by Kristen C. Dew, LMFT
At Growth Therapy in Monroe, CT we focus our talents on helping people struggling with anxiety. Anxiety disorders are easily the most common problem therapists see. This post is part 1 of many blogs about managing anxiety.
Anxiety is everywhere.
America is just primed for anxiety disorders. Some of us work 40+ hours a week, some of us can’t get a job that will pay a living wage, there is political stress, medical stress, financial stress, all of this leads to family and interpersonal conflict, don’t forget there is a global pandemic…. I could go on but I’m sure you get the point. Anxiety is an emotion that can easily feel out of control since its primary job is to keep us safe and the reality is, the world is not always safe.
Your brain on anxiety
Just like all of the organs in our bodies, our brains have a job to do. When it comes to anxiety, brains are built to respond quickly and effectively to stress. We don’t sit around when there is an emergency thinking about what to do, we quickly assess that there is danger and leap into action to keep us safe. This used to be a straight forward thing when the only threats were natural disasters or animal attacks, but now there are many many things our brains see as “threatening” based on our experiences. This means almost every one of us have some situations that cause us to respond quickly and with worry and fear, they keep us up at night wondering what to do, or we try to avoid them at all costs.
Listening to anxiety
Anxiety is hard to manage because it’s a great and helpful emotion! You can’t just tell your brain to stop, that would be like telling your heart not to race when you’re on the edge of a cliff- it’s a primal and necessary response to move you out of danger. It is not in your best interest to shut off your anxiety responses. For the situations that you NEED to do that don’t pose a life threatening risk, you can change anxious responses that are unhelpful to you. This is done by befriending your anxiety and listening to it, validating it, and guiding it to a different response.
Here is what that sounds like and feels like in practice.
*situation occurs, or you are thinking about a situation that might occur*
Body: HEART RACES, PALMS GET SWEATY, RESTLESSNESS, BREATH BECOMES SHALLOW, NAUSEA, HEADACHE, FEELS LIKE SOMEONE IS STANDING ON YOUR CHEST….
(signals of your body in fight/flight/freeze/fawn mode)
Brain: What’s going on? Oh no, it’s that thing again. Remember what happened last time? The FEELINGS will just be unbearable! It will be SO uncomfortable! You’ll be embarrassed. You can’t deal with this AT ALL. Everyone will judge you. You have to get out of this! Run away! Call in sick!
(Symptoms continue to get more intense and uncomfortable with that train of thought. I like to call it the hamster wheel: you’re running and going nowhere).
Body: You might have impulsive actions, rage at someone close to you, expect others to recognize your danger signals and save you, maybe even have a panic attack.
Brain: Ok okok, this is anxiety kicking in, thank you anxiety. I see what you’re trying to do here, getting me away from danger, and I appreciate you. Right now, actually, I don’t need your help getting away. I need to do the thing. I need to relax and then think of what to do next…
In the example above, the automatic way of thinking at a threatening situation is totally normal if there is an actual threat, like the house is on fire (that means your brain works, yay!). Many of our anxious signals, however, are just trying to avoid the discomfort in our bodies. The only way to move through anxiety is to learn to notice, acknowledge, and relax the body feelings of anxiety and tell your brain a different story.
To be continued…