I guess the best way to start off the month on anxiety is to lay out exactly what we mean by anxiety. What is it? Why does it happen? How do you know if you have it?
Anxiety in its basic form is an overabundance of fear. We all have some level of anxiety in this day and age because frankly, the world is a little scary. We hear about the spread of Ebola, terrorism, violence, and poverty and our collective blood pressure rises a few points.
In theory this fear response is a healthy thing. It is what kept cavemen from getting eaten by saber tooth tigers back in the day. When a threat of danger appears, our bodies respond. We get shots of adrenaline and cortisol into our bloodstream that speed up our hearts and tighten our muscles. The blood moves in from our outer limbs and our digestive system empties us of extra weight. All this was an ingenious design to enable us to be able to run like the wind from the wooly mammoth or tiger or whatever else might be chasing us. And if we couldn’t outrun a threat, then our body was a least prepared to fight for our lives. (We will talk much more about fight or flight response another day).
But we don’t live in the Paleolithic era anymore and most of our threats cannot be outrun. You cannot outrun terrorism or cancer or crushing debt or difficult relationships. So our modern brains can get confused and keep producing short term fear responses to long term threats. And our minds that once moved on when we escaped the wooly mammoth (caveman fist bump) now tend to run over and over the problems in our lives until everything we see around us seems threatening.
So for those who suffer from an anxiety disorder, this overabundance of fear becomes pervasive. It creeps into our lives and wraps over us like a too tight jacket so that our movement through life is limited and slowly we begin to lose the joy and freedom we once knew in life.
Anxiety is a body event.
My husband is fond of saying that anxiety is a body event. Long term stress can affect the body is numerous and surprising ways. Just a few of the most common physical effects of anxiety are:
Shortness of breath
Racing heart and/or heart palpitations
Numbness or tingling in hands or feet
Gastrointestinal distress (nausea, diarrhea, acid reflux aka GERD, irritable bowel syndrome)
I know. All very sexy, right? Oh yeah, add loss of sex drive to the list.
Over the years I have been surprised by the power of anxiety to make me downright sick. From the EKG and echo cardiogram I got during my first real panic attack, to an endoscopy ten years later to diagnose GERD, to the recent MRI on my spasmy neck, I continue to be amazed at what powerful and diverse damage anxiety can do to my body (not to mention how expensive it is to diagnose and treat all these stress related maladies).
If anyone tells you anxiety is all in your head, knock them upside their head for me, will you? For anxiety gets in your bloodstream, your muscles, your heart, your bowels, when it is bad enough, it simply seems to go everywhere.
For more info on the physical effects of anxiety and a nice overview on types of anxiety, click here to read Heathline’s article on anxiety.
But anxiety is in your head.
I wish I could say that anxiety is some condition you inherit in your DNA and that you simply take a little pill to fix it and then all is sunshine and roses.
But the honest truth is that a good amount of anxiety does start in your head.
Don’t get me wrong, I think some of us are just hard wired in a way that we are more prone to anxiety.
But I also know there are certain patterns of thinking among the anxious that keep the fear responses going and going. It is like a vicious loop. Brain thinks thought that triggers fear. Body responds. Brain notices weird reaction of body and gets even more scared. And on and on until true panic sets in.
But even if we are not anxious to the point of panic, we may have thoughts that perpetuate low grade anxiety day after day. Here are some of the most common patterns of anxious thinking:
What if? (What if x, y, or z bad thing happens in the future?)
All or nothing. (If I messed up one part of dinner it was all a total failure and everyone hates me because I am a terrible cook).
Critical thinking (That was so stupid of me. I look fat and ugly today, etc.).
Perfectionism (Having high, unrealistic expectations of yourself and others).
If some or all of these things describe you, Fear Not! (Yeah, I really just wrote that ;-)). Seriously, there is HOPE.
All kinds of hope. So much hope it will take the next 29 days to talk about it all.
But for now just know that you are not alone, you are not crazy, and it can get better.
For now my anxiety still comes and goes in seasons, sometimes in small waves and some bigger, but there is definitely better and for that I am so grateful. (Gratitude, we’ll come back to that as well).
And if you happen to be a person who is blessed with equanimity and not anxiety but you recognize a friend or love one in these descriptions, can you do me a favor?
Love on that scared one. For fear is not a kind or gentle companion. Therefore to have you to as a kind and gentle companion would be a precious gift.
Come back for more ways to get help tomorrow!