Anxiety is officially the most popular coaching topic among all of my clients.
And I work with a pretty wide demographic of clients these days, including girls and boys ages 13-30, and parents, too. My clients live all over the country (across all 4 time zones and 10 states), all from different religious, cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. All of that is to say that I have A LOT of variety within my roster of coachees, and yet anxiety is the one topic that is consistent across the board.
So what exactly is everyone so anxious about? Here’s a snapshot of what I hear from each age group on a daily basis:
|-Intimate Relationships and Sex
-Drugs and Alcohol
-Roommates and Friendships
-Graduating and Entering the Workforce
|-Choosing a Career Path
-Becoming Financially Independent
-Dating and Relationships
-Individuating from Family
-Kids Safety and Health
-Conflict with Spouse/Partner
…But isn’t worrying about these things a normal part of life?? Yes and no.
To an extent, anxiety is a completely normal response to some of life’s biggest challenges. That said, there is a point at which we cross the threshold from healthy and appropriate concern/fear/doubt to exhausting, debilitating and damaging anxiety.
NOTE: This is definitely not a black or white issue. This topic can be messy, grey and highly specific to the individual. That said, I think a little education about how anxiety works in the brain and what it looks like in real time can go a long way in protecting ourselves and our kids from excessive suffering.
First and foremost, I want to normalize the experience of anxiety for you because the truth is, no one is immune. We ALL experience anxiety at one time or another, but not all experiences are alike: there are varying degrees of anxiety and a wide variety of triggers. Perhaps most confusing, though, is when anxiety seems to crop up for no reason at all. Again, normal. But still frustrating.
Next, it’s important to know what anxiety can look and feel like so you can identify its onset in real time. Think of it like this: When you walk around in a dark room, you’re going to bump into things. You’re going to scrape and bruise yourself, and maybe even drop a few choice words. But once you turn on the light, you can effectively navigate your way around the obstacles, even though they’re still in the exact same place. You may still bang your knee or stub your toe from time to time, but you’ll be far better equipped to handle the pain when you’re not surprised by it.
Similarly, it’s time to shed some light on anxiety so we can better navigate its dark traps.
So, here are a few examples of what anxiety can look like….
- Excessive what-ifs and worst-case scenarios
- Concerns about being judged or embarrassed
- Small thoughts that grow into big worries
- Ruminating and obsessing
- Fearful, worried, overwhelmed, out of control
- Dread, as though something bad is going to happen
- Panic that seems to come from nowhere
- Feeling separate to your physical self or your surroundings
- Nail biting
- Isolating/avoiding contact (including by phone, email, text, etc.)
- Difficulty sleeping
- Restricting food/bingeing
Recognizing these signs of anxiety is critically important to being able to manage them, and there are several physical red flags to look out for, too (see below).
But first, let’s unpack what happens in the brain to produce anxiety, because understanding why anxiety feels the way it does will be one of your greatest tools in learning to manage it. Written by Dr. Karen Young, the following is a relatable and digestible description of the anxious brain and the subsequent physical effects:
Anxiety happens because a part of your brain, the amygdala, thinks there might be something it needs to protect you from.
The amygdala acts on impulse. It’s a do-er, not a thinker. It just wants to keep you safe. If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. This is the fight or flight response. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out.
If there is something dangerous – a wild dog you need to run away from, a fall you need to steady yourself from – then the amygdala is brilliant. Sometimes though, the amygdala thinks there’s a threat and fuels you up even though there’s actually nothing dangerous there at all.
Have you ever burned toast and set off the fire alarm? The fire alarm can’t tell the difference between smoke from a real fire and smoke from burnt toast – and it doesn’t care. All it wants to do is let you know so you can get out of there. The amygdala works the same way. It can’t tell the difference between something that might hurt you, like a wild dog, and something that won’t, like being at a new school. Sometimes the amygdala just switches on before you even know what it’s switching on for. It’s always working hard to protect you – even when you don’t need protecting. Remember, it’s a do-er not a thinker, and this is how it keeps you safe.
