What an ugly word that conjures images of stressful moments, failures, fears, and bodily anguish! Those that suffer from it know that it is the uninvited guest that completely destroys the present moment. And, unless you’ve battled this monster, you don’t completely understand the intensity or cyclical nature of this problem. So for all fellow strugglers and for those that love someone who struggles, this post is for you!
So, what is ANXIETY exactly?
Anxiety is FEAR. Ok, blog post over. See ya next week! No really, anxiety is fear but fear without a direct threat. An example of fear with a direct threat would be standing in front of someone with a gun pointed at you ready to pull the trigger (Yikes!). This is a direct threat to your safety. When that happens, your body starts preparing to fight or flee. Your heart rate rises, your blood pumps faster, your body releases chemicals to help you respond and protect yourself. This happens instantaneously as your brain processes the fear response.
ANXIETY is a fear response without a direct threat.
So, how does one develop a fear minus a direct threat?
Well, the brain has different places that serve different purposes. There is an emotional brain (the amygdala) and a logical brain (the cortex). Most of our conscious thoughts and decisions happen from our logical brain. The emotional brain is different. It has the ability to sense danger and produce the fear emotion without letting the logical brain in on the process (uh oh). This part of your brain also stores emotional memories and learns not by reason but by the pairing a specific situation with a specific emotion. Because the emotional brain can bypass the logical brain, many of us don’t know what started the fear and anxiety process in the first place.
Now anxiety is always based on a perceived threat. Your emotional brain determined that something was a threat to you and initiated the fight or flight physical response. But that physical response is so intense and scary without a direct threat starring us in the face that we become afraid of the physical anxiety reaction itself! Now the vicious anxiety cycle has begun!
- Your emotional brain has paired fear with whatever the internal/external trigger was and it can not be undone unless that trigger is paired with a different emotion. This is not a logical process.
- You usually flee whatever the situation is that is causing this anxiety (fleeing is a natural response to fear), HOWEVER, this tells the emotional brain that it is correct to be afraid of the situation and reinforces the pairing.
Now many things can lead someone into this cycle and a skilled counselor can help you uncover what got you to this point. Yet, just knowing the why behind anxiety can’t undo or stop the process because it isn’t a purely logical process. The good news is that there are several things you can do in the moment of anxiety that can help regardless of the why behind your anxiety!! I will elaborate in more detail in the weeks to come on each of these ideas.
- Since anxiety has a physical response, there are physical things that you can do to help combat that fight/flight reaction. Slow down your breathing. If you slow down your breathing, than your heart rate will follow. I like to do a counting breath of 4. Breathe in 2, 3, 4…Breathe out 2, 3, 4…. repeat until your heart rate has slowed down.
- Focus on the present moment by observing what you see, taste, smell, touch, and hear. These are often things that we over look but are a great way to help refocus our thinking, which is often catastrophic by this point.
- Be with a trusted/safe person while in the anxiety producing situation (no fleeing). Young children deal with the anxiety of learning about their world by having the secure base of mom and dad. Watch a child crawl around to explore a new room; they will continually check back to make sure mom or dad is still watching. We are wired for connection and we heal/grow through being connected to safe people who help us process our stuff.
- Tell yourself the truth. Go back to my previous explanation of how the emotional brain learns. It learns by pairing. Each of the above suggestions helps the emotional brain pair new experiences with the feared trigger. Not only that but using your logical brain to question your fear can also help calm down the emotional brain. Just because the emotional brain can bypass the logical brain when reacting, doesn’t mean that the logical brain can’t come in and help calm down the emotional brain with the truth. However, this only works after the physical symptoms have come down to a more manageable level.
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