Leaving out complicating factors like significant trauma, or medical diagnoses, here are my thoughts on anxiety. A couple paraphrased quotes to get you on the right page when it comes to managing anxiety: “spend 95% of your time understanding the problem, and you’ll only need 5% of the time to solve it”, and, “you cannot solve your problems with the same thinking you used when you created them”.
And a quick point about anxiety vs stress: what’s the difference? Well, not the point of this blog, but it’s important to know that they’re like a Ven diagram, with lots of overlap, and, some distinct differences. Now, let’s do this question-and-answer style.
What is Anxiety?
It’s a physiological (automatic) response to a threat (perceived or real). Insert the usual anxiety provoking stimuli here; speeches, meeting the in-laws, getting pulled over by the police, being chased by the proverbial sabretooth tiger. It activates your central nervous system, and to varying degrees, the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response kicks into gear. It’s your Spidey sense preparing the body to address whatever the threat is. Your way of handling anxiety may either help it, or, make it worse. When left unchecked, anxiety will pour poison in your ear and call it honey, making you believe and ruminate on thoughts that’ll refuel anxiety’s tank. It is fantastic at infecting our rational thinking and making us believe the irrational and the unlikely.
Where is it?
It resides in 2 main places: our thoughts, and our body (sensations). This is a complicated task to spell out in a couple paragraphs, but here we go.
Thoughts: it influences what we focus on, how we perceive the world around us, the perspective we take on a situation, our prediction about how we will handle something or how something will go, and how we interpret sensations in our body. Simply put, it’s your style of thinking that’s important here.
Sensations: as noted above, fight/flight/freeze/fawn is the nervous system response to anxiety, and this can manifest with big body sensations. It creates the chronic tension in muscle groups, the gastro “butterflies”, the knots in our stomach, the heaviness on our chest, the difficulty in getting that full breath, and light-headed and dizziness.
Why do I have it?
I’d love to geek out and go into a Darwinian view on the evolutionary origins of anxiety, but this blog would be too long. What’s important here is that anxiety serves a purpose. It’s helped steer us away from possible danger, or it’s helped us face danger when confronted. A necessary and useful purpose. It’s a part of our greater whole.
When is it too much?
Basically, if you find the negative impact of anxiety is getting out of hand, impacting you significantly in one or multiple areas, and it’s preventing you from working towards your goals, then it’s too much. It’s too much when more often than not, it’s driving the car, and not you.
Who can help me?
Since anxiety is a mind-body impact, various healthcare providers can help. The 1st line of attack would be experienced therapists and physicians, while important additions are naturopaths, RMTs, chiropractors, and acupuncturists to name a few.
How do I decrease anxiety?
This part really requires the individual assessment and work of a therapist to be unique for you. That being said, here are some broad sweeps for addressing anxiety.
As stated above, anxiety is a PART of you. You can’t cut it off. Start by generating acceptance & self-compassion for your anxiety, considering gratefully how it’s job is to help keep you safe from threats, almost like an overzealous bodyguard. We’re looking at its intention over impact here. Not an easy opening task, eh? The alternative is continued/increased suffering via frustration at a part of yourself.
Next, remember that anxiety activates your body. There’s a Feedback Loop that occurs as anxious thoughts produce anxious sensations, then anxious sensations serve as evidence for anxious thoughts, and back and forth we go. So try interrupting this loop by acknowledging when it’s happening. In these moments, see if you can address either your sensations, or your thoughts (sometimes it’s too much to address both in the same moment). Sensation calming can be achieved through breathing re-training, through progressive muscle relaxation, through specific mindfulness-based practices, and by learning specific Distress Tolerance skills from the DBT school of therapy.
Additionally, practice metacognition or mindfulness of thoughts. A fancy way of saying “think about your thinking”. Chances are, your thoughts are likely distorted. Think: horse with blinders on. Get to know the common Cognitive Distortions. Easy google search. When anxiety is running your show, you’re likely getting caught up in one or multiple of these. See if you can challenge the anxious beliefs and interpretations that are fueling anxiety itself.
So let’s put it together: 1- acceptance and self-compassion will be the gentle door opening, 2- see if you can calm the body sensations through skill use, 3- metacognition will be the magnifying glass in which you evaluate the anxious thoughts, 4- use the 3 C’s to Catch, Challenge, and Change thoughts that are not Realistic, Accurate, or Rational (RAR). Anxiety is often the disease of avoidance. Is there something you’re avoiding that needs to be addressed?
Now, this brief blog is certainly not a replacement for talking to a doctor or therapist about difficult to manage anxiety. For more info and therapy support, book a free consultation.
Jason Townsley, MSW, RSW
Social Worker and Psychotherapist