While everyone has had at least one experience of intense worry or fear in their lives, clinical anxiety disorders affect about 2 in 10 people in BC and the numbers are even higher for youth and young adults. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to understand and treat anxiety.
Regardless of the severity, understanding more about anxiety is the first step in receiving help or helping someone else. Anxiety is a combination of symptoms and deeper level issues. In the category of symptoms, I include experiences in the body and mind, and changes in behaviour. In the category of deeper level issues, I include woundings, unexpressed aspects of ourselves, and loss of connection.
A symptom is something we feel, think, or do that is outside of our normal experience. It is when we realize that something is not right. With anxiety, there are typical physical, psychological, and behavioural symptoms.
In the body, anxiety usually presents itself through fast heart rate and shortness of breath, sweaty hands and foreheads with a mix of chills and overheating. Often people will feel tightness in the stomach or even sickness. It is common to shake and it is common to clench your muscles or jaw. These physical symptoms are all functions of your sympathetic nervous system responding to a perceived danger. It is your fight, flight or freeze response to something you understand as threatening, which brings us to thoughts.
When we respond to actual danger with increased heart rate and increased muscle tension, it might help protect us -our stress response system evolved over millennia to keep us alive and healthy. The problem is when our stress response system overreacts based on our thoughts and belief, which at times can have a life of their own. Whether it is friends, grades, work, or getting sick, we can kick our stress response into high gear simply through our thoughts, and particularly through worrying about the future.
This becomes a problem when we get stuck in non-helpful thought patterns and begin creating scenarios in which we are either physically, psychological, or emotionally in danger or hurt.
And what is the most natural thing for us to do when we perceive danger, are worried about an event, and are experiencing physical symptoms such as dizziness, upset stomach, or shaking - we avoid the situation. While this can often help to reduce physical symptoms and negative thought patterns in the short run, avoiding situations that bring us worry can also intensify these feelings the next time around.
There are many things you can do to treat these symptoms. First there are lifestyle changes such as diet, sleep and exercise, breathing and relaxation techniques including mindfulness and yoga, or simply taking walks in nature. Second, you can address negative thoughts by challenging them or, paradoxically, learning to accept them. Lastly, through gradual desensitization -getting more comfortable through safe and successful experiences- you can be more at ease with what provokes your anxiety.
At a deeper level of the psyche, anxiety can have a functional component. I like to think of this as what anxiety is trying to get us to pay attention to. You see in many cases the symptoms of anxiety are a sign that there is some aspect of our lives that needs attention. I will explore these in terms of woundings, unexpressed aspects of ourselves, and losses of connection.
All of us have had some negative experience in life, whether that is an experience of injury, embarrassment, or shame. Many of us have experienced a trauma, sometimes at the hands of someone close, and, because it pains us to return to the memories of these events, they have taken root at a deep level of our personality. Anxiety can sometimes be a sign that we are needing to return to these events in order to process them and integrate them in a new way. This can be scary and hence anxiety symptoms sometimes accompany the work of healing.
Second, all of us have parts of ourselves that we have not yet expressed. While the exploration of ourselves can be exciting, bringing out new parts of ourselves can be scary. These could be artistic and creative aspects of ourselves, it could be our sexuality or gender, or relating differently to people in our family. Learning to express parts of our unlived lives is a very common part of counselling and often brings a feeling of freedom and authenticity to replace fear.
Lastly, anxiety can be caused by a loss of connection to close people in our lives, to our natural environment, to our culture, to meaningful work, or to ourselves. Disconnection can happen for a variety of reasons and reconnection can be accompanied by feelings of uncomfort and apprehension. Learning to be open to relationships and vulnerable to what they bring, while keeping ourselves safe, is a hallmark of a full and happy life.
Through counselling and other healing practices, anxiety and other forms of distress can be turned into great teachers on the road to a more fulfilling life.