Understanding Anxiety Symptoms and How to Manage Them
Anxiety is a primal and lifesaving response that will save you from danger and activate your intuition.
The Anxiety Response has two functions:
- To get your attention
- To prepare your body to keep you safe. As a primal system, your anxiety does not respond to high brain functions like logic. This is why when you have tried to reason with yourself, even when you are not upset or ‘triggered* it rarely helps. YOU may absolutely know that walking on a stage or touching a spider is not going to be dangerous – but good luck telling that to your Anxiety Response! It’s like trying to explain to a 2-year-old that the monster under her bed can not exist! She’s not capable of understanding like an adult. The wise parent simply pays attention, cuddles them to make them feel safe and re-directs the child’s thinking, Storytime anyone?! (PS: The sentence in red is actually the cure to most anxiety symptoms.)
*A trigger is something that is intended to make you self-reflect and do your own work, not an excuse that you use to demand others modify their behaviour.
What is the Function of the Anxiety Response?
1. The Anxiety Response keeps you alive, and it would be likely fatal should we somehow magically remove it from your brain, as some wish as they want the symptoms to go away. With no Anxiety Response, you would likely wind up severely injured or dead by the end of the day! We need this response to survive.
2. The Anxiety Response is also integral to your intuition. Intuition is a very complex subject and we really do not understand how this capacity works. People with heightened Anxiety Responses are less intuitive, and people with functional Anxiety Responses are more intuitive. This is another reason we need to learn how to moderate our Anxiety response.
What are Anxiety Symptoms?
- The brain starts racing with thoughts that seem to be trapped in a loop.
- Mostly these thoughts are centred around the feeling that something, a situation, person, place, thing, or even suggestion, is somehow big enough or scary enough that it deserves your persistent attention. Sometimes it is outright fear, and we want to run from it, fight it or get trapped in the feedback loop of thoughts and freeze.
- We may even recognize that we are not processing information – and this is a very encouraging symptom and can be an indication of our ability to get better.
- Prolonged and extensive thought loops lead to panic attacks which in turn can give us the real but false sense we may be dying (perhaps from a heart attack or some unknown reason).
- The body responds to this thinking and we experience some or all of
- A tight chest / racing heart
- A feeling it is hard to breathe
- Sweaty palms, tingling sensations
- Upset tummy and gastrointestinal distress
- Verbal aggression or a sense of overwhelming that leads to speechlessness, retreat or aggression
- Tunnel vision
- Or other uncomfortable physical responses
In the hundreds of patients and clients I have worked with over the years I have come to never underestimate the possibility that ANY physical symptom just might be the Anxiety Response!
*It is super important to notice right here and now, you have NEVER woken up dead from ANY of this!
These thoughts and feelings do feel horrible, but they ARE NOT FATAL!
The Complex Connection between Your Brain and Body
When your Anxiety Response wants your attention and proceeds to prepare your body to keep you safe (usually to run or fight) it does so by any means necessary!
This response can create almost any symptom, or possibly dis-ease in your body if your refuse to give it your attention or the danger is chronically severe enough.
The Nerdy Science of Anxiety Symptoms
At some point early in our evolution the caveman that happened to worry about being eaten by a Sabre-tooth tiger, worried himself into not hunting until he got hungry enough and he figured out how to whittle a club to keep himself safe. The caveman that didn’t worry became dinner for the tiger – so guess whose DNA we got?!
Our ability to worry and be frighted turned into an instinct because it allowed us to survive.
This is our ‘Negative Evolutionary Bias ‘(NEB).
This bias drives our Anxiety Response
The NEB mostly originates from a very primal part of our brain called the amygdala. This region is commonly called your ‘Fight/Flight Centre.’
The amygdala has quick access to shoot you up with two drugs:
Adrenaline: designed to initially get your attention. An adrenaline rush absolutely gets our attention!
Cortisol: Think of it like adrenaline’s big brother that shows up right behind adrenaline but lasts longer and recedes slower. It launches the body into fight and or run mode. (Sometimes it can be so overwhelming we freeze.)
Adrenaline hits every cell in your body in less than a tenth of a second! You notice it immediately and its message is this:
“I think this is dangerous, please pay attention!”
Cortisol does this amazing stunt where it ratchets up your heartbeat, encourages you to breathe and narrows the blood vessels in your core and opens them in your extremities to get all the hot rich blood to your legs, fists and head!
This process does not feel nice. So it makes sense when get the adrenaline rush we think, “Oh no, not again, what can I do to fight this feeling off!” And just like that our brain hears loud and clear we do want to fight, so our amygdala releases more drugs, you get more of the symptoms, and you just started a feedback loop!
Why Do I Get Symptoms ‘For No Reason?”
Cortisol has a set point that can increase, making it easier and more frequent for the Anxiety Response to trigger. The set point increases if the brain deems danger to be a really regular thing. (It may or may not be, objectively speaking, but remember we are talking about a primal system here.) High levels of cortisol are like a tray full of beverages filled above the brim. It is likely to spill no matter how careful you are! This is why it can often seem that our Anxiety Response is triggered for no apparent reason. Call it a bad habit!
How To Stop Your Anxiety from Escalating
Don’t fight. Don’t even try any of those great techniques like meditation, square breathing, or cold water on your face if you are using them to FIGHT off the symptoms of your FIGHT/Flight response!
Using these tools to fight off the Fight Response is just like trying to stop a hungry baby from crying by using her bottle as a weapon. It is only going to make things worse!
If you want to end your panic attacks and get your Anxiety Response back to functional levels the key is to stop fighting with it. First, you really need to learn and accept the fact your Anxiety Response is a good thing. Working well and not dysregulated it will save your life and increase your intuition.
Work with a good therapist to make this ‘cognitive shift’ first. Once you have gotten your head around not fighting and appreciating this life saving response, you will find your tools work like a dream and you will be able to bring all systems back to normal!