What’s your relationship with anxiety like?
Anxiety is a normal part of our emotional spectrum – we all feel anxiety from time to time. In its most run-of-the-mill form, the anxiety we feel relates directly and clearly to an issue in the present, such as exam stress, or an approaching interview. This can be uncomfortable to manage, but is a healthy way for anxiety to surface; the anxiety we feel in these situations, is rational – it relates directly to a stressful situation in our present, in which there are clear reasons to feel anxious.
Sometimes anxiety can surface in ways which are more confusing – and distressing. Sometimes, we can have difficulty identifying the triggers (our anxiety seems to surface from nowhere), sometimes the anxiety we feel is irrational; when this happens, the anxiety we feel is disproportionate to the situation.
Our relationship with anxiety can have a profound impact on the way we experience it. Anxiety is always uncomfortable – disconcerting at best, debilitating at worst. When we experience bouts of anxiety and panic, it can cause us to experience physical symptoms which we may find frightening, such as shortness of breath, a racing heart, and tingling skin.
This experience of anxiety can easily become a trigger for panic in itself; in short, the prospect of anxiety can cause us to feel anxiety – or can escalate the feelings of anxiety we have in the moment. We might then decide to avoid places and situations which we think will trigger this anxious response. At first, this may feel like respite but, over time, if we end up avoiding more situations, our lives can become more restricted. This can then lead to feelings of despondence and hopelessness – "how did I end up like this?"
How do you relate to anxiety?
How do you relate to the anxiety you feel? Is your default to push it away? Try to ignore it? Internally scold yourself for indulging it? Feel inadequate for experiencing it? Do you absorb it as part of your identity? Adopt it as a label? Do you feel that there are limitations to your life and capabilities because you ‘have anxiety’ or are ‘an anxious person’? Does your experience of anxiety define who you are? Restrict your activities? Overwhelm your day? Does your experience of anxiety relate directly to your feelings of self-worth?
These are all really common ways to relate to (and react to) anxiety. To begin with, anxiety can feel impossible to manage, impossible to overcome. It can feel easier to fight it, or become powerless to it (both of these responses can result in the escalation of anxiety) – but there are other options. Most of these ways of relating to anxiety involve, in some way, the adoption of anxiety as a part of our identity – resulting in feelings of shame, inadequacy or powerlessness. I want to challenge the belief that anxiety is a personality trait – our experience of anxiety is not intrinsic to our identities, it is a nervous system response, and something that we can heal from, and learn to manage.
When we experience something so overwhelming and frightening, having a basic understanding of what is happening within us can help to remove some of its power and scare. This can help us to work towards remaining grounded in the logical and rational parts of ourselves; these are the parts of ourselves that can help to prevent feelings of panic and anxiety from escalating.
Things that might be helpful to know about anxiety
We all feel anxiety from time to time, it is a normal part of our emotional experience as human beings, we can’t prevent ourselves from feeling anxiety altogether (but we can learn how to manage our experience of anxiety).
When we feel anxious, our amygdala (the part of our brain associated with emotional processes, which also alerts us to danger) is activated, releasing adrenaline (which prepares our body for ‘fight or flight’) and cortisol (the stress hormone). If we are in danger, this fear response equips us with the energy to fight – or run away. When we are experiencing anxiety, there is no actual peril, and so the release of these hormones can result in uncomfortable and frightening physical symptoms.
Anxiety is effectively a defence mechanism. When we feel anxiety, our bodies are reacting to a perceived danger, alerting us, and equipping us with the means to escape this danger (for example, the release of adrenaline to enable us to run away). Of course, if there is no physical danger, this defence mechanism becomes dysfunctional – and we may seek to apply meaning to the response we feel within ourselves (for example, “my heart is racing – I’m having a heart attack!”), the meaning we attribute to this anxiety response, can then cause our anxiety response to heighten, resulting in further physical symptoms.
