder and harder each time to get that leg-up again. This happens until the negativity is overpowering, making any attempt to get back up again almost impossible.


When these cycles are in process, decisions are very difficult to make. All the negative emotions make sure of that. And with each decision that goes unmade, the next step down becomes more and more inevitable.

A friend once told me a theory that humans have a limited number of decisions they can make in a day. I like this theory. But sometimes I wonder if the same for a lifetime can also be said. Maybe I’ve used up my choices in life. Maybe I’m out.

I’ve found it very difficult to get this into words without trivialising it all. I’ve done my best to omit any of the gritty detail; there may be kids here. I just wish I had the eloquence or the artistry to communicate it in a more effective manor.