Anxiety is everywhere, especially in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. We are anxious about our kids' schooling, safety and might even have new anxiety around the vaccine. Even in the midst of hope, we can still feel uncertainty.
Often, clients come to me saying that they no longer want to feel anxiety. I will always ask them what they think this looks like because the reality of it is, we need anxiety. So here are some things to consider next time you find yourself googling "how to deal with anxiety."
I tell people, anxiety is a way of knowing our brains and bodies are working. Feeling anxiety doesn't mean you have a disorder. Even if you are diagnosed with a disorder, it isn't a negative thing. It's just the way your brain is wired. And you're definitely not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness, affecting about 40 million Americans, or about 1 in 5 of us, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
When something is amiss, or there is something different in our environment or our bodies, our anxiety starts to present itself as a sign that something isn’t right. This is a good thing. It heightens our awareness so that we can potentially focus on an issue and address it.
What’s tricky about anxiety and humans is that we keep ourselves at higher anxiety levels longer than we need to. Animals don’t do this. Their more primal brains keep them in their "fight or flight" mindset as long as they need to, and then they return to their normal way of being. When our brains are stressed, we release a hormone called cortisol into our bloodstream. This triggers our own fight or flight response to stress and anxiety. The challenge is that we have control to keep our cortisol flowing or to shut it down. Being in control might sound like a good thing, but as humans, we tend to take it the other way, leading to more stress, which can negatively impact our mental health.
We stress about things long after we need to. These feelings can also turn into fear, sadness, and other forms of emotions that we have to deal with. We ruminate about arguments we have with our partners and family, we bring work stress home with us (or struggle to stop working in our work from home environment), and are constantly confronted with the idea that we could or should do more.
The first part of anxiety management is becoming more aware of when your anxiety rises. Different things will trigger different people. Sometimes it’s work or issues at home. However, there is often an underlying theme that kicks your anxiety into overdrive.
Underlying issues are larger themes that lay beneath day to day stressors. It’s a way to differentiate what is causing anxiety and why it’s causing anxiety.
For example, you have an anxiety-provoking situation at work. You send several coworkers an email with mixed-up information, which confuses everybody. Your anxiety increases, and it intensifies your focus to find the problem. You correct the information and circulate a new email. Problem solved.
This is where it gets tricky. We can stay stressed about resolved problems because we think about how it reflects on us. So the initial thought triggering anxiety might be, “this mix up at work caused problems,” and when you add in the underlying issue around it, it can grow into “this mix up at work caused problems and I am incompetent.”
This narrative doesn’t focus on the problem solving and corrective action you took. It focuses on the error and the erroneous narrative you have about yourself.
Your brain's likely okay with the pattern it does because it’s been doing it for years. Neurons form pathways in our brains, and when one pathway is used repeatedly, it’s like a well-dug canal. The water can flow from one end to the other very quickly.
However, our brains are trainable. We can always make new pathways, but it takes work. The brain is like a muscle. You have to work at it regularly to get the pathway you need in your mind. Think of it like running a marathon. Can you do it? Sure. In reality, with the right training and mindset, almost anyone can do it. Is it hard? Undoubtedly.
Not only is it hard, but there will be days you don’t feel like you’re making progress or even regressing. That’s like marathon training when your body says, “it seems like you think we’re going to keep running, but I’d much rather stop.” It requires a lot of mental exercise and self-talk to continue redirecting your pathway to the new route because it feels more natural to your brain to go the old route.
Reactivity to anxiety and stress is often categorized into two directions, fight or flight. "Fight" indicates that anxiety leads you to go on the attack. You want to confront the problem. Debate it, argue it, and some people are even tempted physically if their stress is directed towards a specific person.
"Flight" is the desire to withdraw from the stressor. Pull away, isolate, and use the energy that some do in "fight" to avoid the stress altogether. It can even mimic depression. It's beneficial to work with a mental health professional to help determine if the more severe symptoms you're experiencing are depression or an anxiety disorder so that you can best know how to treat and move forward.
These both feel good in the moment and may even make you feel justified in your anger, but in the end, your problem, stress, and anxiety are still going to be looking at you in the face. Finding new ways to recognize your tendency and cope differently can significantly impact how you manage these situations and how long they impact you.
Maybe. Some people who have anxiety disorders or suffer from panic attacks benefit from benzodiazepines or other medications in the sedative, hypnotic, anxiolytic family. I have several clients who also work with a psychiatrist, and it alleviates their symptoms greatly. It doesn't take away the need for therapy or learning ways to cope with and manage anxiety. It's a supportive piece of the puzzle. And it takes many pieces to complete that puzzle.
No matter what stress you're facing, we should all practice the discipline of relaxation. Self-care practice, mindfulness exercises, breathing-techniques, meditation, whatever works best for you can be an ongoing anti-anxiety practice. Many people benefit from apps like Calm, Headspace, and the new website Centered recently featured on this site.
The most important thing to remember is that everyone has anxiety, and it looks different for everyone. It's a part of all of us, and it isn't about illuminating it from your life altogether. It's about accepting it and learning how to direct that energy. Consider a therapist if you're in an overwhelming season or just want support from an unbiased third party. If you feel your anxiety is causing serious impairments in your function, consider consulting with a psychiatrist for medication.