Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

One of the first things I ask people who are struggling with anxiety, is if they think that anxiety is a good or bad thing. This is a trick question of course, because I know that 90% of people are going to say “bad”.

This is one of my favorite moments, as this is an opportunity for me to help someone see that what he or she think is “bad” might actually be really helpful. Talk about NEW POSSIBILITIES!

All emotions/feelings serve a purpose. They are neither good nor bad! A Feeling is a group of body-based sensations that give us information about what is happening in our internal and external environment. Feelings help us make sense of what we are seeing, hearing, tasting, touching, smelling and sensing. They also all have what is called, an action potential, which means they activate a certain drive in us such as moving towards or away from, opening or closing, etc.

Anxiety serves two functions:

1. Warning us to a potential danger

2. Letting us know that something is important to us.

When the purpose is to let us know that there is a potential danger, anxiety is part of our alarm system that helps our bodies mobilize for survival. It kicks us into our fight-flight-freeze mode. When our body is activated in this way; several predictable, normal and automatic things happen.

• Heart and breathing rate increases, bringing oxygen to our big muscles

• There is an increase in muscular tension that serves to prepare our body for quick reactions/responses.

• Sometimes people have “butterflies” or may even feel nauseous.

• Our hearing is altered. Our middle ear narrows, in order to focus our attention on predatorial sounds, reducing our ability to hear the human voice. (So no your husband, wife or kid are not ignoring you, they may at that moment, not be physiologically able to hear you!)

• Our vision may become somewhat narrowed, often described as tunnel vision in order to help us “see” the danger.

• Others sweat profusely.

In the second case, when anxiety lets us know that there is something important to us; the same physiological responses happen. The action potential in this case, serves to motivate us to get what we need to get done, finished.Think about a test at school, a job interview, etc. If you didn’t feel anxious at all would you really study or prepare ahead of time…? My guess is probably not.

All of these responses are NORMAL and AUTOMATIC. Meaning: that we do NOT have control over these things.

So NO, you are NOT CRAZY and you are NOT the only one this happens to! Your body is doing what it is supposed to! Anxiety is HELPFUL and HEALTHY…. Well, for the most.  

There is a point however, after which the tables turn and anxiety does become unhelpful and unhealthy. This type of anxiety often shows up as ongoing and constant worrying. From the moment you get up, your mind is spinning with the what-ifs and potential dangers that lurk around every corner.

How one develops this type of anxiety is beyond the scope of this blog. However, do not fear… literally and figuratively as help is near!

By teaching people how to understand their body based sensations, looking at their thoughts and behaviors, knowing how to tell the difference between a real and “fake” danger, therapy can be a highly effective way of regaining control over one’s life and shifting the anxiety back to the healthy and helpful range.

In the meantime here are tools that I teach my clients (and that I actually use on a regular basis. Yes, even therapists have to use coping tools!)

1. STOP whatever you are doing and take 10-15 slow deep breaths. (Yes I know, everyone tells you to take deep breaths…. and there is a reason why: It works!!! ~ Topic for another blog)

2. Splash some cold water on your face or put an ice pack on the back of your neck. (This engages the diver reflex…. again ~ topic for another time)

3. Ask yourself some questions that help get your logical and rational brain back online.

a. What is the likelihood that the “feared” event or thought is actually going to happen?

b. Has it ever happened before? If yes, how did you handle it?

c. What is the worst thing that could happen if the feared event or thought were to come true? Would that be so bad?

So have i convinced you yet? The more we can move away from labeling our emotions as good and bad the more freedom we will have in being able to experience them and use them in a helpful way versus always being scared and running away.

I don’t know about you but i got tired of running!