Your body is remarkable in its ability to “sound the alarm” when you’re in danger. Your muscles tense, your breathing quickens, and your heart pounds. It’s the well-documented cascade of hormonal and physiological changes known as “fight or flight.” This complex response evolved as a survival mechanism, allowing us to quickly react to life-threatening situations, like encountering a hungry bear.
In today’s world, we may not be fighting or fleeing predators in the wilderness, but we may still find ourselves in plenty of situations that are dangerous, stressful, or frightening. Driving behind a car that comes to a sudden stop or walking alone on a dark street, for example, may trigger the fight-or-flight response. It’s your body’s way of helping you protect yourself.
But what happens when you can’t seem to put the brakes on your body’s reaction to what you fear? When routine events, such as meeting with a difficult supervisor or boarding a flight, regularly activate the danger center in your brain, you could be experiencing anxiety. And, since anxiety disorders are the nation’s most common mental health concern, you are certainly not alone.
Anxiety and fear are not one in the same.
Although they are similar, there are ways to distinguish between anxiety and fear. While everyone feels fearful from time to time, fear occurs when there is actual danger present. Anxiety, on the other hand, is when your body reacts as though danger is present. It’s a response to a feeling of perceived danger.
You may not be aware that the root cause of anxiety can be traced back to your childhood attachments. Seeking individual therapy can help you examine the learned behaviors that developed over time and contribute to your anxiety. In order to have an attachment with your caregivers, for instance, you may have learned to hide your feelings as a child. Or, having a separate mind may not have been tolerated by your parents.
As you grow into adulthood, the activation patterns of anxiety are triggered by certain scenarios or memories, or by feelings or impulses you learned when you were young. Those patterns become encoded in your procedural memory the same way brushing your teeth becomes encoded. In other words, you do it without thinking about it until it becomes detrimental to your life.
That could mean that perceived “dangers,” such as sharing your feelings with a romantic partner or speaking up during a staff meeting, may stir up unwelcome impulses originating in childhood and trigger the fight-or-flight response. A good therapist can work with you to identify the anxiety triggers in your life, many of which you may not be aware.
Are you living with the symptoms of anxiety?
Once the physiological activation pattern of anxiety begins in your brain, a host of physical symptoms affect your body. These symptoms, which arise very quickly after your autonomic nervous system sends a distress signal, can include:
• Rapid heartbeat
• Ringing in the ears
• Blurry or tunnel vision
• Lightheadedness or dizziness
• Tension headaches or migraines
• Brain fog
• Muscle tension or slackness
• Upset stomach
• Stomach pains or cramps
Paying attention to these symptoms and becoming familiar with how your body reacts to anxiety can go a long way toward helping you cope.
Effective treatment for anxiety is available.
If you’ve experienced chronic anxiety for many years, you may not realize how it’s affecting your body. You may disregard it, thinking you’re simply a nervous person or one who naturally worries more than others. You may even wonder, “Does anxiety go away if you ignore it?” However, your symptoms should be taken seriously because, left untreated, they almost always worsen over time.
The effects of anxiety on the brain and body can be harmful, often leading to serious stomach problems and a host of other ailments. The good news is that you can live a mostly anxiety-free life when you work with a therapist to address its root causes, whether or not you’re currently taking anxiety medication.
Other helpful tools for alleviating anxiety:
- Try reciting self-affirmations for anxiety, including telling yourself, “I’m safe; I’m not under any threat.”
- Recognize the symptoms and signs that tell you you’re anxious (Do you ruminate? Do you obsess? Do you try to avoid something?).
- Notice the connection between when your anxiety and the actions it causes you to take.
- Show love for yourself by noticing that you’re anxious and not blaming yourself for it.
- Be aware of your triggers and the feelings or impulses that result from them.
- Use breathing techniques, including smooth and easy breathing.
- Check in with your thoughts and avoid predicting bad outcomes.
- Talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend experiencing anxiety (go to https://self-compassion.org for more information on self-compassion).
- Go out into nature and tune in to the sights and smells (Notice tiny details, like a particular leaf or the feeling of bark on a tree).
- Talk to a friend about what’s going on in your life.
- Go for a walk or get some other form of exercise.
- Drink plenty of water (Anxiety reduces electrolytes).
- Address and become aware of any internal conflict.
Your therapist can provide you with even more tools for coping with anxiety and calming your mind, so you can be better prepared the next time your fight-of-flight response goes into overdrive.
Freedom from anxiety can begin today.
At Therapy Today, we’ve helped hundreds of people find freedom from debilitating anxiety in a warm, safe, and soothing environment. We take a unique approach to treating anxiety that explores root causes and provides you with lasting solutions. And, with our same-day in-person and online telehealth counseling sessions, we can work with you to start addressing your anxiety today.