Understanding Anxiety – Physiology

Anxiousness is on the rise.  It has been for some time.  I work with teenagers, and they’re reporting panic attacks left and right.  I don’t remember being anxious as a kid.  There was always too much to physically do.  With phones and computers constantly keeping us plugged in, a habit that didn’t exist twenty years ago, it makes sense that anxiety issues are popping up all over the place.  Our patience has waned.  (Look around next time you’re stuck in traffic or at a train crossing and notice how many faces light up with a comforting glow).  The ability to sit in the quiet and be present is an all but lost skill.  Especially for Type A’s who feel uncomfortable with relaxation and who look for every opportunity to continue work, restfulness holds little allure.


What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is the fear of fear.  It’s an overdrive of the sympathetic nervous system, our “fight-or-flight” response.  It has an anticipatory effect, meaning it’s more about what if than what is.  Anxiety is an adaptive need.  Without it we would just lay about, getting slaughtered or being starved.  Anxiety is our alert system meant to help us survive.  Chronic anxiety, like stress, can be managed, but management is only as good as our skills and strategies to keep it at bay.


What happens within the body during periods of intense anxiousness?

The sympathetic nervous system is given the green light to release adrenaline and make your body super aware and responsive in preparation for a fight.  The pupils dilate to let in more light and see things quicker (to find an escape) , blood rushes to the brain (light-headedness) and muscles (for enhanced thinking and strength), and you start sweating (harder for a predator to grab slick skin).  Your hands and feet may feel cold due to the main musculature’s blood grab, and your heart begins to race.  For many a panic attack may feel like a heart attack.


If there’s a system that revs you up, there must also be a system to slow you back down, right?

Yes.  The sympathetic system alarms and the parasympathetic system relaxes.  The trouble with those suffering anxiety is that they often respond and live in high alert to false alarms.  If the sympathetic system is on, the parasympathetic system must shut off.  This also works in reverse.  In order to produce an effect, the systems must completely cancel the other out.  The key to reducing anxiety, then, is facilitating a parasympathetic response.


So how do I kick on the parasympathetic system?

It’s as cruelly simple as it is easy: Get enough sleep, nutrients, and exercise.


Without 7.5 to 8 hours sleep, you miss out on the healing powers of sleep.  There are three stages to the sleep cycle: 1.)  Dreaming, where the body compartmentalizes/ organizes the thoughts and experiences of the day, 2.)  Restorative, where the body shifts almost completely parasympathetic and repairs itself from recent stress, and 3.)  A 10-minute check in where you are actually awake, making note of your temperature, comfortability, hunger, thirst, and bathroom needs. It’s in this 10-minute awake check that you can either blow it or settle deeper in.  Far too often, this is when many  of us reach for our phones and wake ourselves up.  The longer you sleep, the longer your restorative period.  Skimp on the hours, either daily or cumulatively, and you’re shorting yourself the ability to make necessary repairs.


When you “break the fast” of sleep with breakfast, you tell the brain that everything’s going to be alright.  Low blood sugar needs to deprivation and potential harm.  You don’t need to eat like a king, but getting something wholesome in your system (a small yogurt, handful of nuts, an egg or piece of toast) minimizes potential irritation of the brain.  Nutrients, of course, are key, but trying to get some sort of sustenance every three hours or so should help keep glucose levels steady.

(Note to Intermittent Fasters: This is a suggestion particular to those with anxiety issues.)


The beauty of exercise is not only that you release adrenaline (the same pent up adrenaline that leads to anxiety), but that you put your body through stress so it ends up stronger.  This is not a metaphor.  It literally feels/believes/thinks that afterward you are more apt to handle obstacles, stressors, or potential predators.  Cardiovascular activity (anything that makes you hot and sweaty) has the quickest calming after effect, because you literally have to slow yourself down from the ensuing workload.  As soon as  you recognize an elevated heart rate WILL NOT translate to a heart attack, you can wrap your head around how vigorous exercise can be beneficial to you.


If you’re one of those who roll your eyes at this list, saying, “I know” but don’t actually act on it, you really don’t know, or at least you don’t believe that this can be enough to settle your psyche.  There’s always an excuse and there’s always a let down when trying to create a healthier lifestyle.  Action comes before motivation.  Plan it and schedule it and open yourself up to the possibility that a follow-through in this might be the only elixir you need.  


Some Tips on Self-Care/ Self-Love

Putting yourself first doesn’t make you selfish in the negative sense.  It makes you better prepared and better equipped to be there for those folks you always put before you.  It also assumes you are as worthwhile of your friendship and guidance as they are.

Avoiding Avoidance

Phobias stem from avoidance.  You don’t like something, avoid it, and feel relief.  This relief feeds the into not liking something even more and the cycle continues.  The brain is associative.  It needs multiple, new, positive experiences to override a negative affiliation with a subject.  Avoidance is the friend of anxiety.  Going towards, then, is the enemy.  Taking small steps and pacing, pursuing and withstanding a little bit of discomfort, become large leaps in the right direction of novel stimulation.

Switching WHYs to HOWs

Asking why is a healthy sign of curiosity, but it does so with a bit of criticism.  It’s begging for disagreement, especially from someone struggling, defensive, and stuck in their ways.  How on the other hand, is action-oriented and behavioral.  It suggests planning and insinuates agreement solely based on understanding.

Here’s an example:

Why do I feel like this? can delve into a plethora of causation without really doing anything.

How can I make myself feel better? dictates a specific plan of finding specific solutions.

Minimizing the Perfectionist Mindset

You can only have one best in your entire life.  Instead of seeking perfection, which is impossible and only sets you up for failure, rephrase it as “I did the best I could considering the circumstances”.  This ‘standard lowering’ won’t extinguish the fire and ambition that makes Type A’s run the world.  It will only allows them to enjoy that fire more.  If you can take your successes as jobs well done instead of jobs that could have been done better, the satisfaction will never make your work meaningless or wasteful.

Finish Out Catastophizing Thoughts

What if…?  What if I do everything right, manage to get everything I want and then get hit by a bus?  Makes doing all the right things seem pointless, right?  “What ifs” are a fear feeder.  They are meant to strategize to control one’e environment and/or fate.  The only absolute is death, and if you’re dead, there’s nothing to worry about.  Everything else is survivable.  

Instead of opening a thought with “what if”, try “So what if…” and play the story out.  So what if I have the house the car the family the 401k and then get hit by a bus?  I would have loved and lived and realized a pretty good life.  It doesn’t affect my present.  My present is solid.  I’m happy.  If I worry about tomorrow being potentially terrible I’ll lose out on all the joy I had around me today.

Your perspective on how today affects tomorrow makes or breaks your outlook on the present day.  Focusing on tomorrow dismisses today.  The past is gone and the future depends on the here and now.  The present, then, should be the center of your thoughts and experience.  You can’t predict the future.  Trust that you can deal with what comes as it comes, and you don’t have to spend your days in anxious anticipation.


A Concluding Statement

“You can’t rebuild walls during a time of war.”  Well, I guess you can, but if you do you have no right to get frustrated when your hard work gets smashed by a mortar shell just moments after you’ve finished.  It isn’t the right environment or time.  If you’ve been doing a lot of positive, proactive things that soon crumble back to the start, perhaps it’s not YOU and YOUR ABILITY that’s to blame but WHEN and WHERE you’re choosing to put forth your efforts.  Get yourself to peaceful lands first, and then put up the biggest masterpiece you’ve ever dreamed.  Testaments stand longest in places of calm protection.



*Most of this information came from Georgia Dow and session one at anxiety-videos.com.

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