I’ve had anxiety since I thought peanut butter and Fluff made a great sandwich, and it’s shaped who I am, how I am, what I do, and how I do it. Of course, back in the day, I didn’t have the word “anxiety” to attach to the tummy aches, nightmares, dogged exhaustion, obsessive thinking, acne, low self esteem, or any of the other spectrum of symptoms that could make an average day in 6th grade only slightly less uncomfortable than a pit stop in the 9th circle of hell.
Even my depression, which I also had and couldn’t name, and which is a common companion to anxiety, often seemed preferable the stomach churning wilds of my anxiety. In depressive states I could just lay on my bed and stare glumly at my David Bowie posters while wondering how to muster up the energy to sneak a sleeve of Oreos out of the kitchen downstairs. (Food has always been an integral part of my mental imbalances.) Anxiety made me do stuff like call people and basically beg them to hang out with me, take hours choosing an outfit to wear for the day, and pick at my skin until it bled and then scarred. It made me say and feel humiliating things all the time, things that I then had the pleasure of replaying in my mind ad nauseam while other people got to have a decent night’s sleep. This is not to say depression is less excruciating than anxiety, but that for me, the upside was that it was— at the very least— more private.
Now that I’m all grown up and have had the great blessing of both an education and a profession in psychology, I’ve a much better understanding of what was happening to me (and still does happen, though not as horribly) on a physiological, mental, and emotional level. I recently had a client that summed up the experience of her anxiety perfectly when she described a recurring dream. The dream is simple: my client is in an all white room in which there suddenly appears an enormous, menacing gorilla that wants to kill her. First she freezes, then she tries to run away, and then she wakes up right before he manages to to wrap his hairy, leathery, massive fingers around her neck. She began having this dream at three years old, just as her parents got divorced, and to this day, cannot stand the thought, or the sight, of gorillas. (Interestingly, gorillas are her mother’s favorite animal, but that’s a whole other Freudian line of inquiry we don’t have time to get into here.)
Having anxiety is like this dream: our nervous system perceives a “deadly” threat that, while not actually there or not actually deadly, causes us to snap into survival mode. Our heart rate increases, our muscles tense, and our ability to think calmly is compromised as we desperately attempt to figure out how to avoid or neutralize the threat. I’ll use my 6th grade self as an example.
For me, one of the threats was about being rejected by the people around me— a valid concern as my family moved about constantly making me the perennially unpopular “new girl.” I know now that this is a primal, and not completely unreasonable fear, because human beings are, like wolves, pack animals, and the possibility of being rejected by the pack in our primitive days could quite possibly result in death. Of course, being rejected by a bunch of bratty cheerleaders who won’t share their friendship bracelets will generally not lead to anyone’s actual demise, but my nervous system hadn’t been informed, so it reacted like it could. I had to neutralize the threat by either avoiding them, trying to make them be my friend, or aligning myself with some other group who— though further down in the pack hierarchy, would still potentially ensure my basic survival. I poured untold hours into all of those efforts.
This is what anxiety makes us do. We perceive and grossly overestimate a threat, and then throw everything we’ve got at it to make it go away. Our strategies fall into the general themes of avoidance (flight), conflict (fight), hyper vigilance and obsessive thinking (in order to manage and minimize the threat), and paralysis (the third and often forgotten piece of the fight or flight theory, which is “freeze”.) If we think carefully about our anxiety behaviors, we can usually fit them into one of these categories.
The thing about anxiety is, it happens in our amygdala, or lizard brain, and the lizard brain doesn’t like to be reasoned with. Therefore, when we are in an anxious state, it’s probably already too late to “talk some sense” into ourselves. This is not to say that understanding our anxiety with our rational mind is not incredibly valuable (something Cognitive Behavioral therapists might disagree with)— it is— but that the time for understanding anxiety is when it’s not active. The way we can best manage anxiety in real time is not through reason, but through action.
