The Most Embarrassing Day of My Life: Some Insights on the Neuroscience of Anxiety

I’m sitting in the Chicago airport biting my nails and tapping my foot as fast as my heart is beating. I might really pass out. I remind myself to take deep breaths and try to think about something beside the fact that I’m leaving my country for the first time in my life – alone.

I’m one of those people that gets lost in buildings and parking lots. Driving new places in my hometown scares me. Because of this, I’ve always assumed that my prefrontal cortex is shaped differently, since this area of the brain manages our spatial working memory – or our ability to process visual surroundings and understand them.1 I often get anxious from being in places that are visually overwhelming because I have never seen them before and it’s like overload on my brain. For some people, when overwhelmed, their brain literally cannot make sense of their surroundings, or what is being said by others. They might exhibit delayed responses as a result, but it is not related to their level of intelligence.

I don’t sleep on planes. I never have because I’ve never been on one for more than 6 hours. This means by the time I arrive in London I’ve been awake for 24 hours total of travelling. I take a taxi to my apartment, drop my bags, buy a cell phone since I don’t trust myself without GPS, and make a beeline for the train station.

Forget Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. I’m heading for the place I’ve always dreamed of, a college town a couple hours north of London that I equate with heaven. I’m on my way to a seminar that I obtained special permission to attend.

“These seminars are typically for PhD reserachers,” said the professor I emailed.

“I study Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution, and I’m going to be applying for a PhD soon,” I told him. This is why he made an exception for me to attend the seminar.

There’s no way I can sleep on the train. All I think about is red double-decker buses, people on horses in the streets, riding a train underground, and hearing British accents in real life – all things completely foreign and exciting to me. Things I’ve only seen in the cinema. It’s not as exciting however, as the fact that I’m travelling through the English countryside to a place that seems too perfect to be real. It’s more exhilarating than being a young child on Christmas morning. I can’t slow my racing heart. The effect of traveling on the brain is addictive. Learning and seeing new things changes our brain synapses and neurotransmitters.

I straighten my scarf and look down at the scuffmarks on my shoe. I don’t know how to dress for cold weather. I look around at everyone’s coats to compare and judge if mine is acceptable or not. I didn’t know walking around a downtown train station would feel like being at fashion week. Everyone seems to be dressed to perfection.

I fix my hair, apply another layer of mascara, and make sure I have my pen, notebook, and Lebanese politics book in my purse. I must look prepared. I want to look like I belong, rather than like a tourist who has only been in the country for 4 hours.

The train stops and so does my heart. I’m here. I’m actually going to step on the ground. I look around in awe and wonder if any of the people passing me ever revered the place like I do. I sort of laugh at myself realizing I’d expected they all would. To them it’s probably just a normal city. I can’t comprehend their lack of enthusiasm.

I turn on my GPS and start walking to the small building on the far side of campus. I realize quickly that I was not only accurate about the grandeur of this place, but even underestimated the majesty of the gardens, the Victorian houses, and the little children wearing school uniforms and asking their “mummies” for “ice-lollies” as they walk through the park. After growing up near “The Strip” in Las Vegas and living in Hawaii where people wear “Aloha shirts,” cut-off shorts, and flip-flops – the formality of the people, and the historical buildings around me are unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

On the street I stop and stand like a statue just staring with my mouth gaping open. I’m looking at visual images that I decorated my bedroom and computer desktop with for months. My brain feels confused to see these pictures in real life. I pause to think about how incredible the world can be by sometimes rewarding us with our greatest dreams.

Onward I walk to the political science building. I sit on the green couch and try to relax. I am well aware that “data support[s] a neuropathological model in which sleep disruption may contribute to the maintenance and/or exacerbation of anxiety through its impact on anticipatory brain function.”2

In other words, lack of sleep, plus anxiety, equals an explosion of anxiety times a billion. It makes the brain hypersensitive to emotion, and this is why little kids often have temper-tantrums when they need a nap.

I would have arrived to London a day earlier if my schedule had permitted it, but this was the only way I could attend the last seminar of the semester – possibly my only chance to sit in on one.

Finally it’s time to begin the meeting. I’m surprised to see that it’s in a small room with only ten chairs surrounding a rectangular table. Where is the lecture hall?

“Is this the seminar?” I ask the only other girl in the room. She smiles and nods so I sit. Finally my heart begins to slow down and I feel ok.

I blink my eyes as a professor walks into the room. Not just any professor. The professor whose research I’ve read practically every word of, and whose online lectures I’ve watched dozens of times. The professor who researches the same subject I do, who has my dream job, lives in my dream city, and basically matches my ideal of a perfect man in every way. He’s my equivalent of a “celebrity crush” whom I never believed I would actually see in real life. Of all the empty chairs in the room, he picks the one directly across the table from me. I’m too nervous to speak.

