Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn It Around

Dealing with Anxiety: The Facts That Can Turn it Around

Anxiety is like a ride on a static bike – your adrenalin surges, your heart rate races, your body sweats, your face goes red … but it doesn’t get you very far.

If only dealing with it was as simple as jumping off. Though anxiety and punching out a session on a static bike differ vastly in that respect, they both have something in common.

Both initiate an automatic physical response designed to provide, with the greatest precision, all that the body needs to deal with the task at hand – or, in the case of anxiety, the task it thinks is at hand.

The most important step to controlling anxiety is understanding where it comes from and why it’s there.

Anxiety is the overprotective parent that fights with gladiatorial heart to keep us safe. The problem is that sometimes, its vigilance switches into hyperdrive.

When something is a threat, the human body is instantly and automatically readied to run for its life or fight for it. This response is the ‘fight or flight’ response and it has been hardwired into the human brain. ‘Fight or flight’ is a primitive response – all action and not a lot of thought. Reason and rationality are quite useless against it.

The human brain has perfected the response over thousands of years. Back in the days of cavemen, cavewomen and cave wild animals, humans needed a quick physical response to avoid being dinner. Fast forward to a time of doors, locks and no sabre tooth tigers, and the need for a physical response is significantly less.

Despite this, the part of the human brain that has been mastering the flight or fight response for thousands of years is still just as active and on guard as ever. It’s blind to the specifics of the threat, opting to act first and ask questions later, if at all.

It continues to respond as though every signal or tension from the environment is a risk to our self-preservation.

Dealing With Anxiety – Taking the Power Back

In the face of a real threat, the fight or flight response would be a masterful, magnificent ally, organising our body with astounding speed and precision to maximise the chances of survival. If it was created  by a human hand, we’d be swooning over the genius of the design – until the time came that we realised the ‘on’ switch was difficult to control, firing up arbitrarily and mostly without reason.

The fight or flight response comes from a part of the brain called the hypothalamus, and it’s triggered as soon as danger is perceived. Sometimes the danger is real but most often it’s not. As soon as it’s triggered, the hypothalamus instantly sets off a series of nerve cell firings and chemical releases to prepare our body to run for our lives or fight for it.

Recognising the physical signs that you are in a fight or flight response, and understanding where those physical symptoms come from is critical and extremely powerful in turning anxiety around.

If you can think of anxiety as the fight or flight response trying to do its job, the symptoms will soon pass. But if you take them as evidence that there is something to be feared (such as the presence of a real threat, the beginning of a heart attack, a sign that you are about to make a fool of yourself) then you will give your anxiety fuel and the symptoms will persevere.

Understanding the physical symptoms is the first and most critical step in getting control of anxiety. So here we go …

  • When there’s a perceived danger a signal travels from the environment to the amygdala, a primitive structure in the hypothalamus (a part of the brain), that automatically and instantly triggers a fight or flight response.
  • The body is surged with stress hormones – adrenaline and noradrenaline – to provide the body with the physical resources to fight or flee.
  • Breathing changes from slow breaths deep in the belly to rapid breathing high in the chest to supply the body with oxygen to fuel the fight or flight response.
       »  You might feel a shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, or flushing. 
  • If the oxygen isn’t expended through fighting or fleeing, the oxygen guilds up.
       »  You might experience dizziness, confusion, hot flashes and a sense of unreality.
  • Heartbeat and heart rate increase to efficiently deliver oxygen around the body.
       »  This can feel like you’re about to have a heart attack. 
  • Blood pressure increases to get the blood to the large muscles of the arm (preparation to fight) and the legs (preparation to fight);
       »  Muscles might feel tense.
  • Perspiration increases to prevent the body overheating.
       »  You might feel clammy or sweaty.
  • Pupils dilate to allow in more light and improve visual awareness long distance to find the escape route.
       »  Your vision might blur, particularly close up.
  • Veins in the skin constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups.
       »  This leaves less blood in the skin for warmth and can bring on the ‘chill’ that is sometimes associated with fear.
  • Blood flow is diverted from fingers and toes to where it is more needed, and to decrease the chances of bleeding to death should the response be ‘fight’.
       »  This can cause paleness, tingling and ‘cold feet’.
  • The digestive system shuts down so that nutrients and oxygen are diverted to the limbs and muscles that will be activated in the event of fight or flight.
        »  Your mouth might feel dry, you might get the feeling of butterflies in your belly and you might experience nausea and/or constipation.
  • The brain gets busy focusing on the big picture – to find the threat and plan a way out.
        »  This may lead to difficulty focusing on small details.

