Anxiety and The World
I see an increasing number of clients in my practice with anxiety symptoms, anxiety disorders, and panic attacks. There are multiple causes for any mental health disorder, and anxiety is no different. The state of the world over the last few years certainly has not helped. The potential for serious illness, conflicts in families as a result of covid19, and isolation of the last few years has negatively impacted mental health. Anxiety is often the result of trauma. It is important to remember that trauma is not just what happened. Trauma is better defined by how the events affected you.
Anxiety and The Past
A part of my work with clients is identifying when the symptoms started. I view self-awareness as a vital part of therapy. I do not believe in blaming the past. But I do believe in understanding the past. Understanding the past helps answer questions for why and how we end up where we are today. It provides context for why we cope, communicate, problem-solve, and engage in relationships as we do.
Our past teaches us what is “normal.” Normal is what we live every day. My normal and your normal are probably very different. The bottom line though is each of us learns how to cope with the environment we grow up in. And the symptoms we develop are often a reaction to what we live and are meant to offer self-protection. This view of symptoms like anxiety and depression as self-protective is challenging for some. Most often clients are able to connect how their symptoms helped them cope with their early life.
Anxiety Offers Protection
How does anxiety offer protection? Well, anxiety increases awareness of surroundings, people, situations. Anxiety is about anticipating what hasn’t happened yet. If you anticipate someone’s mood, you can adapt your mood to theirs. By adapting your mood, you try to calm someone else’s anxiety, anger, or frustration. If you can anticipate and defuse a situation it helps keep you safe. Let’s look at an example. A child has a parent that is unpredictable and angry. That child learns to read the parent’s facial expressions and body language when they arrive home from work. Recognizing when the parent is angry, gives a child the ability to stay out of harm’s way.
Sensitized to Stress
As a result, people with anxiety generalize these survival strategies to their life and constantly scan for danger. Then what happens overtime is the brain and body are sensitized to stress. But this does not mean that a person copes better. Being sensitized to stress just means that it takes smaller amounts of stress to create a bigger reaction. This is when people seek treatment. Often, they can no longer tolerate the level of physical and mental stress from the anxiety. And they recognize that something must change.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
Anxiety is more than worrying. Anxiety involves both the brain and body. The physical manifestations of anxiety can mirror serious health conditions. Here are some of the most common physical symptoms of anxiety:
- Stomach aches/stomach upset/nausea
- Frequent urination
- Fast heartbeat
- Chest pain
- Shortness of breath
- Twitchiness of hands/feet or shaky hands
- Excessive sweating
- Difficulty sleeping
It is difficult to know which symptoms are anxiety and which are physical without a medical exam. I encourage all clients with physical symptoms they fear could be from a health issue be evaluated by their doctor. A physical exam and the reassurance that the symptoms are not indicative of health problems, help you and your provider feel confident focusing on anxiety management techniques.
Anxiety is Exhausting
Anxiety is exhausting both physically and mentally. The body is stuck in a continuous state of fight/flight mode. Fight/flight mode is like having the fire alarm in your brain constantly going off. The brain continuously scans for danger keeping your body ready to react. Fight, flight, and freeze are hardwired in the brain as responses to danger. They are not meant to be sustained long-term. Hypervigilance and scanning for danger keep you safe in dangerous circumstances but exhaust you when they are continuous.
Without help, those with anxiety try to avoid people, places and things that may trigger symptoms. The anxious brain makes connections between the anxiety symptoms and where or when they occurred. Those connections prompt behavior changes in the hope to avoid further anxiety.
Let me give you an example. Let’s say I have a panic attack at the grocery store. I assume that something in the environment caused the panic attack. To try and avoid another panic attack, I no longer go to the grocery store. Then, perhaps I have a panic attack driving. I assume that driving caused my panic and now refuse to drive. I feel anxious at the gym and decide it’s no longer safe to work out because my heart pounding feels similar to a panic attack. With each experience of anxiety, I assume it was triggered by what I was doing. I then avoid that activity in order to avoid anxiety. The world gets smaller as activities no longer feel safe.
The more you try to avoid anxiety, the harder that becomes. Anxiety provoking situations were few in the beginning. The more you worry about feeling anxious the more likely it is to happen. It is a catch 22 really. No one wants anxiety or panic attacks. And of course, people want to avoid triggers. But there are long-term implications of avoiding situations due to anxiety. People focus on what might cause symptoms and can’t engage fully in their own lives out of fear of the fear. Platitudes like, “Just don’t think about it” or “just don’t worry” do not work. Please know that anxiety is not weakness, and experiencing it is not your fault. It isn’t all in your head either. Your anxiety exists for reasons that may not be clear yet. And you deserve to be heard.
Anxiety is treatable. Treatments including medication, therapy, meditation, and tapping can help. One of the first strategies I teach clients is based in EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a trauma treatment. It involves slow tapping and helps calm the activation in the brain. Then we assess if seeing a doctor is necessary for a physical exam. And also explore if a medication referral could help. If you are struggling with symptoms of anxiety, please talk to someone you trust. Or seek help from a professional. There is hope and help for anxiety disorders. You don’t have to suffer alone.