Why Anxiety Feels the Way it Does – What You Need to Know to Strengthen Against Anxiety

Where anxiety comes from and why it feels the way it does – and a super-simple, super-powerful way to switch it off.

The Take-Aways

  • Anxiety can feel awful, but it comes from a strong, healthy brain that is doing exactly what brains are meant to do – protect us and keep us alive. 
  • There’s a really good reason for every physical symptoms that come with anxiety, and understanding this can be a powerful way to turn anxiety around.
  • Anxiety comes from a part of your brain called the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to be on the constant lookout for danger, and to get us physically ready to deal with that any threats that come our way – and humiliation, embarrassment, being separated from someone important to you – can all count as threat. 
  • When your brain things that might be trouble, it surges you with a cocktail of neurochemicals designed to get you faster, stronger, more powerful, more alert, and more able to physically deal with the threats. This is called the fight of flight response. 
  • Sometimes, your brain might sense danger and get you ready for fight or flight, when there is no need to fight or flee. The problem with this is that there is nothing to burn the neurochemicals that are surging through you and they build up. This is why anxiety can feel so awful – the physical feelings feed into anxious thoughts, which feed back into anxious feelings.
  • Every physical symptom has a good reason for being there, but if you don’t understand where they come from they can drive anxiety about the anxiety – so let’s talk about that.
  • The first thing that happens when your brain surges you with these neurochemicals is your breathing changes from strong deep breaths, probably like your breathing now, to short shallow breaths. This happens because your brain has told your body to stop using up oxygen on strong deep breaths in case it needs that oxygen to fight or flee.
  • When that happens, the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body change. This can cause you to feel a bit dizzy or confused. Again, this is all completely safe and just a sign that your brain is being a little overprotective and getting you ready to physically deal with a ‘threat’ that isn’t actually a threat.
  • During anxiety your heart beats faster is to send that chemical fuel around to your body – your arms so they can fight and your legs so they can flee. It’s all normal and completely safe, but again, it can feel awful.
  • Your body starts to cool itself down so it doesn’t overheat in case it has to fight or flee. It does this by sweating, which is why you anxiety can make you feel clammy even on a cold day.
  • The muscles in your arms and legs can feel tense or wobbly. This is because of the neurochemical surge which is getting your arms ready to fight and your legs ready to flee – just in case.
  • Anything that isn’t absolutely essential for your survival in the moment is shut down to conserve energy in case you need that energy for fight or flight. One of the processes that gets wound down is digestion. This can give you butterflies, and it can make you feel like you’re going to vomit.
  • In the midst of anxiety, you might feel as though you want to burst into tears or you might feel really angry. This is because the amygdala is also in charge of other emotions. When it’s switched to high volume, as it is during anxiety, other emotions might also be switched to high volume.
  • There is a really simple, really powerful way to turn this all around and it’s by breathing. Iff someone tells you to ‘just breathe’ while you’re feeling anxious, it might not go down so well. This is because an anxious brain is a busy brain and during anxiety, it might have trouble accessing strong, deep breathing because that survival fight or flight instinct is telling it to breathe short, shallow breaths. The way around this is to practice strong deep breathing when you’re calm so it becomes more automatic and easier for your brain to access.
  • First though, it helps to understand why strong deep breathing is so powerful during anxiety. Breathing initiates ‘the relaxation response’. This response was identified by a cardiologist at Harvard as being a powerful way to neutralise the surging of fight or flight neurochemicals, and bringing the brain and body back to a calmer state.
  • The relaxation response is automatic, which means you don’t have to believe it works – it just will – but you do need to switch it on.
  • To activate the relaxation response, breathe in for three, hold for one, out for three. Repeat this a few times.
  • The really important thing is to practise it when you’re feeling calm. It seems ridiculous to have to practice breathing because it’s what we do, and we do it every minute of every day of our lives, but this type of breathing especially during anxiety isn’t easy. It’s not an automatic response. Your automatic response is to go to short shallow breathing so you need to retrain your brain to access strong deep breathing when you’re anxious.
  • If you you’re going into a situation that might trigger your anxiety have something on your wrist on your hand to remind you to take strong deep breaths, and over time this will start to become an automatic response, making it easier for your brain to access during anxiety.

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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