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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    Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
    This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
    Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
    As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
    Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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