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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There are lots of reasons we love people or places, and a big reason is that we love who we are when we’re with those people or in those places. It’s the same for our children.

Do they feel seen, important, fun, funny, joyful? Or do they feel annoying, intrusive, unimportant, stupid? Do they feel like someone who is valued and wanted? Or do they feel tolerated? Do they feel interesting, independent, capable? Or do they feel managed?

It’s so easy to fall into a space - and this can happen with the most loving, most wonderful parents - where we spend too much time telling them what to do, noticing the things they don’t do, ‘managing’ them, and not enough time playing or experiencing joy with them, valuing their contribution (even if we’ve had to stoke that a little), seeking out their opinions and ideas. 

We won’t get this right all the time, and that’s okay. This isn’t about perfection. It’s about what we do most and being deliberate when we can. It’s about seeing who they are, through what they do. It’s about taking time to enjoy them, laugh with them, play with them, so they can feel their capacity to bring joy. It’s about creating the conditions that make it easy for them to love the people they are when they are with us.♥️
This week I had the absolute joy of working with the staff of Launceston College, presenting two half-day workshops on neuroscience and brain development for children and adolescents. 

The teachers and staff at this school care so much about their students. The everyday moments young people have with their important adults matter so much. It’s through these moment to moment interactions that young people start to learn that they are important, believed in, wanted, that they belong, and when this happens, learning will too. It just will. 

This is what teachers do. They open young people up to their potential, to their capacity for learning and doing hard things. They grow humans. The work of a teacher will always go so far beyond content and curriculum. 

Thank you @launceston_college for having me. Your students are in strong and wonderful hands.♥️

Posted @withrepost • @launceston_college
#LC2022 #
Building brave and moving through anxiety are like lifting weights. The growth happens little by little. Sometimes this will be slow and clumsy. Sometimes it will feel big bold, certain, and beautiful. Sometimes undone, unhappened, frustrating. It all matters. 

There will be so many days where they will see the brave thing in front of them, and everything in them will want to move towards it but they’ll feel stuck - between wanting to and scared to.

This is the point of impasse. The desire and the resistance come face to face, locked in battle. On the outside this might look like frustration, big tears, big anger, the need to avoid or retreat (or in us, a need to retreat them), but inside the work to strengthen against anxiety is happening.

This isn’t the undoing of brave. It’s the building of it. In this precious space between the wanting and the fear, they’re doing battle. They’re doing the hard, imposing work of moving through anxiety. They’re experiencing the distress of anxiety, and the handling of it, all at once. They might not be handling it well, but as long as they’re in it, they’re handling it.

These moments matter so much. If this is all they do, then they’ve been brave today. They’ve had a necessary, important experience which has shown them that the discomfort of anxiety won’t hurt them. It will feel awful, but as long as they aren’t alone in it, it won’t break them. 

Next day, next week, next month they might handle that discomfort for a minute longer than last time. Next time, even longer. This isn’t the avoidance of brave. It’s the building of it. These are the weight lifting experiences that slowly and surely strengthen their resiliency muscles. These are the experiences that show them that the discomfort of anxiety is no reflection at all of how capable they are and how brave they can be. It’s discomfort. It’s not breakage.

These little steps are the necessary building blocks for the big ones. So, if they have handled the discomfort of anxiety today (it truly doesn’t matter how well), and if that discomfort happened as they were face to face with something important and meaningful and hard, let them know that they’ve built brave today.♥️
Anxiety is a valid, important, necessary way the brain recruits support in times of trouble. In actual times of danger, the support we give is vital. This might look like supporting avoidance, fighting for them, fleeing with them. BUT - when there is no danger, this ‘support’ can hold them back from brave, important, growthful things. It can get in the way of building resilience, self-belief, and the capacity for brave. All loving parents will do this sometimes. This isn’t the cause of anxiety. It’s the response to it. 

We love them so much, and as loving parents we all will, at some time or another,  find ourselves moving to protect them from dangers that aren’t there. These ‘dangers’ are the scary but safe things that trigger anxiety and the call for support, but which are safe. Often they are also growthful, brave, important. These include anything that’s safe but hard, unfamiliar, growthful, brave.

This is when the move towards brave might be in our hands. This might look like holding them lovingly in the discomfort of anxiety for a minute longer than last time, rather than supporting avoidance. It might look like trusting their capacity to cope with the discomfort of anxiety (and approaching hard, brave, growthful things) rather than protecting them from that discomfort. Knowing what to do when can be confusing and feel impossibly hard sometimes. When it does, ask:

‘Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?’
‘Am I aligning with their fear or their courage?’
‘What am I protecting them from - a real danger, or something brave and important?’

They don’t have to do the whole brave thing all at once. We can move them towards brave behaviour in tiny steps - by holding them in the discomfort of anxiety for a teeny bit longer each time. This will provide the the experience they need to recognise that they can handle the discomfort of anxiety.

This might bring big feelings or big behaviour, but you don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Big feelings don’t hurt children. It’s being alone in big feelings that hurts. Let them feel you with them with statements of validation and confidence, ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle this.’♥️
We all do or say things we shouldn’t sometimes. This isn’t about breakage, it’s about being human. It’s about a brain that has registered ‘threat’, and a body that is getting ready to respond. 

‘Threat’ counts as anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their other important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, unfairness or loss. It can also count as physical (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness).

The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a brain that needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, validate (with or without words - if the words are annoying for them just feel what they feel so they can feel you with them). 

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets nervous systems on fire. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. Stand behind the boundary, flag the behaviour (‘It’s not ok to … I know you know that’) and then shift the focus to relationship - (‘I’m right here’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’)♥️

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