When there’s nothing to flee or nothing to fight, there’s nothing to burn the neurochemical fuel that is surging through you. The fuel builds up and that’s why anxiety feels the way it does. Here’s how that works:
» Your breathing changes from normal, slow breaths to short, shallow breaths. This is because your brain tells your body to conserve oxygen on breathing, and send as much as possible to the muscles so they can get ready to run or fight.
You might feel puffed or a bit breathless. You might also feel your cheeks burn red (from the blood rushing to your face) and your face become warm.
» If you don’t fight or flee, the oxygen builds up in your body and the carbon dioxide drops.
You might feel dizzy or a bit confused.
» Your heart races to get the oxygen around your body.
Your heart can feel like it’s beating out of your chest and you might feel sick.
» Fuel gets sent to your arms (for fight) and to your legs (for flight).
Your hands, arms and legs might feel tense or shaky.
» Your body starts cooling itself down to stop it from overheating if it has to fight or flee.
You might feel a bit clammy or sweaty.
» Anything happening in your body that isn’t absolutely essential in the moment for your survival will shut down to conserve energy. Your digestive system is one of these. It shuts down until the ‘danger’ is dealt with, so the fuel it was using to digest your food can be used by your body for fight or flight.
You might feel butterflies in your stomach. You might also feel sick, as though you’re about to vomit, and your mouth might feel dry.
» The amygdala also controls your emotions so when it’s in fight or flight, it’s switched on to high volume. This means your emotions can be too.
You might burst into tears or get angry.
In a nutshell, everything you feel when you have anxiety is your body’s attempt to prepare to fight or flee, but usually there is no need for either. Simply knowing that can be hugely helpful in decoding our automatic physical and emotional responses. In addition, there are some simple strategies you can use to help manage your anxiety both before and during the moment of onset. A few suggestions:
1. Check Yourself. Anxious thoughts can be persuasive little gnats that get stuck inside your skull like they belong there. Write down this reminder and post it wherever you need it most (bathroom mirror, steering wheel, nightstand, desk, etc.):
“Thoughts are just thoughts. They are NOT predictions or facts.
Just because I think or feel something, does NOT make it so.
Thoughts are just thoughts. Let them come. And then let them go.”
2. Exercise. Simply put, exercise helps to increase GABA levels (the brain’s calm-down chemical) in order to counterbalance the more excitable neurons which, in excess, can lead to anxiety. Any activity that gets your heart going counts, but find something you can commit to and aim for consistency.
3. Box Breathing. Strong, deep breathing initiates the relaxation response (discovered by a Harvard cardiologist to be an automatic response that can neutralize the surge of neurochemicals that cause physical feelings of anxiety.) Draw a box with your finger and follow the breathing instructions below.
4. Eat Well. Trillions of microbes that live in the intestinal tract send signals to the brain that can impact mood and behavior. Too much processed food or sugar (or not enough good food) can knock out the balance of good bacteria in your gut. This can heavily influence your mood by sending funky messages back to your brain. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with occasional sweets or treats, but focus on whole, unprocessed foods. The healthier your gut, the healthier your mental health.
5. Practice Mindfulness. Anxiety can be so debilitating because we are often down at the bottom of the rabbit hole before we even recognize what’s happening. Building up the mindfulness muscle helps us to shorten the lag time between the onset of warning signs and taking a self-soothing action. Anxiety is driven by a brain that is hooked by future thinking, and mindfulness buffers against anxiety by grounding us in the present. Check out these apps to start practicing:
-Smiling mind –mindfulness programs tailored for different demographics
-Stop, Breathe, Think –start by choosing words to describe how you’re feeling, and the app will suggest the best meditations based on your state
-Insight Meditation Timer –guided meditations from over 700 teachers
Does this resonate with you? If you found this information helpful, let me know in the comments below!