In this powerful piece, our in-house therapist, Penni Osborn shines a light on the origins of anxiety, highlights ways in which anxiety can manifest and offers suggestions on how symptoms can be managed.
Now, more than ever, anxiety is making its stomach-churning self known. In these times of such uncertainty, it has latched onto our fear receptors and is making even those with the strongest of constitutions struggle with its message of impending doom. So, what can be done? How can we manage something that makes us feel, at times, so helpless and afraid?
Calm the Body to Calm the Mind
Anxiety is our inbuilt alarm system, alerting us, and therefore protecting us from potentially dangerous situations. Situated in a part of the brain responsible for our emotional responses, it is a hand-me-down from our prehistoric ancestors, whose daily lives were often under threat. Prehistoric man was vulnerable to predators, natural disasters and even exclusion from the clan. Exposure to these circumstances could result in injury, starvation or worse. These were ‘life or death’ situations that required swift action to maintain survival.
So, how did our ancestors know? They knew because anxiety told them. Once triggered, it flooded their bodies with stress hormones that prompted the ‘fight, flight or freeze’ response and its associated physical side effects – churning stomach, racing heart, tense muscles, trembling, rapid breathing – and prepared them for action. If our ancestors didn’t have anxiety, prehistoric man would have been fearless, with potentially disastrous consequences.
This in-built alarm system has endured and still functions in humans today. However, for some, incoming information can be wrongly interpreted, and it can cause a ‘misfire’, triggering the physiological symptoms of anxiety without any obvious cause. Anxiety feels like fear – it feels dangerous, as if something bad is going to happen right now. Uncomfortable as this is, it’s simply our brain doing its job – giving us a ‘heads-up’ to possible danger and therefore providing us with the strongest chance of taking life-saving action.
Doing this through thought alone can be difficult as the anxiety response can be powerful enough to override our ability to form thoughts. Have you noticed how, when you are highly stressed or anxious, you can’t seem to think straight?
One way to initiate the reassurance process is to start with the body by altering our breathing. This can work wonders! Breathing in deeply through the nose and out, very slowly, through the mouth, calms the sympathetic nervous system and lets the anxious brain know that all is well. We can also try to consciously relax our muscles, again letting our brain know that it’s had a false alarm. Once the physical symptoms have subsided enough for your thoughts to work again, thank your brain for its gift of protection but let it know that everything is okay now.
Challenge Catastrophic Thinking
Humans have the gift of imagination. We can imagine future events and their possible outcomes. This is great from the point of view of being able to prepare us for ‘worst case scenarios’ and to plan ahead in case things don’t go quite as expected, which can, and sometimes does, happen. But when we discount all other possibilities and focus only on the worst outcome, we are within the realms of catastrophic thinking. In other words, we are overestimating the danger level of an imagined (or ‘predicted’) future situation or event and underestimating our ability to cope. When we think in catastrophic terms, we are sending out the message to our internal alarm system that something is wrong which can then trigger the anxiety response.
These types of thoughts can feel very believable, but they are simply that – just thoughts. It may not always feel like it, but we do have the power to control our thoughts. Monitoring our thoughts and becoming aware of how we think gives us far greater insight and therefore control. Checking our thoughts against reality and looking at possibilities other than the ‘worst case scenario’ we can help to calm our thoughts and their perceived power over us and therefore avoid triggering the anxiety response.
Let’s consider the following example:
- Event – Teenage son is late home.
- Catastrophic Thought – He’s up to no good! He’s got himself in trouble! Oh no, now what am I going to do? This is awful!
- Reality Check – He’s never done anything to cause real concern before. He was late home last week because he was invited for pizza and forgot to let me know.
- Other Possibilities – He’s missed the bus, his phone’s out of charge, he’s having fun and lost track of time…
By giving ourselves the opportunity to rationalise our thoughts, we can go some way towards avoiding triggering anxiety.
Get Into ‘The Now’
Grounding ourselves in the present moment, using mindfulness, can reassure us that no threat is imminent. When we feel the beginnings of anxiety stir, we can introduce techniques that put us firmly in the ‘here and now’. Assuming there is no real threat right now, this can be achieved by drawing our attention to our surroundings and either physically touching and naming the objects around us (ie ‘light switch’, ‘table’, ‘mug’ etc) or by looking around and noticing and saying out loud what we see.
We can enhance this exercise further by using describing skills to bring our attention even more into the present, by asking basic questions like, ‘What colour is it?’, ‘What does it feel/smell/sound like?’. #mindful Click To Tweet
Using things that appeal to our five senses can also help to ground and calm us, such as a scented candle or essential oil (smell), a soft blanket (touch), a relaxing image (sight), your favourite music (sound) or something delicious to eat or drink (taste).
Worries are like seedlings that, once planted (and unless their growth is monitored), continue to grow. For instance, an initial worry may be that a mistake has been made at work. The seed is planted. If allowed to, that seed will keep growing. The first ‘What if?’ links to further ‘What if’s?’ and in no time at all a single worry has become a fully grown worry tree. Getting that initial worry down on paper and brainstorming the worst, best and most likely outcomes can interrupt the growth of the worry seed and gives you the unburdened space needed to address the initial concern, avoiding a spiralling of worries that then trigger the anxiety response.
There are many other skills that can be learned to help manage the symptoms of anxiety and regain control over its debilitating grip. Seeking help from a therapist can arm you with tools that you can use to help you move on and embrace life fully without the burden of anxiety holding you back from the happiness you deserve. If you are struggling with anxiety and feel more support would be helpful, do get in touch, I’d love to hear from you!