He’s only ten years older than me and I just happen to accidentally notice that he’s not wearing a ring. It’s not like I was looking or anything.

Soon, the room fills and I notice that on each chair is seated one of the political science professors. I know who every one of them is because I’ve read some of their books and articles. Suddenly I remember what the department chair told me:

“These seminars are typically for PhD researchers.”

Oh my … Oh my … Oh my …! I say in my head. Students! I thought he meant PhD students, not professors! I’m panicking. I’m sitting in a small room around a discussion table with 10 of the most prominent, most intelligent political scientists in the world, at one of the oldest, top-ranking colleges in the world. I haven’t slept for over 30 hours, and my “celebrity crush” is sitting directly across the table from me. I say a prayer that I don’t pass out.

Psychologist Edward Hallowell said “Psychological stress results when a person feels vulnerable when confronted by a source of power.”3 In giving advice to those with chronic anxiety, psychologist Nick Dublin says, “When you habitually put people above you, you unwittingly give away your power to them. If you are constantly belittling yourself as being inferior to others, you automatically give away your power to those people and increase your own feeling of vulnerability.” 3

I know this. I’ve read The Secret, I’ve read an unending list of positive thinking books, and I tell myself over and over to visualize good things, and be confident.

It doesn’t work this time.

Don’t you dare open your mouth, I think. Don’t say anything! Just sit here, take notes, smile, and try to be unnoticed, is the advice I give myself. It’s hard to blend in sitting with colleagues who’ve worked together for years. I have permission to be here, I have permission to be here, I remind myself.

How on earth have I come from one side of the word to another where all my dreams are coming true within a matter of hours? I know I’m sleep deprived, but I’m pretty sure I’m not hallucinating.

The seminar begins. I learn about the Arab Spring, and how media distorts accurate perceptions of these recent world events. I’m shocked I learn anything in my physical condition, and with being distracted by the dreamy professor occasionally staring at me. I guess it’s the added cortisol and stress that’s giving me energy.

A question is asked and I think of a brilliant response. My heart pounds and my hand wants to raise into the air for a turn to speak.

Don’t do it! I advise myself. You have a bachelor’s degree, and they have published books on this subject, I think. I write down my thoughts instead of speaking them. Suddenly, a professor who specializes in peacebuilding raises her hand and elaborately expresses exactly what I had wanted to say.

“Oh that’s a really interesting point, I hadn’t thought of that,” comments another professor.

Dang it! I think. I should have spoken up! I couldn’t help but begin to wonder how the attractive professor might have perceived me if I had.

After another several minutes of discussion pass, I think of something else brilliant to say. My heart races again as I debate whether or not I should take a risk. I figure I need to learn to overcome my fears. It will be healthy.

My hand rises. The eyes of every professor are on me. My face feels like its burning.

“I… I…” I try to express my ideas, but I hear myself stuttering, I feel my throat choking as I fight to get sound out, and words to leave my tongue. It doesn’t happen. A few phrases come out, and some convoluted ideas, mixed with lots of stuttering and pauses, and trying to re-explain myself. It’s like bursts of word vomit erupting, and I can see and feel the confused looks of these authors searing into my soul disapprovingly.

Apparently there is no evidence linked to anxiety and stuttering, but it’s a phenomenon that happens to me nearly every time I experience an excessive amount of stress. I literally stutter or can’t remember simple English words I’ve always known. I’m sure one day I’ll figure out the neurological mechanics of why. I guess it has something to do with the pre-frontal cortex of the brain again. Too much stress causes the brain to shut-down, preventing us from thinking rationally and being able to make decisions, which is why reflecting on this experience for me is sort of like watching a girl in a horror movie and wanting to tell her how obvious it is what she should do next, and not to go into that dark room.

The presenter kindly tries to disseminate the awkwardness in the room, no other questions are asked, and the seminar comes to a close. Faking a smile, I begin to scroll through absolutely nothing on my phone, and walk out of the room as quickly as possible.

Finding refuge in the ladies room, I slap my forehead with my palm, shake my head, and let out a heavy sigh. I feel like screaming. I’m trying to process what really just happened.

Walking out as slowly as possible, I hope the attractive professor might talk to me. I can’t think of anything to say to him or ask him. He is already conversing with a pretty woman. Slothfully I pass by. He watches me leave without a word, without a movement, just gazing at me.