The symptoms of anxiety all have a physiological basis. They have been called to action by the fight or flight response and each has a very specific and very important part to play in ensuring our survival.

The problem however, is that for the most part there is no threat to our survival. Nothing to fight. Nothing to flee.

The fight or flight response is primitive: always automatic but not always accurate. Most of the time when it’s triggered there is actually no threat.

The amygdala, the part of the brain that initiates the fight or flight response, can’t tell the difference between a real threat and a non-real threat. A threat is a threat, whether real or imagined, and all are responded to as though they are a real and immediate danger to our physical safety.

That’s where you come in.

If there is no obvious need for fight or flight, your fight or flight response has been triggered unnecessarily.

The first thing to do is remind yourself of this. You’re not in danger. You’re not dying.

You’re body is just responding to a brain that has over-reacted a little. It happens to all of us from time to time. Everything you’re feeling is tied to the fight or flight response. In this context, the physical symptoms are perfectly normal, even if the need for fight or flight is unnecessary.

Next, turn your attention to your breathing. Part of the fight or flight response is rapid, shallow breathing. This causes an oversupply of oxygen and an increased heart rate and contributes to many of the physical symptoms.

When your breathing is under control, these physical symptoms will reverse.

Breathe deeply and slowly. Take a short pause between breathing out and breathing in. Do this 5 to 10 times. Take the breaths deep into your belly. Practice even on the good days so it’s there when you need it.

Slow deep breathing is a handbrake for anxiety. Remember though, your fight or flight response has been doing its thing for a while so it may take some practice.

If your anxiety could talk, it would say that it’s there to protect you – to get you ready for fight or flight. Problem is, sometimes it shows up when you don’t need protecting.

Knowing what anxiety is and the truth about where the symptoms are coming from is the first step in taking back charge. It may take some time – your anxiety might take some convincing that it’s over-reacting with the fight or flight thing, but with persistence, practice and patience you will find yourself back in control.

[irp posts=”1100″ name=”The Things I’ve Learned About Anxiety – That Only People With Anxiety Could Teach Me”]

[irp posts=”1015″ name=”Anxiety: 15 Ways to Feel Better Without Medication”]

29 Comments

Ash

I have struggled with anxiety for my entire life (especially social anxiety) and it has become worse since the birth of my second child three years ago. To be honest, I never really knew what “it” was called until I started doing research after he was born because I just felt “off.” I’ve never talked to a professional about it because I don’t health have insurance and can’t afford the fees to see someone. It feels like my insides are in knots and I’m on the verge of a panic attack every day. I am taking Ashagawanda to help me feel more balanced/calm and at first I noticed a difference, but not really anymore. Breathing exercise don’t seem to help. My husband is not understanding at all…he just tells me to take vitamin B, says I’m a bad mom, a bad wife, says I’m crazy, I need mental help, I’m retarded, my life would be fine if I just went out and made friends, if I took meds I would become addicted and only weak people take psychiatric drugs…the list goes on. Clearly, he’s not helping the situation. Wondering if you have any advice.

Reply
Karen Young

My first advice is to ignore everything your husband is telling you that causes you to feel any shame about what you are feeling. What you are feeling is completely understandable and very common. You are NOT crazy or anything else he is telling you. By the sounds of it, you are anxious and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Anxiety feels awful and can be very intrusive but it is manageable. Getting eight hours of sleep each night is important. I know how difficult that can be, but research has found anxiety and depression are more common in people who get less than 8 hours. Exercise and mindfulness are also important because they change the structure and function of the brain in ways that protect it against anxiety. You will find more articles on this link that will hopefully give you the information you need to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. You are strong – anxiety doesn’t change that at all, and you have inside you the resources you need to manage this and feel better. Be patient and kind with yourself.

