Sweaty hands. Can’t seem to catch a breath. Heart racing and pounding in chest. Arms shaky. Legs weak. Can’t sit still. Can’t focus. Can’t remember what that person just said to me in the hall. Head aching. Stomach aching. Eat? No way. Sleep? If I’m lucky. Focus? Ha!
Sound familiar? If so, you may be one of the 25% of teens1 or 18% of US adults2 who experiences daily anxiety and stress to a degree that it interferes with your functioning at school, work, home, and in your relationships, and could be diagnosed as an anxiety disorder. In my years of experience working with children, teens and young adults in Vancouver, WA, anxiety is one of the most common issues and concerns for my clients.
So, what exactly is anxiety? And how does stress impact anxiety? And what can you do to decrease or help regulate your anxiety and stress levels so that you’re able to feel calmer and more in control of your body?
Let’s tackle these one by one:
What is anxiety?
Anxiety in-and-of itself is actually your body’s normal and healthy way to respond to stress. There are parts of your brain, mainly in your brain stem and the mid part of your brain under all that wrinkly gray tissue, that are CONSTANTLY scanning the environment around you for signs of danger. Most of the time this is unconscious, it’s something your brain does automatically without conscious thought. We share this part of our brain with reptiles (so some people actually call it the “reptilian brain”) and what do snakes and lizards do when they sense danger? They twitch and run, they freeze or play dead, or they leap at you to fight. And these responses are fast, almost instantaneous, with no conscious thought or regulation.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze
In humans, we call this the “fight, flight or freeze” response. You have most likely experienced this at some point in your life when you froze, you were completely caught off guard, or were so fearful you couldn’t move or speak. Or you had the sensation you just wanted to get out and run as fast and as far away from the situation you were in, RIGHT NOW. These automatic responses are great and helpful if there is a true physical danger in front of you, such as that snake. You want your brain’s emergency alarms to go off loud and clear when a snake is rearing its head and getting ready to strike your leg. It’s easy to see in nature or in the wild how it is actually helpful to have your body’s anxiety response to keep you safe. However, most of you in your daily life are not probably running from bears or fighting snakes or freezing still when a predator spots you.
What Anxiety Looks Like
Your anxiety (I’m guessing) comes in the context of school, work, comments you read on various social media platforms, relationships with peers, coworkers, partners, and family. And unfortunately your body’s unconscious, automatic, reptilian brain response to the perceived danger in your life is not usually super helpful. You start to get these physical sensations in your body: heart starts beating faster, you get hot and sweaty or cold and clammy, your limbs might shake and it gets harder to breathe, or think, or focus on anything. All your blood is going to your limbs and your heart is beating fast to keep those limbs fully stocked with oxygen and fuel to run or fight. And unnecessary body systems are shut down: digestion stops, executive functions in your brain such as logical thinking or problem solving, get shut down. The very physical things your body is doing in response to your brain’s fire alarms going off, are what create the symptoms of anxiety. So how do you know you’re anxious? You probably get stomachaches, loss of appetite, indigestion, and if that goes on long enough: weight loss. You probably experience headaches, difficulty concentrating in school or focusing on completing assignments. You probably get shaky and have difficulty breathing, chest pain and panic attacks. You may have difficulty falling asleep at night or staying asleep, waking up in a panic gasping for air.
All this, believe it or not, is supposed to be helpful! And at times it is, such as when you’re camping and a bear attacks your cooler, or you find yourself nose to nose with a bully. But in our modern world our stressors are often more intangible. The dangers are getting a bad grade and worrying about your GPA for college admissions. The things that someone you trusted is now saying about you all over social media. Or the physical illness your loved one is going though that leaves you feeling afraid and powerless to help. So, that leads us to our second question:
How Does Stress Interact with Anxiety?
The Holmes-Rahe Stress Scale for adults3 and for youth4 was developed to measure the amount of stress (good and bad) you have experienced in the past 12 months, and how that might be impacting your physical and mental health. As you add up all the significant events that may have occurred in your life over the past year on the scale, you’ll get a total stress score. Higher total stress scores correlate with an up to 80% increased chance of developing a major stress related illness or health condition.
The more stressors you are experiencing in your life, the more anxiety you’ll notice. There is some fear, danger, threat or instability in your environment that your brain is trying to help you cope with by engaging your body for action. But the more that anxiety grows and gets out of control, the more it starts interfering with your life. It gets difficult and at times impossible to focus in class, to write a whole paper, to even get to work on time.
What Happens When Anxiety Impacts Daily Life?
You find you start avoiding certain people and certain places because of how they make you feel and for fear you won’t be able to talk to them or get through the event without having a panic attack. At a certain point, it gets in the way of you feeling happy, confident and successful in your life, and that is often when we would diagnose it as an anxiety disorder. You worry so often that you have stomachaches every time you eat and so you avoid food and end up losing weight when you weren’t trying to. You stop going to practices because even the thought of having to face in person someone who hurt you, makes you panic. All of the sudden your life is shrinking and the anxiety is taking control of your choices and opportunities, and that is a problem.
What Can I Do About It?
Now, what can you do about it? Is there anything you can do to decrease or help regulate your anxiety and stress levels so that you’re able to feel calmer and more in control of your body?
Yes! The good news is that you CAN help your body calm down, relax and take a more thoughtful look at the things your brain is automatically calling “Danger!!” and assess for yourself: is there a real threat? If so, what can I do to fix this problem? If you remember, this kind of logical, problem solving thinking is not available to you in those moments of “fight, flight or freeze” freak out, so it’s necessary to calm your body’s anxiety response first, and then think and plan when you’re feeling calm and in control of your body again. Don’t try to frantically solve your problems when you’re worked up or in the middle of a panic attack, it will get you nowhere!
Thankfully there are many ways to calm down your body’s anxiety response, many of them have been researched, tested and proven effective, and these are the things I teach my clients to help them decrease their anxiety and panic and increase their sense of control and confidence in their body. Because, just as your brain has control over making your body freak out, it also has control over calming it back down again, you just have to practice.
So stay tuned for two more blogs with specific tips, exercises, and resources for calming down your body and redirecting your anxious thoughts. I’ll be sharing my 3-step process for tackling your anxiety in a calm and effective manner! Topics will include: breathing, muscle relation, mindfulness, and cognitive behavioral therapy tools.