We when, as my grandmother would have said, get ourselves all worked up into a “dither” or rather, find ourselves in a dysregulated neurological state, there are some concrete things we can train ourselves to do that will help. (Note, beating ourselves up for feeling anxious, or telling ourselves we’re acting “crazy” aren’t two of them.) It has been scientifically proven that anxiety feelings tend to follow a bell curve, the most intense piece of which, or the top, lasts about 20 -30 minutes. Our task, therefore, is to survive these minutes while we wait for the wave to lose it’s terrible velocity. Sometimes, it is true, one wave will quickly follow another wave, but we if can teach ourselves to ride them, and take breaks and rest when we can, as well as drain some of the power out of the underlying rip tide, we’ll be in much better shape than we would be otherwise.
The three general methods that work best to ride and minimize anxiety waves are distraction, mindfulness, and drug intervention.
Distraction, it is important to understand, is different than avoidance (which can cause a whole other set of problems) in that when we distract ourselves, we plan to eventually return to the scary stuff from which we are needing some space. When we avoid, we have zero intention of confronting or revisiting uncomfortable emotions, activities, or individuals. And it is also important to recognize that all distractions are not created equal. Those that can become addictive in nature such as playing video games, eating, or drinking all too often simply end up as forms of avoidance. Distractions like reading or listening to audio books, cleaning, walking, running, lifting, yoga, cycling, taking a bath, calling a friend, drawing, driving, knitting, dancing, singing, and even holding an ice cube have a much lower chance of sucking us into another unhealthy state of mind. Distraction gently begins to break the neurological loop that our lizard brain has gotten itself wrapped up in, and tells our nervous systems it’s ok to calm down now.
Mindfulness works differently. Instead of taking us away from the skipping record part of our brain, it helps us to observe it, and see that it’s just a little old scratch in the middle of an otherwise beautiful, in tact, shiny circle of black vinyl. Oh, the power of mindfulness! I love the feeling of choosing to be mindful and the automatic dropping away of frenetic, disorganized energy.
Ways to be mindful include:
—Relax your body piece by piece, beginning with your face, then moving to your neck, your shoulders, your belly, your arms and hands, your knees and feet. Go back to where you feel your muscles tensing up again and soften there as many times as you need to.
—Breathing (or pranayama if you’re a yogi.) There are many styles of pranayama, but these three specifically engage the mind in a complex task to short circuit anxiety.
- Sit up comfortably and gaze forward. Inhale. As you exhale turn your head slowly to the right. Pause for a beat. Then inhale and bring your head back to the center. Pause for a beat. Repeat on the other side. Try to do five times on each side.
2. Place your thumb and forefinger together and inhale. As you exhale, release the fingers. On your next inhalation, press the second finger to the thumb. Release on your exhalation. Move through all four fingers. Then make a fist and inhale. On your exhalation stretch all your fingers out as far as you can. Rest your hand naturally and take a few more breaths.
3. Press your thumb to your right nostril closing it off completely, and inhale through your left nostril to a count of three. Release and press your fourth finger to your left nostril closing it off completely and exhale through the right to a count of six. Try to do this sequence eight times. Finish by releasing the hand and taking a few more natural breaths.
—Choosing an activity like making and drinking a cup of tea, and move slowly and thoughtfully through the entire process, noting all your five senses along the way.
Drug intervention can help when distraction and mindfulness just don’t carry enough weight, and drugs can be used in tandem with both to improve chronic, clinical anxiety. There should be no stigma attached to needing such drugs. It is not a weakness of character to avail ourselves of their help.
The two approaches to drug intervention are to take daily medication, or to titrate medication (take it only when you need it.) The value in daily medication and is that is helps anxiety from spiraling out of control in the first place, but titrating can be useful for those who feel their anxious episodes are more spaced out, or who simply want to feel that they can choose whether to take them or not.
We evolved to feel anxiety because, when it works properly, it motivates us to take action. It’s an essential emotion. It gives us a surge of energy to run from gorillas, or provides the wherewithal to find where the scarce berries are, or build a better shelter than our cave. The way our society has developed, unfortunately, sets us in a daily minefield of stimuli that tells our ancient selves that we are constantly in big trouble and we better start figuring out how to escape disaster. If we can accept this unfortunate truth, and treat ourselves gently and lovingly, remembering that there’s nothing wrong with us, we’re not broken, we’re just highly sensitive creatures that need patience and a bit of fine tuning, our anxiety will still exist, but it will feel more like a surf-able wave than a full on tsunami.