Reply
Just a Man

As a man I know that instead of saying “I’m sad” we say “I hate you” and rather than say “I’m afraid” we say “I’m pissed” and rather than admit fear, shame, helplessness, we cover it with Anger.

It’s a horrible quality and I’m not excusing it, just explaining it. Likely your husband is frustrated because he feels powerless to help you. He may want to but he doesn’t know the first thing to do so he’s lashing out to cover his insecurity and helplessness.

Reply
Karen Young

Anxiety makes people worry more, but it doesn’t make them any less capable, or great to be with in relationships. Here is an article that might help https://www.heysigmund.com/when-someone-you-love-has-anxiety/. All of us are effected by things psychologically, whether it’s by anxiety, history, the people around us, stress, life events. All of us experience anxiety on some level – it’s necessary for our survival, but it exists on a spectrum. We don’t all experience anxiety to the same degree or in the same way.

Reply
raisabebita

Please help me what should I do to overcome my anxiety because I experience this everyday. I felt chest pain and my blood pressure increase.
Thank you so much for your concern.

Reply
Karen Young

You will find articles on this link that will hopefully bring you some comfort and give you some strategies to manage your anxiety https://www.heysigmund.com/category/being-human/anxiety/. Exercise https://www.heysigmund.com/activity-restores-vital-neurochemical-protects-anxietyepression/, mindfulness https://www.heysigmund.com/overcoming-anxiety-mindfulness/, and a healthy diet are all important https://www.heysigmund.com/our-second-brain-and-stress-anxiety-depression-mood/. I understand how confusing anxiety can be, but it is very manageable. Take your time to go through the articles, and experiment with the strategy (or combination of strategies) that work best for you. I wish you all the best as you move forward.

Reply
Alice

I ordered you book “Hey Warrior” for my 9 year old granddaughter and she LOVES it. I really was hesitant to order sight unseen but it was worth every penny. Her 10 year old brother who doesn’t struggle with anxiety like she does, but does with anger, loved it too. It made such good sense to two intelligent children to whom I have been trying to teach mindfulness and breathing. Thank you for writing this sweet, smart book!

Reply
Karen Young

Alice thank you so much for letting me know. I’m so pleased your grandchildren are enjoying ‘Hey Warrior’. I hope they keep getting comfort and wisdom from reading it.

Reply
Jake

I haven’t been struggling with Anxiety for long but I really need some good advice. My mind is constantly racing about the smallest things, I always feel as if there’s something in my throat (even though I know there isnt) I worry about the smallest things. I feel like I’m seeing things weirdly and hearing things weirdly too. I do also feel trapped to my house because I had a panic attack whilst taking my dog a walk and now I’m afraid to go outside. I’m afraid to be on my own a lot of the time. I do suffer from panic attacks, especially when I eat because I have a fear of choking and I always feel as though there’s something wrong with me. Please help.

Reply
Lea

I have been struggling with anxiety for the past 7 years. I feel claustrophic and have the feeling of something heavy weighing on my chest (almost as if my lungs are cut in half) all day and everyday. I’m seeng a Psychiatrist and taking anti-depressants for the anxiety. I am still claustrophic and get panic attacks. Mindfulness, CBT and positive thinking are just not enough to control the physiological effects of my anxiety!

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Lea, I can hear the distress that this is causing you. Sometimes anxiety can be really stubborn. Keep working with your psychiatrist. If you have been with the same psychiatrist and on the same medication for a while and it’s not working, discuss trying something different with your doctor. Different things work for different people and the same thing won’t necessarily work for everyone. Keep fighting though. I wish you love and healing.

Reply
Clay

This is a great article. I look forward to the weekly emails.

Interestingly, I’ve known that Anxiety is a signal similar to pain as a signal. However, it had slipped from my a priori frontline mental state.

Thank you for bringing my most recent significant high anxieties of life situations into a new perspective.

The basic premise is this:
if you are highly anxious, use these mindfulness (I used biofeedback to acquire better mindful awareness) techniques to calm yourself,

then try to write down the best first cause of your anxiety.

the write down a few simple steps to begin changing that situation to a better one.

take one of these actions each time you feel the anxiety.

this should give you a sense of control — which our brains and minds Love!

