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

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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    Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
    The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
    During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
    Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
    "Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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