I walk through the glass doors and feel my heart shatter inside me. It’s as if every sharp broken piece is cutting into my other body tissues, making me bleed internally as the pain spreads through my veins. Should I go back? Should I say something? I sit on a bench outside the doors feeling every painful thought torture me. I can’t turn back time. I can’t amend my errors. The insoluble pain of regret settles and I begin to replay exaggerated scenes of the last hour of my life in my mind. I’m certain that not only have I ruined my only chance to ever talk to my “celebrity crush,” but much worse, I feel I’ve certainly obliterated any chance of ever studying at this college, where professor approval must be obtained before being admitted. I can’t apply to research with any of them now. I seem to have ruined my entire future in a matter of minutes.

Of course it’s probably not as bad as I think, right? They might not remember, right?

Lamenting, I walk back to the train station where I sit woefully trying to console myself. One of the women from the seminar begins to walk in my direction. I look up and she quickly looks down, avoiding eye contact with me and trying not to laugh.

Did I just get made fun of by a professor? I think, amused. At least I have a story to tell. I go home, eat some chocolate, write a song about it on the guitar, and finally go to sleep. (“Chocolate is good for stress. This is thought to be because it contains valeric acid, which is a relaxant and tranquilliser.”4 Don’t get me started on how good music is for the brain and how it releases oxytocin.)

Was it really as bad as I perceived it to be? Anyone can assume what they think, but no one really knows. Will I ever happen to run into that professor again? In some way I hope so, and in some way I hope not, for fear that he will remember me. But I will never forget my experience, and I know that one day I will return to that city, feeling confident, and will look back on this experience and laugh. Even after walking the streets, meeting the people, and exploring every corner of the city many times, the magic it holds for me never tainted, it only grew. I know that the mystical fairyland I imagine it to be seems irrational to others but it doesn’t matter. Victor Frankl said “The meaning of life is to give life meaning,” and if I believe a place is like heaven then to me it is and that’s what matters. One day I’ll live there. One day.

Looking back, I realize how irrational I was. I wish I could have acted differently, more like “myself,” but the problem with anxiety is that once it impacts that prefrontal cortex in your brain, it means you can’t react as quickly, and you can’t process information in the same way or make clear decisions. These are proven scientific facts. So if you’re under a lot of stress, don’t make major life decisions like who to date, where to live, what to major in, or what to say at a seminar with world-leading political experts. At this point I think, wow, that was a pretty epic first day in the United Kingdom. I’m glad I didn’t go to Buckingham Palace or the London Eye. I guess I’ll keep following Rumi’s advice to “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray.” Although next time, I’ll try to get more sleep and be less anxious.

.

Mindfulness for dealing with stress and anxiety:
- 6 Techniques to Lower Your Stress – Daniel Goleman http://www.wildmind.org/blogs/book-reviews/relax-6-techniques-to-lower-your-stress-by-dan-goleman
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction: What it Is, How it Helps http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/crisis-knocks/201003/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction-what-it-is-how-it-helps
 
References:
1) Funahashi S, Bruce CJ, and Goldman-Rakic PS. “Mnemonic coding of visual space in the monkey’s dorsolateral
prefrontal cortex.” J Neurophysiol 61: 331–349, 1989 (http://jn.physiology.org/cgi/reprint/61/2/331).
2) Goldstein, A.N., Greer, S.M., Saletin J.M., Harvey, A.G., Nitschke, J.B., Walker, M.P. (2012). “Tired and Apprehensive: Anxiety Amplifies the Impact of Sleep Loss on Aversive Brain Anticipation.” The Journal of Neuroscience. (http://www.jneurosci.org/content/33/26/10607.abstract).
3) Dublin, N. (2009). “A Guide to Successful Stress Management.” Jessica Kingsly Publishers; London, UK; Philidephia, USA
4) http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-3728/Eating-chocolate-good-you.html

2 responses to “The Most Embarrassing Day of My Life: Some Insights on the Neuroscience of Anxiety

  1. Mashallah. I read it all the way to the end. There is nothing embarrassing about this inspiring reality storytelling style of writing (which, by the way, has inspired my recent blog posts). This piece has it all: Tragedy, Comedy, Romance, Science, Psychology, Personal Diary; but above all, and for me personally, it collapses the rigid boundaries between reality and fiction, emotions and rationality, fluid personal knowledge and hard academic writing, who we are and how others perceive us, science and art, philosophy and poetry, feelings and thoughts, and pleasure of the text and pragmatic realization of meanings. I don’t know who else in this world writes in this style of rich texture and thick layers. Please, keep it up. It could be your next TEDx.

  2. Having lived in London for 2 years, my excitement rose with every word. Heidi explains her situation clearly with definitions to boot! I learned things about the brain & why children may have a tantrum. Interesting! Exciting! Emotional as if I was there. Great writing. My heart goes out to Heidi Green. Great job! Loved every minute of it.

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