What is Anxiety Anyways? Ways to Fight the Need to Flee…

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Anxiety disorders are now identified as the most common mental health illness in Canada. Simply put –  anxiety is our safety net. Anxiety is biologically put in place to keep us from harm. It activates when a part of our brain tells us to react fast without thought to either flee, freeze or fight. It is a very important function in the right situation, such as, keeping us from stepping out in front of a car when it is moving, touching a stove when it is hot or displaying amazing physical strength when running a race. It is normal, adaptive part of life. 

Unfortunately, as we have developed over time, anxiety has also developed an incredible knack at keeping us ready for an emergency when we don’t always need it. While the intention is to protect us, in reality, it can keeping us from doing the things we might enjoy doing or spending time with people that might be fun. This area of our brains is also very good at remembering past threats (perceived or real) and keeps that information stored for the next time there is a risk of harm to keep us protected from the potential danger. The ‘danger’ is not just physical either, it can be relational too such as losing a relationship to conflict or death. At any stage of our lives, if we have experiences something that has been a threat, either physically or relationally, it is stored in our brains for next time so that when the threat presents itself, it goes into protective mode and aims to keep us there until the threat or danger has passed. Anxiety has a very important role in our lives but it also has a great way of leading us on its own.

So what are some things we can do about it?

Because anxiety likes to take of our worries on its own, often without us even realizing it is happening, the first step is to become aware of when it is happening. This can begin with noticing how it physically feels in our body. It often can present as a rapid heartbeat, excessive sweating, upset stomach, shortness of breath, sensation to rush to the toilet and/or nausea. When this is happening, our body is rapidly priming to defend itself against the danger. Blood rushes to our extremities, oxygen is pumped into our lungs, excess weight is shed by going to the toilet and our digestion is shut down to conserve energy for later. This is all happening automatically and often without our control. Relaxation techniques are key here to calm this automatic response so we can think more clearly. Visualization exercises, breathing exercises and body scans are two common tools to put into action here.

Next, notice what are we saying to ourselves? When our brains tuck into protection mode, we become very skilled at telling ourselves anything to get us away from the danger. For example, you have to speak in front of a group and your tummy is doing summersaults, you are sweating like crazy and all you want to do is run to the toilet. You mind is saying, ‘you can’t do this, everyone will stare at you and think you are a horrible speaker. We should get out of here!’ These can be thought of as unhelpful thoughts. There is no real truth to them but it is anxiety’s way of keeping us ‘safe’ from the unpleasant feelings that are occurring and may increase when we are up in front of a group. To combat this –  say the opposite to yourself. “I can do this”, “Everyone feels nervous speaking in front of a group”, or “I won’t get better at this if I don’t practice”. This line of helpful thoughts can slow the sensations we are experiencing and give us a moment to let our anxiety settle down for when we really might need it.

Another tool that can help when you are aware that anxiety might get in your way of doing something is to develop a plan with multiple steps. For example, if speaking in front of a group is your end goal then try starting with speaking out loud on your own, then in front of a mirror, then speaking in front of one person, then in front of a few more, eventually building up to the group of people. During this process be aware of how your body is reacting, use relaxation techniques to calm the sensations and turn unhelpful thoughts into helpful ones to take control of your worries. Identifying a mentor, hero, or inspiration who have overcome a fear to achieve a goal may also be a guide when developing a plan to move forward.

There are some fantastic resources for getting started on learning about anxiety and identifying where it is getting in the way of things we might otherwise be doing or enjoying. Anxiety BC is a website full of tips and tools for children, youth and adults to begin understanding anxiety and working towards managing it in a healthy way. Sometimes, anxiety can get to a point where you feel you or your loved ones are not able to be manage on their own. Speaking with a professional may be the next step in getting the support needed to overcome the hold that anxiety may have over you or someone you love.

Becky, Clinical Counselor

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