Unpacking Anxiety

EVERYBODY experiences anxiety. Everybody. “Fight or fight mode”, “Sunday scaries”, “afraid of speaking in public”, what’s happening in your brain is more or less the same regardless the form anxiety takes. If you’re being chased down by a Lion, afraid of a deadline, or going through trauma, the chemicals raging through your body are the same. The difference is some of us experience manageable levels of anxiety, and some of us don’t.

The DSM is the lovely bible of diagnoses doctors and therapists use to help determine what someone is going through. There’s a cut-off point, either you have a certain number of symptoms to qualify, or you don’t. I’m not going to share all the details, because I don’t want anybody going off and diagnosing themselves or others. The important thing to know is that if someone has a clinical anxiety disorder, their anxiety is more intense, lasts longer, and has a bigger impact on their day-to-day functioning. When I have to drive to Chicago, I worry about it the day before and consider backing out up until the point I arrive at my destination. But I get there. Sometimes there is some road rage involved, sometimes there are some glares and dirty looks to or from my husband, but the anxiety doesn’t really interfere with my ability to spend time with family and do fun things.

If someone has an anxiety disorder, their anxiety might be so intense they do choose to stay home, or have panic attacks while they are driving, or other symptoms so debilitating it’s not safe for them to get in the car and drive. Anxiety occurs on a spectrum, so there is minimal/mild/every day anxiety and there is absolute torturous anxiety, and everything in between. If you avoid work, friends, family, or other important obligations/hobbies because of anxiety, it might be a sign you’d benefit from therapy, yoga, medication, or some other intervention to help minimize the distress you experience.

“Anxiety”, “on edge”, “worry”, “panic”- there are many ways to described it. An anxiety attack and panic attack are the same thing. The difference between anxiety that is 10/10, the worst you’ve ever felt, and an anxiety attack is that in an anxiety/panic attack you have a thought that the anxiety might kill you. If you’ve ever gone to the ER because you thought your heart might beat so fast it would stop or you would pass out from breathing so shallow and they told you nothing was wrong with your heart or lungs, it was likely an anxiety attack. There is no way to tell the difference between a panic attack or a heart attack unless you’re a healthcare professional with the right equipment, by the way, so if you’re not sure what it is, going to the ER is a good option.

Anxiety typically involves the following:

  • fear

  • excessive worry (apprehensive expectation)

  • difficulty controlling the worry

  • feeling restless/on edge

  • easily fatigued

  • difficulty concentrating/mind going blank

  • irritability

  • muscle tension

  • sleep disturbance

Depending on what is causing the anxiety, there might be other symptoms as well. For example. people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder have some other, more specific, thoughts/emotions/behaviors occurring.

If you have multiple of those symptoms that occur regularly and cause significant distress in your life, you should consider talking to a doctor or therapist about it to see if you have an anxiety disorder. Remember, we all experience anxiety. Do I feel irritable and get easily fatigued? Uh, yeah! The number of symptoms you have, the intensity of them, how long they last, and how they impact your life are what separates a clinical diagnosis from common life experiences.

When we feel anxious, regardless of the cause, or brain is perceiving a threat. Our body becoming tense can send a threat signal to the brain, or our brain can use past experience to signal threat to the body. The common stressors for people tend to be: work/deadlines, driving, bills, relationships, finances. None of those things are inherently anxiety-provoking. But our past learned experiences have taught us they can be unpleasant or overwhelming. So now, when the idea of driving in Chicago rush hour traffic rolls around, my brain is alerting my body to prepare for a major fight because it’s going to be ugly.

Driving in rush hour is not inherently stressful, though. It’s the narrative running through my mind that causes stress. The more I think about how long it’s going to take, how slow I’ll be moving, how annoying all of the distracted drivers will be, what if I get in a car accident, how I’ll be late, how bad it will feel to be late- the anxiety escalates. If I focused on the radio, the beautiful skyline, how lucky I am to be able to drive to such a fabulous city, I wouldn’t be so anxious. Therapy helps because it teaches us to recognize the thoughts that are making anxiety worse, and how to reframe them to more peaceful, effective thoughts. Sounds easy, but it’s not….

Yoga tackles anxiety from the other end. Research shows that unpleasant thoughts occur 5 minutes after we tense our body (when not engaged in physical exercise). Yoga teaches us to recognize when and where our body is tense, and how to relax it using poses, breath work, and other tools to induce physical, mental, and emotional relaxation.

The next time you feel anxious, try to do the following; stop what you’re doing, notice if your body is tense, and take a few big exhales to relax the body. If you’re not sure if the body is tense, try clenching your fists/muscles for a few seconds, and then releasing as you exhale. Then, notice where your mind had just been when you started to get anxious. Ask yourself if those thoughts are accurate- is what you’re worrying about true? If they are, can you problem solve the situation? If you can’t, is it helpful to keep worrying about something you can’t control? If not, pick something to focus your mind on instead. Your mind will wander back to what it was worrying about- don’t beat your mind up for it, just recognize it’s happening and bring it back to your chosen place of focus.

Resources:

1) For locating a therapist:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us

https://www.talkspace.com/

2) For learning more about anxiety:

https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety

https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml

https://bookshelf.talkspace.com/bookshelf/anxiety

3) For yoga tools for anxiety:

https://amywheeler.com/product/anxiety-depression-workshop