If the amount of anxiety medication prescribed is any indication, many Americans suffer with anxiety. From time to time, anxiety hits us all. Just thinking about writing this blog caused anxiety in me. But it can also manifest as your restless leg, bouncing with impatience; that crushing feeling electrifying your veins as you wait to be addressed in a work meeting; or a terribly stressed body not able to relax or sleep deeply. Anxiety can be chronic, a result of unresolved trauma; or it can emanate from just sitting in traffic. We’ve all experienced it at least once but rarely do we want to BFF with it. Or do we, and why should we even consider that as an option?
Anxiety is a reaction produced by the brain and felt in the body with perceptions or memories of feeling our lives threatened, being trapped, frustrated, or having to wait for an uncertain outcome.
When our brain perceives a situation as adverse, the fight/flight biochemicals that flood our nervous system ask our bodies to act. Protesting or stopping the offense or getting out of the way are the underlying purposes for these motivating energies our brains release into our bodies. If we are not successful in ameliorating the perceived threat or calming our nervous system, anxiety is the dread we then feel that something “bad” is about to happen to us.
Anxiety can also occur when our brains hijack our attention to an historical event that was painful, distressing, or life-threatening. Flashbacks that stimulate anxiety are triggered by situations in the present that remind our brains of stored memories of similar, fearful situations with unfavorable outcomes. Present-moment reactions to past traumatic events can be triggered by our brains faster than a finger snap.
The thoughts we think about a situation, or flashback, have the capacity to change anxiety from an escalating discomfort to a relaxed, resting state with a more regulated nervous system. Our troubles begin when we react emotionally to a past event and don’t focus on the here-and-now, realizing that it is over, and we did the best we could under the circumstances. A here-and-now focus allows us to discover we are currently safe and can therefore return to a more relaxed state.
Anxiety could be recognized as a sign that we need to pay attention right now to what is happening within our bodies and brains. What am I thinking, where is my attention? Perhaps then we could learn to accept, rather than reject, and fear anxiety. There’s a saying in Quantum Physics: “resistance causes persistence.” Or, put another way, what we resist persists.
Darth Vader got this one right when he stated, “It is pointless to resist.”
Say you’re stuck in traffic and need to get somewhere. When we start worrying about not showing up on time, what the consequences will be, and so on, our brains automatically fill in the unknown with a negative outcome. Scientists call this our “negativity bias.”
Our brains assume “what I don’t know will hurt me.”
We have the power in our minds to influence what we don’t know by remaining neutral and not assuming the worst. Anxiety works the same way: when we jump ahead and predict a negative outcome (worry) or focus on our anxiety, it grows.
Physical movement, getting grounded, skin to skin contact—whether yours or from another, looking around you, noticing by name what you see, counting your breaths—all get our brains to focus on something different and help us move through the anxiety.
Stopped in gridlock—don’t allow your thoughts to jump ahead into the future with worry. Make a call, do whatever you can, and then let it go and breathe and relax. Better to get there centered and in your right mind rather than stressed and upset.
Breathing not only keeps us alive, it also has the capacity to alleviate anxiety. Most mammals, birds and even some reptiles use panting when anxious or stressed. What if we recognized if we start to pant or hyperventilate that we need to slow our breathing down to facilitate a state of relaxation? In that calmer place, we can assess the cause of our anxiety and take steps to literally move through it.
Breathing deeply, counting the same number for inhalation, pausing, exhalation, pausing and repeating the cycle, will give your brain something to think about rather than fearing what’s happening to you. Being afraid of anxiety can cause it to escalate. At speeds from 70 to 120 miles per second, our brains can hop from one scary thought when feeling anxiety to facilitating it into a full-blown panic attack. From there, a brain fueled with fear might interpret the panic attack as a heart attack, and the worrying continues. What if I’m having a heart attack? What will happen if I have to go the hospital? How long will I be there, who is going to pick up the kids, what about work, I wonder if my deodorant is working? On and on, like a hamster on a wheel, endlessly running nowhere with our fear-based thoughts driving and rattling us with panic and anxiety as we do.
Anxiety is meant to serve us. What is called “rational anxiety” is when you’re still on the railroad tracks and the train is coming. Your anxiety is telling you to get off the tracks!
Tarra Judson Stariell, LMFT
April 2, 2018