I personally have struggled with severe anxiety since I was a baby. I worry about things that have yet to happen, that have already happened, and even things that will most likely never happen. The thing that’s wild is that sometimes I can be anxious, and I can’t even tell you why I’m anxious, I just don’t even know myself. Some days my anxiety isn’t so bad. I can go to the store, I can go to class, do my homework, go to the gym, see my friends, whatever I have planned that day. However, some days, my anxiety is so bad it feels like I am drowning, and at that point it’s no longer about coping with the anxiety, it is just about surviving it. People who don’t have anxiety disorders can empathize with my struggle, but they don’t truly understand that my anxiety makes me feel like my future is a life or death situation. The future itself can feel like a threat at times. How I take an experience, and learn from it is what has steered me in the direction I’ve gone in life, but at times I feel as if I let my anxiety direct my expectations of the things I care about.
1 in 4 people in their lifetime will experience some form of anxiety disorder. For many of us who deal with this, it becomes a part of our daily lives, living as if we have to delicately balance ourselves over a never ending minefield of mental peril. Learning triggers and avoiding them can be useful, but in a larger sense, constantly having to avoid triggers can be very disassociative, and removes you from living presently. Conquering my anxieties has guided me to live a fuller life, though anxiety is only one step of the process. Over the course of the next few works, we will be covering concepts that will hopefully help guide you towards that fuller life, but before we dive into those, we have to have a foundation coming into them. I feel a definitive place to start is with anxiety. In this body we will learn how to safely defuse our mental landmines, so we can enjoy our lives without constantly checking our footing.
Anxiety is really just the fear of the unknown, or the impending. Fear on its own is a primal, base level human instinct. In the 21st Century for many of us, fear is no longer necessary for survival. That’s not to say that fear hasn’t kept me alive before, because in many scenarios it has saved my life. When in danger, “A fear response in the amygdala activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system. — — The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise” (Javanbakht and Saab. “What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear”). Fear has gotten my body moving fast enough to get off a mountain top, just before it was engulfed in lightning. Fear has kept me awake long enough for my body to process something toxic so that I didn’t slip into a coma. In day to day life though, fear isn’t necessary for survival, but it can definitely still hinder you under the guises of anxiety if not managed properly.
The issue that arises is that under provocation, the same responses for fear apply to anxiety. For me, that means I get feelings of impending doom waiting for a text back from my crush, or walking into a job I’m applying for. In reality I’m sure everyone experiences some form of anxiety when doing these things, but for someone like me, that dial is usually turned to 11. When it’s not, it can easily snowball from 1 to 20 if I’m not careful. Being mindful of my thoughts and purposefully directing myself can help me steer clear of mental snowballs. This is part of my mine field. To defuse those landmines, I needed to feel in control of my life, as well as not feel threatened by them. Smithsonian Magazine describes this process as our “thinking” brain going through methodical and logical deduction to reassure our “emotional” brain that we are in fact okay.
“Any imbalance between excitement caused by fear in the animal brain and the sense of control in the contextual human brain may cause too much, or not enough, excitement. If the individual perceives the experience as “too real,” an extreme fear response can overcome the sense of control over the situation.” (Javanbakht and Saab. “What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear”)
The first step to finding control in your life is to learn to live in the present. Since anxiety is the fear of the unknown, the future is the ultimate anxiety. Stated by Dr. Ilene Strauss Cohen, “We can’t feel totally satisfied with where we’re going until we can accept, acknowledge, and appreciate where we are. Make peace with where you are, and your journey toward something new will feel much more peaceful, rewarding, and satisfying” (“How to Let Go of the Need to Be Perfect”, Dr Strauss Cohen). When my anxieties begin to flair, my therapist has told me to focus on something around me. This is adjacent to the concept outlined by Dr. Strauss Cohen, but it can be applied in a similar way. To have sure footing in the future, you have to have sure footing in the present. Learning to live presently is difficult, but a simple place to start is by focusing on one thing; a bird chirping, the AC humming, cars passing in the street, it could be anything.
While living presently is great, we also have to adapt the way we think. Anxiety can lead us to feel as if we are a burden to others, or that we aren’t good enough. Learning to live feeling you are good enough takes changing your concept of self in your own head. Dr. Strauss Cohen believes, “the first step to feeling like you’re enough is changing your mindset and old beliefs about yourself derived from past experiences of what’s expected of you. The rest is a process of changing the idea that you need to work harder for approval and using that energy to just be enough for yourself” (“How to Let Go of the Need to Be Perfect”, Dr Strauss Cohen). To be enough you have to know you are enough. While shifting your expectations away from the extreme or unattainable is helpful, you also have to know that your own worth is determined by you. Being enough comes from knowing that you are enough for yourself. People will come and go, things will change over time, but you will always have yourself, and if you make sure that you value your health, time, and happiness, those will be the things consistent in your life.
The point of these exercises is to render yourself in control of your life. Sometimes fear is there to tell us, “DO NOT ENTER,” and learning to read that is very important. However some fears are irrational, and learning to identify those fears as anxiety is important to growing and leading a healthy life. Being able to reality check your fears and learning to ground yourself in the present will render you in control. With control comes some safety, and with safety, fear/anxiety can be confronted and dismantled. Defusing your anxieties can lead you to have a more free and healthy life, all it takes is regaining control of your own mind when it starts to wander. Easier said than done, I know, but go focus on something around you, or talk about it with a friend, or a therapist, and you’ll get there soon enough.
Anxiety is a lot like a door. Sometimes we leave the door closed, we are content with where we are, and we don’t need to go behind it. Othertimes, our lives dictate we need to compose ourselves, and open the door with grace and unwavering faith that everything will be alright, and it’s hard. It is so fucking hard to open that door sometimes, and just believe that no matter how hurt you may get on the otherside, that you will grow. That’s the challenge with anxiety. Sometimes they get proven right, and it makes you never want to doubt them again. But you just have to keep challenging them, over and over again. Throughout my own life I have had to live every day with some sort of anxiety of what might happen and the only way I have been able to get through, has been to embrace that unknown openly, knowing I’m in control of my destiny, and move forward. How we understand ourselves, and how we choose to react to our anxieties, determines what kind of person we are on so many levels beyond courage. I can’t tell you how to react to your fears, but what I can say is this; Next time you are feeling scared about something, take a deep breath, focus on something to ground yourself in reality, and remember that you are enough. Once you do that, all you have to do is just take that leap and fly.
Mazzone, Ton, director. A Day in the Life of Anxiety | Ton Mazzone. YouTube, YouTube, 28 Aug. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=6PgrQgum9R8&t=186s.
Javanbakht, Arash, and Linda Saab. “What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 27 Oct. 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-happens-brain-feel-fear-180966992/.
Strauss Cohen, Ilene. “How to Let Go of the Need to Be Perfect.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 12 Jan. 2018, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/your-emotional-meter/201801/how-let-go-the-need-be-perfect.