And, acknowledge that it is one step at a time and that you can do it with simple awareness and simple actions.

What do you think, Hey Sigmund?

This is what I told myself after reading your article and putting myself into the mindset of Anxiety is a Signal to change.

Action will override anxiety.

Reply
Leanna

Hello,
I love your articles! They are the most on-point descriptions of anxiety and panic attacks I’ve read; and that creates a massive comfort to know that somebody out there understands. I’ve had a few bouts of anxiety over the last 15 years and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, but knowledge is power and understanding your body’s reaction to stress is very helpful. I’m also a big believer in hypnotherapy. It’s helped me massively and quite similar to mindfulness. I will definitely be practicing mindfulness too from now on, as it’s very easy to let your anxious thoughts run away with you!!
Thank you

Reply
Hey Sigmund

I’m so pleased you’re enjoying the articles. Anxiety can be awful can’t it, but it sounds as though you have found some ways to manage it that work well for you. Mindfulness is great, and I’m pleased you’re going to practice it. I hope it it brings you even more comfort.

Reply
Louise

I have suffered from anxiety all my life due to constantly living in the ‘fight & flight’ modes brought on by an abusive father, then husband, then finding myself homeless & unemployed after separation. I was not aware of mindfulness at the time, but I sought professional help and I also started to focus my attention more on nature. I took up bushwalking and photography. I have come a long way since then and I have taught myself how to manage my anxiety through calmness. Thank you Sigmund for now teaching me about mindfulness. I will now start doing this too, to add to my bag of tricks in a hope that I can be mentally healthy.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome Louise. Mindfulness is amazing. I’m so pleased to hear that you’re going to give it a go. I hope it brings you some relief.

Reply
Caroline

I am responding to Jo, who is 53 years old…. If you are reading something on a computer it means you are not in a truly desperate situation. It means you have things in your life you need to be grateful for. Once you are sincerely grateful, you can not keep happiness away! Imagine passing on from life and all that you can take with you is what you gave thanks for the day before. Namaste.

Reply
Hey Sigmund

Caroline, to suggest that anxiety can be fixed with a good dose of gratitude is judgemental, unhelpful and ignorant. Anxiety is very real and gratitude does not change the physiology of this. We can be grateful and in pain at the same time and it is not for anyone else to judge another person’s struggle. One of the antidotes to pain is connection, not judgement. Perhaps it might be helpful to turn your some of your gratitude into compassion for your fellow humans.

Reply
Jo

Contd …… I am 53 and have tried everything.Please help with any suggestions. All my pleasure has gone. Thank you

Reply
Alice

I am a great believer in mindfulness, therapy, exercise, healthy eating but I totally believe depression and/or anxiety can be a chemical imbalance helped by medication. I researched for a young, well trained psychiatrist at a teaching university hospital and she helped me immensely with 3 kinds of medicine. She listened to my story/background for an hour, did some therapy and then prescribed medication. After two trips back to her she found the best combination of medication.

Reply
Jo

Hello. I have had episodes of anxiety for the past 15 years. The latest has beeen the longest, 18 months of severe daily anxiety

Reply
heysigmund

I’m so sorry to hear that you are struggling like this. I know how awful anxiety can be when it takes hold. Have you seen a counsellor? Anxiety is generally very responsive to treatment. If you have tried counselling and it didn’t work, it may have been the fit between you and the counsellor. It’s like any relationship – what works for one won’t work for another so it might be worth trying someone else. I can really hear how much this is intruding into your life so I would really encourage you to try that. At home, try the measured outlined in the article. They can all make a difference but they aren’t a quick fix. Your anxiety has been doing what it’s doing for a while now and it will take a bit of muscle to turn it down – but you can do that, without a doubt. Try to incorporate mindfulness, exercise and breathing exercises daily and consider seeing a counsellor. I understand that at the moment it feels as though nothing will make a difference – I get that, but you can turn this around. I really hope you are able to find some comfort and I wish you all the very best.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This