Our amygdala is effectively our brain’s “smoke detector” looking for signs of danger, and triggering the anxiety response in relation to perceived danger. Our amygdala can activate our anxiety response either through environmental triggers (when anxiety springs up out of nowhere), or through the escalation of stressful or anxious thoughts, which creates a stress reaction in our cortex (the part of our brain associated with emotion, thought, consciousness, memory and language), which then triggers the anxiety response from our amygdala.
Regulating our central nervous system is essential to calming our experience of anxiety, you can do this by engaging in grounding activities. This could include sensory grounding, such as putting your hands in water and observing the way that it feels on the different parts of your hands, how does it feel different if you switch from warm water to cold? Or, you could regulate your breathing with a technique such as box breathing: breathe in for four seconds, hold for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, hold for four seconds, repeat (If you start to feel dizzy, stop and breathe normally for a while)
Our brains are not fixed and unchangeable, even in adulthood, our brains hold an incredible potential for neuroplasticity (the ability of our brains to form new pathways, enabling us to change our pattern of reacting). Severe or dysfunctional anxiety doesn’t need to be the permanent label it can feel like.
Alternative ways to relate to anxiety
When we adopt an internal dialogue and beliefs around anxiety that surface during our experience, these can form circling thought processes in our minds that can then become anxiety-provoking, triggering further cortex-based anxiety – escalating and amplifying our experience of anxiety in the moment. Gradually shifting the way we relate to anxiety, and the way we respond to the experience of anxiety, can help us to ground ourselves, and can help to prevent this escalation, resulting in a shorter, more manageable experience of anxiety.
There is no one-size fits all approach to anxiety management. But here are some ideas that might help to rewrite your relationship with anxiety, starting with a shift in your internal dialogue (you can tailor these to your own experience of anxiety, or create new ones for yourself).
- Instead of “I’m an anxious person” or “I have anxiety”, or “My anxiety is bad today”, you could try: “Right now, I have a dysfunctional relationship with anxiety, but I can work on this”
- Instead of “I need to stop feeling anxious” or “Why can’t I just stop my mind from racing?” or “Something’s wrong with me!” or “This is going to get so much worse!”, you could try: “The anxiety I’m feeling right now is my body’s way of trying to protect me, my body is overreacting, but it’s trying to help.”, or “I’m feeling anxiety: this won’t last long, I can get through this.”
- Instead of, “I’m feeling anxious, it’s going to escalate and get so much worse. The outcome will be [insert anxiety based fear here]”, you could try: “I’m feeling anxious at the moment. Something has triggered feelings of anxiety for me – my body is trying to protect me. I can help my body to calm down, this won’t last long.”
You can use grounding techniques alongside this shift in your internal dialogue, to reinforce your move towards a healthier relationship with anxiety. A useful grounding technique that you could use alongside this, is the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique, in which you identify five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two things you can taste and one thing you can smell. There are many techniques we can use to ground ourselves – and you’ll find the ones which work best for you.
There are many ways to work towards a healthy relationship with anxiety, these may include:
- Observing your internal dialogue/attitude towards your experience of anxiety, and making a conscious effort to adjust your relationship with anxiety away from self-defeating or anxiety-provoking thoughts.
- Attending personal therapy to uncover the underlying factors (and work towards healing).
- Integrating grounding techniques into your day (to help regulate your central nervous system) – such as regulating your breathing, meditation, journaling, or exercise.
- Using mindfulness to increase your self-awareness. With regular mindfulness practice, we can improve our ability to identify our feelings of anxiety before they escalate and become difficult to manage.
- Making sure you get a full night’s sleep (a lack of sleep can impact the functioning of our amygdala – and can intensify our experience of anxiety).
- Making positive choices when it comes to food and drink – avoiding (or limiting) substances which may increase your anxiety response (these could include sugar, caffeine, or alcohol).
There are no overnight fixes to issues like anxiety – your brain effectively needs to strengthen its neurological connections away from a tendency to escalate into panic, towards a new, grounded way of thinking and processing – and this takes time, and a lot of practice, before it becomes second nature. Be kind to yourself as you navigate this process – and remember to acknowledge and celebrate the changes you notice in your experience of anxiety, as you heal.