Four Things No One Tells You About Anxiety
We’ve all experienced anxiety from time to time, and I'm guessing that if you're reading this, you're no stranger to it either! It probably goes without saying that too much of it can seriously interfere with our ability to function and negatively impact our quality of life.
As difficult as anxiety can be to deal with, it’s also very often misunderstood. As a therapist who supports clients with anxiety and who has gone through it herself, I’m here to share four insights about anxiety that I wish someone had told me from the very beginning!
1. You’re Not Going Crazy
Anxiety is not a sign that you're going crazy, although when you’re experiencing it at extreme levels it can certainly feel that way. In fact, it’s actually a normal emotion that we all experience in varying amounts throughout the day. And that’s a good thing!
Imagine what the survival rate of crossing the road would be if we didn’t have at least a small amount of anxiety pushing us to look both ways and priming us to act quickly if we needed to.
The issue is when we consistently experience excessively high levels of anxiety and when we experience it out of context.
What exactly do I mean by "context"?
Anxiety is an adaptive response. It’s designed to keep us alive in times of danger by releasing adrenalin and triggering physical, emotional, and mental states intended to help you either freeze, fight, or flee from a threat.
Millions of years ago, when the likelihood of being attacked by a saber-toothed tiger when you left your familiar surroundings wasn’t out of the question, walking around feeling paranoid and jumpy made sense. Far more sense than responding that way when you’ve got a work performance review or a college exam coming up.
But the older, instinct-driven part of your brain doesn’t know that. It just knows that you’re stressed, and it will answer that in the only way it knows how: Jump into survival mode.
You can think of anxiety attacks and panic attacks as examples of the fight-or-flight response being triggered by a false alarm. Your brain’s preparing you for danger, but – whoops! – there isn’t any.
Some common physical symptoms of panic and anxiety attacks include racing heartbeat, hyperventilation, breaking into a sweat, feeling lightheaded, increased body temperature, changes in your vision due to pupil dilation, and feeling numb or tingly in your extremities.
Mental symptoms include picturing worst-case scenarios and conjuring up what-if's to try to explain why you feel the way you do. Since this response was activated out of context, now your brain is scrambling to try to come up with some.
“What if it’s a heart attack?”
“What if I'm about to pass out?”
“What if something horrible is about to happen and I just don’t know what it is?”
These symptoms are not signs of “going crazy.” They are normal responses to danger.
The problem is that we’re working with a primitive smoke detector in modern times. This response can easily become triggered by events that are incorrectly coded as “unsafe,” and when that happens, you naturally start to feel like you’re “losing it.”
Okay, you might be thinking, so occasionally my anxiety gets triggered out of context. How do I turn it off? Yeah, about that…
2. You Can’t Switch Anxiety Off Like A Faucet
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been asked for tips on how to “snap out of” anxiety. I think the notion that it’s that easy comes from a misconception that anxiety is something you have complete control over and could shut off if only you chose to do so.
Unfortunately, the suggestion to “snap out of” anxiety is about as helpful as an umbrella in a hurricane. That’s just not how anxiety works. You need to give your brain some time to recognize that it’s overreacting and that there’s no danger present.
But that doesn’t mean that you can’t help it along!
There are actually many strategies you can use to calm and soothe your nervous system when you’re anxious. These include:
Slowing down and deepening your breathing. Your brain will take the hint that, if you can afford the luxury of breathing slowly and deeply, you aren’t currently fighting or running away from a threat.
For low-to-moderate levels of anxiety, finding a healthy distraction. Get up and make yourself some coffee, check a group chat, unload the dishwasher - you get the idea.
Reminding yourself that you’re safe and that the response will pass. Your brain is reacting as though this situation is life or death, so sometimes we need to explicitly set it straight.
You may even need to briefly sit down or go outside to catch your breath, and this is perfectly ok!
Just know that it takes time and practice to learn how to implement anxiety-management strategies, test out how you respond to them, and gauge which ones are most effective for you.
3. You Can "Look Fine" and Still Have Anxiety
“I never would have guessed that you have anxiety! You always seem fine.” And this, right here, is one of the major reasons that anxiety can be such a lonely thing to struggle with.
We’re a lot more adaptable than we give ourselves credit for, and through years of social conditioning, we’ve become quite good at hiding our inner experiences from others when we feel the need to.
Many people who struggle with chronic anxiety are not especially open about it and are so good at developing coping strategies and regulating their outward appearance that you’d never really know what they were going through unless they told you.
We all have our own ways to fly under the radar. Sneaking out for a “coffee break” when that work meeting gets overwhelming. Suddenly going quiet when people around us are too engrossed in conversation to notice.
Anxiety, like many mental health conditions, does not have to be visually obvious in order for it to be incredibly distressing for the person experiencing it. The fact that you may have developed ways to hide your anxiety from others doesn’t change or invalidate what you’re going through.
I'd venture a guess that if mental illnesses were as obvious as we seem to assume they are, they might get noticed and treated much sooner. And perhaps we’d all feel just a little bit less alone in our struggles.
4. You Never Get Rid Of Anxiety for Good
So let’s say you’ve figured out which strategies work best for you, you feel like you’re getting a handle on your anxiety, and all seems to be progressing swimmingly. Amazing! It’s all good, just so long as you don’t backslide, right? After all, we wouldn’t want to undo all of our efforts.
That’s the dream, but the reality is that anxiety is never really gone for good. Nor should it be!
Remember, anxiety is an emotion, not an impediment. It has its uses, like signifying situations in which you need to be more vigilant and alert. When we experience anxiety within the right context and in proportion to the actual situation, we’re able to act appropriately! The goal isn’t to eliminate anxiety, but rather to manage it.
Let me take some of the pressure off for you. You’re going to backslide from time to time. You’re also going to be just fine, learn from the experience, and make up ground each time that you do.
Progress isn’t linear. The brain is notoriously messy, and teaching ourselves new ways to respond to stress and anxiety is more of an “all over the freaking map” journey as opposed to Point-A-to-Point-B.
Imagine you’re feeling better for months, and then you suddenly experience such an intense resurgence of anxiety that you wonder if all those strategies you learned actually accomplished anything at all. That’s totally normal. You’ll come out of it, just like you did all those other times.
How about when you hit a plateau that seems to be dragging on forever and wonder if this is as good as it’ll ever get? Also normal, and also not the final stop for you.
Anxiety is something that we all live with day-to-day, and as we’ve learned, to some degree it’s normal. If you struggle with chronic anxiety or a diagnosed panic disorder, it’s also normal to expect that managing it is going to be an ongoing thing. Over time, you will get better at it and may not need to use your go-to strategies as often.
However, expecting the problem to go away forever and considering anything short of that to be a failure is like deciding that you’re only healthy if you never catch another cold. You will, and you’ll know what to do when that happens. You’ve been there before; you know how to ride it out.
Hopefully this article has helped to clear up some commonly held misconceptions about anxiety and offered you a few tools to help you manage it when it gets out of hand!
If you’re interested in more tips to help you manage anxiety and stress, I’ve written a few related articles that you can check out:
If you're interested in working through anxiety and similar issues in therapy and think my approach could be a good fit for you, you are also welcome to contact me for a free consultation!