On average, one in four people will experience anxiety at some time in their lives. If you’ve ever experienced anxiety, you’ll be too familiar with its whip-cracking chase that seems to come from nowhere. Here are some facts about anxiety that will hopefully help to make more sense of your experience.
Anxiety has a genetic basis.
If either or both of your parents suffer from anxiety, there’s a high chance you’ll experience it as well. It’s about here the nature/nurture argument steps in. Anxiety can be passed down through genes (nature) or through parental behaviour (nurture). In a 2014 study, the α-endomannosidase gene was found to be associated with panic disorder and social anxiety disorder. On the nurture front, research has shown that anxious parents are more likely to inadvertently feed anxiety by being slower to grant autonomy or by supporting the avoidance of situations that might cause anxiety. (These behaviours are completely understandable and driven by the most loving intentions but for kids with anxiety the short-term easing of anxiety can make anxiety worse in the long run.) This does NOT mean that parents cause anxiety – they absolutely don’t. It’s likely that both genetics and environment play a part – the genetic vulnerability to anxiety makes it easier for environmental factors to stir anxiety. It’s important to remember that genes aren’t destiny. Anxiety can be managed. Just because it’s in your family denims doesn’t mean it will be passed to you, and if it is passed down, you won’t necessarily do anxiety in the same way as the people who came before you.
Anxiety can be physically painful.
Anxiety has a strong physical basis. Every physical symptom is a direct result of the body’s fight or flight response. When the brain senses a threat (real or imagined – it doesn’t care) it will surge the body with a cocktail of neurochemicals to provide the physical resources to fight for life or run for it. Physical symptoms can include a tightening around the chest, headaches, nausea, muscle tension, heart palpitations and tummy trouble. Anxiety hurts. It’s different for everyone but the physical response is just as real as the emotional one.
Exercise can reduce anxiety.
Anxiety is the body’s fight or flight response in full swing. When there is nothing to fight and nothing to flee, the stress hormones that are surging around have nowhere to go so they build up, bringing with them the physical symptoms of anxiety. Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response. Exercise helps to balance out the neurochemicals that contribute to anxiety.
Anxiety can confuse the sense of smell.
Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that people with anxiety have a greater tendency to label neutral smells as bad smells. Typically, when processing smells it’s only the olfactory (smelling) system that gets activated. When a person becomes anxious the emotional system becomes intertwined with the olfactory processing system.
People with anxiety are quicker to perceive changes in facial expressions.
People with anxiety are quicker to pick up on changes in facial expressions than those without anxiety BUT they are less accurate. The tendency to jump to conclusions means that highly anxious people will often make mistakes when trying to infer other people’s emotional states and intentions. Understandably, this has a way of creating tension and conflict in relationships. If you’re the anxious one, keep in mind that what you think others are thinking or feeling might not necessarily be right – your speedy powers of perception might have fed you a misread.
Certain diets can influence anxiety.
A study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that people who followed a ‘traditional’ diet consisting of vegetables, fruit, meat, fish and whole grains tended to be less anxious compared to those who followed a ‘western’ diet of processed or fried foods, refined grains, sugary products and beer.
Anxiety widens personal space.
Everybody has an invisible zone of personal space around them. The closer we are to someone, the further they are allowed into our personal space zone. The preferred personal space zone differs for everyone but generally it’s about 20-40cm away from our face. Closer than that and we’re stepping back. If you tend towards anxiety, your personal space bubble is likely to be wider.
Performance anxiety? Nah. Excited.
Research by the Harvard Business School has shown that anxiety around performance is better managed by getting excited. The secret is in the re-labelling. The way we talk about our feelings has an enormous impact on the way we feel. Both anxiety and excitement have a lot of the same physical elements. Labelling a feeling as ‘anxious’ brings to mind thoughts of what might go wrong. Reinterpreting it as ‘excited’ brings on a more positive emotional state.
Your friends actually think you’re pretty fabulous.
People with social anxiety often think they don’t come across well socially. According to new research however, people think they’re pretty fabulous. Possibly due to their sensitivity to others, by the time socially anxious people speak, their words are well considered and ready to leave an impression – which they often do. If you struggle with social anxiety, remember that when you let people see you, they really like you. You might not believe this just because you’ve read it here, but next time you’re out, try acting as though it’s true. It will make a difference to you and to the way you’re seen.
Anxiety also comes with strengths.
Nothing about us is all good or all bad – nothing. If you’ve struggled with anxiety, for all the angst it causes you, it’s also helped to shape the person you’ve become in positive ways – the choices you make, the friend you are, the partner, colleague, sister, brother, leader or employee you are. Anxiety is not who you are, it’s something that happens to you sometimes. It’s part of being human and the sometimes beautiful, sometimes messy, sometimes extraordinary art that it is.
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A Book for Kids About Anxiety …
‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.