Anxiety…friend or foe?

Written by: Anna Buchanan, MFTC

What is it…

You may be familiar with the term anxiety, but what does it actually mean?

According to Meriam-Webster dictionary, anxiety is “apprehensive uneasiness or nervousness usually over an impending or anticipated ill, an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physical signs (such as tension, sweating, and increased pulse rate), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.”

Let’s take a moment to unpack this.

Anxiety is your system’s way of letting you know that something is off or needs your attention. A healthy dose of anxiety can create motivation and momentum. Too much anxiety or ignoring the warning signals communicated by anxiety is when it can feel unmanageable or overwhelming. We have all experienced some version of anxiety in response to the human experience. You see, the brain is very smart. Our brains have learned to alert us when something is amiss so that we can take action. In other words, anxiety is the body’s unique alert system that sends signals when something is happening, and you need to pay attention. Sometimes, we miss or ignore the signal and that is when our anxiety may get louder.

Anxiety is not inherently good or bad, simply a messenger to deliver information. We may not always see it that way. For some, anxiety is a pesky nudge toward action such as finishing an assignment, alerting us that a situation may be dangerous or to check if the front door is locked. In these cases, anxiety is helpful, while for others it can be a debilitating state of immobilization. Symptoms of anxiety may be experienced physiologically and psychologically as we are one whole being and our mind and body are interconnected. These symptoms may show up as increased heart rate, shallow breathing, nausea, tension in parts of the body, shakiness, nervousness, feelings of dread, or constant worry. If we attempt to ignore or move away from the discomfort of anxiety, we may ease the discomfort temporarily, but it always comes back.

There are many life circumstances and reasons that we learn to suppress feelings and ignore the messages our system is sending out. These reasons may include a history or trauma, having to survive circumstances, attempts at gaining love and approval, internalizing negative messages, or learning not trust ourselves or our bodies. These factors can lead to a dysregulation of the anxiety response system and can create a negative cycle which can result in over or under responding to the messages our anxiety is attempting to communicate.

Possible causes…

There are a number of causes for anxiety. For some, anxiety is biologically rooted, while other causes for anxiety may be related to environmental and circumstantial factors. For example, growing up with a parent who was constantly anxious may create intergenerational patterns of anxiety where anxiety is a learned behavior to cope with stress and is passed down from one generation to the next.

Coping strategies…

Befriending anxiety and giving it the attention that it needs can lessen the hold it has. This can be scary, especially if you’ve never done that before and you may feel like you will be swallowed up by the overwhelming feelings or get stuck in them. However, anxiety like other emotions moves through the body like a wave. Learning to be with the discomfort anxiety brings can result in a reduction of symptoms and greater sense of well-being.

Having coping strategies to manage anxiety when it becomes too much is helpful. When it comes to coping strategies, there is no one size fits all solution. Therefore, it may be helpful to try any one of these strategies to see if it works for you.

Creating self-awareness over time will help in identifying what triggers anxiety, what your unique symptoms of anxiety are, and where in your body you experience these symptoms. Creating this awareness overtime is helpful in that it can be tricky to master this skill in the moment if you have learned to ignore, avoid, or distract yourself from feelings.

When we take time to tune into the anxiety and the message it is trying to deliver, we are practicing attunement with the self and giving voice to a very important part of our experience. Some examples of what anxiety may be trying to communicate are; there is a boundary that is not being honored (either by you or someone else), slow down, the present situation does not feel safe, you’re relinquishing a part of yourself, the present situation lacks control, certainty, or information, and a way to communicate what is important to you.

Some helpful strategies include:

1.     Create awareness around your unique presentation of anxiety. Check in with yourself and ask, “what is my anxiety attempting to communicate?” Give your anxiety a voice. This may feel counter-intuitive as we often tend to lean away from discomfort. However, when you give your anxiety a voice, it often shifts, dissolves and provides distinct information.

2.     Deep breathing: one of the physiological symptoms of anxiety is shallow breathing, which sends danger ques to the brain. The brain responds with some variation of self-protection (fight, flight, freeze) creating a bracing response and causing more shallow breathing. You can interrupt this cycle by taking deep breaths. A simple sequence to remember is 5-5-7. Inhale for five, hold for five, exhale for 7.

3.     Identifying and connecting with your support system: when not in an anxious state, identify those that you feel comfortable talking with so that next time you do feel the holds of anxiety, you have a pre-identified list of go-to support persons.

4.     Create a healthy sleep routine: sleep is when the body heals, and the brain processes the day’s events. Sleep creates space for the brain to reset. Research shows that not getting enough sleep can negatively impact mental health and mood as well as amplify symptoms of anxiety. Creating a healthy sleep routine can assist in improving overall mental well-being and assist in decreasing anxiety symptoms.

5.     Talk with a professional. Anxiety is one of the most common reasons people engage in therapy. It may be helpful to talk with a professional and explore factors contributing to anxiety.

Be sure to check out my next blog: Relationship Tango

Disclaimer: Information contained in this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your mental health professional or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding your condition.