“Sometimes when I start thinking about something, I get worried about everything that could go wrong. Immediately, my heart begins to race, there’s a lump in my throat, my hands begin to tremor sometimes, I feel like I cannot breathe. I become paralyzed with fear imagining what could happen.”
- A client explaining their anxiety during a session
What is anxiety?
Everybody experiences anxiety. Whether it was the first time you stepped on a stage to perform something or a scary exam that is coming up or waiting for the results for a scary exam, or walking into a job interview, everyone experiences anxiety. Any upcoming life event that has a good chance of going sideways can cause you anxiety.
That is how we are wired. In a way, this mechanism is functional because it helps us prep for alternate scenarios where things don’t go the way we plan. But it becomes maladaptive when you begin accepting these thought-out scenarios to be true long before they really are.
My mother always quotes a proverb every time I share an anxious thought. Roughly translated, the message of the proverb goes like this. You are walking on one of the banks of a river. On the other bank, there is a ferocious dog that is tied up. And all you can think about is, “What am I going to do if the river suddenly runs dry and the dog happens to break free?”
Living with anxiety feels like that. Like all the worst-case scenarios are inevitable. But that proverb reminds me that it’s just an erroneous thought process. Rivers surely run dry and dogs are capable of breaking free. But the chances of that happening simultaneously in comparison to an infinite number of other possibilities is quite insignificant.
There are many anxiety related illnesses. The common feature among all of them is experiencing nervousness, worry, fear, and apprehension in disproportionate levels. The way in which they manifest are different according to different illnesses. The most common ones are phobic anxiety disorders like agoraphobia, specific phobia, social phobia; generalised anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), separation anxiety disorder, selective mutism.
“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.”
- C. H. Spurgeo
Why do I get anxious?
Our bodies are built to survive. Every instance you feel threatened, your body kicks into the fight/flight mode. When this happens, all the energy in your body becomes focused on surviving the immediate threat. Nothing else is important.
Just your survival. All secondary bodily functions such as digestion, excretion cease temporarily and all the energy is diverted to your limbs to equip you to run away or fight. Adrenaline is released into your system and you feel a sudden burst of energy to act upon the threat. This mechanism is only meant to happen in spurts. Once you’ve bested the threat, it goes away and your body comes back to normal functioning.
When you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, you perceive a threat which may not present immediately. As a result, this sense of threat is drawn out and your body is constantly in the fight/flight mode for days or weeks. This is not only counterproductive but is also very unhealthy for your body. Imagine your body is like a taser. When it is triggered, there is a burst of electricity for 5 seconds.
If you hold down the trigger, the electricity flow continuously for a longer time but this drains the battery. Staying in the fight/flight mode for long durations is equivalent to you holding down the trigger of a taser - it essentially drains your body off its power. And all this is for something that is not an actual threat to you yet.
Because anxiety is so discomforting to experience, once you’ve experienced it, you try to find ways to avoid it. If a situation made you anxious, it is only natural that you try and avoid it the next time. When you successfully avoid the anxiety-provoking situation, you begin to experience relief. And you think your problem is solved.
But in reality, it’s actually getting worse. By escaping anxiety provoking situations, your anxiety grows stronger. This is because it goes unchallenged. If you are constantly avoiding the anxiety, you are internally admitting defeat to the anxiety. This makes you believe two things, both of which are false. i) Your anxiety is undefeatable and ii) You are weak for not defeating it. This is how avoidance worsens your anxiety.
What can give me immediate relief when I am anxious?
The good news is that anxiety monster can be defeated and you are strong enough to do it. Here’s how.
The mind and the body are very closely related. Just as easily as your mind can activate the “danger mode” in your body, your body can activate the “safe mode” on your mind. This is where all the rave about meditation and mindfulness and breathing techniques you’ve heard over and over again come into play. You might vaguely remember studying about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system in school.
Quick recap: Sympathetic nervous system is what activates your body to face a threat and parasympathetic nervous system is what switches off the fight/flight mode and helps the body return to homeostasis. Your anxious thoughts make you perceive a threat and triggers your sympathetic nervous system. But there are a lot of tricks you can learn to kick start your parasympathetic system which will make all the physical symptoms like palpitations, tremors, face turning red, breathlessness, dizziness, nausea etc. go away.
One body function that you can control most easily which has an enormous role in activating your parasympathetic nervous system is breathing. Go ahead and take a deep breath right now. Doesn’t it almost feel like you haven’t been breathing right this whole time when you finally breathe deeply? Diaphragmatic breathing or as people call it, deep breaths help slow down heart rate. This helps the parasympathetic nervous system kick in because it will be tricked into thinking the body is back in the safe mode. Another important fact is the role played by the vagus nerve in activating the parasympathetic system. The vagus nerve is the longest nerve in the human body. It starts from the base of the brain and runs all the way down till the abdomen.
Thus, there are many areas and ways to stimulate this nerve which will in turn trigger the parasympathetic nervous system. These are the ways in which regulating the body by yourself can help alleviate the symptoms caused by anxiety.
While these measures may prove helpful when you are experiencing anxiety, there’s no guarantee that it won’t happen again. This is where a therapist can help you out. Through therapy, you can explore what is causing your anxiety within a safe space, no judgement no matter what! A therapist is an objective person who can point out your thinking patterns and help you realize misinterpretations and correct them. You’ll become familiar with cognitive distortions and this will help you recognize them as they happen with you. Once you learn to recognize them, then you can learn to challenge them. And soon you’ll notice that anxiety is no longer the big scary monster you couldn’t defeat but rather just a manifestation of all the scary thoughts you have.
If you feel like you are struggling with anxiety, you can reach out to a psychologist at Lostalittle today. The first session is free. Help is available. All you need to do is reach out.