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Dissecting Anxiety

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Anxiety can be broken down into three main parts including thoughts, physical sensations, and behaviors. They can be so interrelated and instinctual, that they can be difficult to recognize as separate pieces of an overall experience. Let’s take a look at each one:

1. Thoughts

When we feel threatened, our attention is focused on the perceived threat (Perceived is the key word - just like the overly sensitive car alarms that we hear going off for no apparent reason). The threat can be real or nonexistent because it is difficult for our minds to differentiate between what is real and imagined since the images in our mind can be as vivid as what is actually happening in front of us. As long as we perceive it as dangerous, we are on high alert. Our perception of a situation mostly depends on what we say to ourselves about it. Anxiety-related thoughts revolve around themes of danger (physical, mental, or social), threat, or vulnerability.

Examples of anxiety-producing thoughts would be:

  • “What if I make a fool of myself in front of others?”

  • “Everybody will think I'm stupid.”

  • “Something is wrong with my body. What if that pain means I have cancer?”

  • “What if something happens to my child?”

  • “What if I fail this test?”

  • “What if my friend rejects me?”

  • “What if my wife is cheating on me?”

Our brain interprets these thoughts as a signal to get ready for danger, which leads to a preoccupation with focusing on survival, and difficulty concentrating on anything else. Students that are anxious about academic performance have difficulty focusing on the exam questions. People that are anxious about social situations struggle to follow a conversation. People with panic disorder are so hyper-aware of their physical symptoms that they can barely do anything but concern themselves with the sensations that they have. Those physical symptoms, by themselves, are another component of anxiety:

2. Physical Sensations

We have a Fight/Flight/Freeze response (the Sympathetic Nervous System). It’s evolutionary and hard-wired in us. When it gets activated, it causes your adrenal glands to release two hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline). This leads your body to respond in several ways:

  • Increased heart rate. This happens because your heart and vital organs need more oxygen and better blood supply to your large muscle groups..

  • Rapid breathing (hyperventilation) - you need to breathe much faster so that more oxygen is delivered to major organs. This usually presents itself in the form of shallow breathing.

  • Feeling lightheaded. Once you begin hyperventilating, your body naturally reacts to  there suddenly being too much oxygen in the body. Another reason is that most of the oxygen goes toward the muscles, so there's a little less left for your brain, which results in a feeling of dizziness.

  • Numbness or tingling in fingers and toes because of the blood flow away from these areas.

  • Tightness in the chest. As all of your muscles tense in preparation for danger, the blood flows away from your extremities to the major muscle groups (from your fingers to your arms, from you toes to your thighs, etc.)

  • Upset stomach or nausea. Part of the stress response includes suppressing digestion so that all of the body's resources can be made available for emergency action. The energy is needed for other parts of the body.

  • Sweating. To cool your body and to make it more slippery so that it's more difficult for something or someone to grab you in case of a fight. (as unpleasant as it is to experience it, isn’t it pretty cool that this type of thing happens?)

  • Feeling unreal (derealization). Your pupils dilate when you feel threatened so that you can see better, which may lead to a strange feeling of “unreality.” It can also be brought on by the lack of oxygen flow to the brain.

As unpleasant as these symptoms may be, they actually represent the wonderful (and fascinating) survival system of your body. So, when clients with anxiety or panic describe some of these symptoms to me, I usually congratulate them for being healthy and functioning human beings!

3. Behaviors

When faced with danger, our natural response is to escape. After escaping, we usually feel relieved. In the future, we try to avoid the situation that we perceived as dangerous. When escape seems unavailable to us (which could occur in a matter of seconds), we may attempt to attack (basically, we are trying to kill the threat). Another response would be to freeze (or essentially play dead) in hopes that the threat will leave us alone and lose interest in us).

All of those components of anxiety (Thoughts, Physical Sensations, and Behaviors) are interconnected:

  • The more anxious thoughts we have, the more severe our physical reactions will be, and the higher our desire to escape and be safe will be.

  • The more physical reactions we experience, the more anxiety-related thoughts we will have, and the more we will try to avoid the situation.

  • The more we attempt to escape or be safe, the more we will relate certain situations to danger and threat (via our thoughts), and the more severe our physical responses will become.

All three components of anxiety create a vicious cycle, with each element influencing the other two. The good news is that, because they interact with each other so well,  if we address any one of the anxiety components, the other two will also start diminishing which can lead to more wanted cycles occurring.

If you think that you (or somebody you know) may benefit from learning more about anxiety and the way it impacts our lives, a trained professional can help. If you are in the Lancaster, Pa area, feel free to contact me at (717) 288-5064 / gregghammond@restoringbalancelancaster.com and schedule an appointment today.