By DEBORAH CHANDLER, PhD
Anxiety is hard-wired into all of us. Since we are going to be living with this response, understanding anxiety gives us a better chance of managing its effects.
Anxiety is part of the peripheral sympathetic nervous system. This part of the nervous system prepares our bodies for emergencies. A signal of danger triggers the sympathetic nervous system, preparing us to fight or flight. This response occurs with or without our conscious mind taking notice. So sometimes, we do not know why we are anxious.
Anxiety is different from fear. Fear is right now. The scary dog is in front of us. Anxiety is the anticipation of encountering a scary dog. When experiencing anxiety, there is no dog there. We are fearing what might happen. Anxiety is always about the future.
Anxiety impacts along four dimensions.
A slew of emotions flashes through the anxiety experience. These include anger, guilt, rage, unlovable, unworthy, shame, depression.
Cognitively anxiety interferes with thinking leading to distractedness, confusion, memory impairment.
Physical responses include body tension, sweaty palms, queasy stomach, tightness in the head, bladder and bowel urgency.
Relationships are impacted by difficulties with trust, fears of rejection, clinginess, vacillations between pulling others close and pushing them away.
Non-anxious and anxious persons both experience activation of the sympathetic nervous system. However, anxious people are genetically more reactive to stress and novel situations. Non-anxious responders will return to lower activation levels more quickly. A non-anxious person will also integrate a challenging experience more quickly into their life view. The difference between those that identify as anxious and those who do not can be minimized by techniques that create feelings of well-being in the present moment.
We can learn to reset our nervous system by taming our inner fears. All techniques rely upon ways to focus on the moment. In the moment, the anticipated danger is not present. The more we practice these techniques, the more efficient we will be in managing our anxiety:
- Spend time in nature.
- Get a massage.
- Practice meditation.
- Breath making the in-breath equal to the out-breath in duration.
- Focus on a word that is soothing such as calm or
- Play with animals or children.
- Practice yoga, chi kung, or tai chi.
All these activities strengthen our focus on the here and now.
Personally, anxiety increases the closer I get to certain family members who I associate with judging and shaming. I have personified this anxiety as a demon that lives in my belly. When this demon is activated, I feel angry, rejected, and shamed. By embracing this demon, I have tamed the beast. My demon trusts me to be protective and to be calming in the moment. Now when I encounter my demon, I see him as a child who wants to laugh, have fun, and share love in the moment.
Anxiety will always be with us. We manage anxiety by creating a sense of safety for ourselves in the present moment.