What’s Anxiety Telling You?
“Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far.”
— Jodi Picoult, “Sing You Home”
Let’s get something off our chest before we begin to explore what is underneath anxiety. We all worry! Whether it’s about an exam or a new date, doubts and fears are all part of life. Though it is perfectly normal to feel nervous from time to time, we tend to demonize our racing hearts and sweaty palms. If we can learn to make peace with the parts of ourselves that get anxious, then it might be easier to move through situations where worrisome thoughts knock on our door.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is an emotion. It is a normal reaction to uncertainty and it is generally characterized by worrisome thoughts, muscle tension, and increased blood pressure.
According to Dr. Luana Marques who is an Associate Professor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, anxiety lies on a spectrum. “Normal” levels of anxiety won’t necessarily interfere with daily functioning. In fact, a healthy dose of anxiety can help us prepare for stressful events and tackle problems.
Anxiety also activates the body’s fight or flight response which floods our system with hormones that allow us to run away from danger.
On the other end of the spectrum lie anxiety disorders. This is where intrusive thoughts might replace worries and muscle tension might transform into chronic aches and pains. Experts like Dr. Marques encourage people to seek support through therapy if their anxiety starts to interfere with normal daily functioning.
There are also those of us who fall into the gray area. The symptoms might not be considered “disordered” but they may still negatively impact one’s ability to live a fulfilling life. “For example, someone who is ‘almost anxious’ may sit at their desk all day, making minimal progress on an assignment due to constant worries and tightness in the stomach,” explains Dr. Marques.
What does all this mean?
Our body and mind communicate with us via emotions. You know those butterflies you get in your stomach when you are about to give a presentation? That’s your body giving you insight into what you are experiencing emotionally. However, it is always a good idea to have practical tips and tricks up our sleeves to use in times when worry becomes too much to handle.
Defuse and breathe
When you are aware of your experience, you can practice separating yourself from your thoughts and feelings. This is similar to a technique called cognitive defusion which is a prominent component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and it is used to help individuals detangle from negative thoughts.
In a 2010 study, Professor Marchion Hinton and Dr. Scott Gaynor from Western Michigan University note that this technique “not only influences psychological flexibility and mindful awareness of thoughts, but also clearly produces decreases in negative thinking.” This is quite useful for easing anxious thoughts, don’t you think?
Studies also show that there is a close link between emotions and respiration. In their article, Dr. Ravinder Jerath and colleagues propose that different forms of breathing and relaxation techniques can counteract the negative effects of anxiety and stress. According to the researchers, “in sympathetic dominant states like stress and anxiety, slow-deep breathing techniques and meditation can shift sympathetic dominance to parasympathetic dominance” since breathing is regulated by the autonomic nervous system.
Defuse, breathe and repeat when you need to connect with the bigger picture behind anxious thoughts and feelings. That way, you’ll still be able to hear what your emotions are telling you without being driven by them.
- 1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/do-i-have-anxiety-or-worry-whats-the-difference-2018072314303
- 2. https://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety
- 3. https://psikiyatri.org.tr/halka-yonelik/25/yaygin-anksiyete-bozuklugu
- 4. Hinton, M. J., & Gaynor, S. T. (2010). Cognitive defusion for psychological distress, dysphoria, and low self-esteem: A randomized technique evaluation trial of vocalizing strategies. International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy, 6(3), 164–185. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0100906
- 5. Jerath, R., Crawford, M. W., Barnes, V. A., & Harden, K. (2015). Self-regulation of breathing as a primary treatment for anxiety. Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback, 40(2), 107-115.