How learning about my schemas helped me manage my anxiety 

WORDS BY Asheda Weekes

“Putting a name to what I was experiencing was a breath of fresh air.”

Have you ever wondered, ‘Why did I react that way?’ I’m sure you have. We see it in pop culture on the reg – the aftermath of a dramatic fight between our favourite characters on our favourite shows. ‘I wasn’t thinking straight. I didn’t mean what I said.’

We take it as gospel that they’ve had a bad day, not enough sleep, or perhaps they were inebriated. They’re the villain doing as expected, or the protagonist making a wrong judgement. And we take it on and think ‘Wow, I would never react that way, this is how I would have done it…’ But really, in the heat of a moment, would you?

Interested to hear how others navigate the world? Head to our Life section.

I’m one of those people that can replay an event from ten years ago so vividly, and reverberate with nostalgia even if it’s incredibly insignificant. Whether it’s a wash of embarrassment, irritability or hurt, or unbridled joy and warmth. I replay my reaction. I replay the reactions of others.

I’ll spend another five minutes scripting a new response on how it could have been. Much the same, I can replay something that happened just yesterday. Call it what you will – zoning out or daydreaming – that’s where you’ll find me. Jumping between a string of memories to prove any point that can feed my anxiety on a daily basis. 

It’s exhausting. Over the last ten years, I thought I could therapy my way out of my bouts of poor mental health. And even though I’ve hit some amazing milestones, the good fight is a daily one with the dialogue in my head. I begrudgingly admit I can have incredibly unkind thoughts. Very grim thoughts. Very angry thoughts.

And before I go any further, thoughts aren’t facts. They aren’t values or beliefs. They are statements. (You better believe I tell myself this every day.) But it doesn’t stop me from feeling guilty or ashamed for these thoughts to even cross my mind. And that also goes for my immediate reactions to even the most mundane, unimportant things. 

Each day is a reaction roulette – will I be annoyed at slow walkers? Will I be jealous of influencers on Instagram? Will I be frustrated at my partner over some domestic chore not done ‘the right way’? Will I scream blasphemous words at drivers while I wait in traffic? Will I be irritated someone is late meeting me? Or will I take everything in a subdued calm? A nonchalant shoulder shrug – a take it and move on approach.

I never saw myself as a sensitive person. But as time went on I noticed the people around me had to tiptoe, because they were expecting some kind of the former. I wouldn’t have described myself as volatile but from others’ reactions, I was noticing I might be. And I needed to know why.

A couple of years ago I was handed yet another test from my psychologist. I thought it was the standard assessment, but the questions differed. It was this day I discovered what schemas were, and how they were the answers to two things: how and why I reacted, and why I uproot memories constantly. The anxiety is circular. I react because of anxiety and I’m anxious because of how I reacted. It had to do with my schemas: punitive, pessimism and recognition-seeking.

A schema is another way of describing a pattern of thought or behaviour (aka reactions). They are the microseconds of thought before responding to an event. They are useful as they let our minds take shortcuts in interpreting vast amounts of information in our presented environment.

They influence what we pay attention to, impact how quickly we learn, help simplify our world and can change how we interpret incoming information. They also can be difficult to change, as they are rooted in trauma, past experiences and subconsciously linked to your values. There are 18 schemas overall, and knowing what mine are has helped me combat the cyclical nature of anxiety. 

It makes my skin crawl knowing I have a punitive, pessimistic and recognition-seeking nature. I remind myself they’re more like flaws – they don’t identify me, the same way borderline personality disorder (BPD) doesn’t. When I was given the handouts and chatted through them at length, it all made sense. Let me give you a quick run-through of what they are.

  • Punitive: the belief that people should be punished for mistakes, leading to a tendency to be angry, intolerant and impatient with people and oneself for not meeting expectations. Often resulting in an over-focus on flaws and unstable relationships (cue the BPD crossover here and lowkey road rage).
  • Recognition-seeking: excessive emphasis on gaining approval and attention from others at the expense of developing a secure true sense of self (hello perfectionism and fear of rejection).
  • Pessimism: pervasive, lifelong focus on the negative aspects of life with obsessive rumination (refer back to the second paragraph) and an inability to experience positive things. 

So in our sessions, we took a deep dive into the ruminations and pinpointed several instances where these schemas came to be. I discovered my road rage stemmed from PTSD from being in two critical car accidents, so the punitive anger was a coping mechanism to feel in control. I learnt my mixed-race identity contributed to recognition-seeking tendencies. And that my pessimistic tendencies are embedded from years of emotional dysregulation. These are just to name a few. 

Putting a name to what I was experiencing was a breath of fresh air. Creating space in those microseconds let me see the nuance in the black and white statements that anxiety was imposing. Since learning of these, it’s allowed me to capture myself in real-time, or after the event to negate these. I retrace thought patterns and re-train my reactions.

I call myself out. I apologise. I take a mental note and try to do better next time. I even use dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) tools to manage as well. I’ve come to terms with the fact that they may never completely go away, but I’m thankful that since knowing about my schemas I’ve been able to break anxiety’s cyclical hold over me. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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