When you see the word “anxiety,” what comes to mind? You may think of the crippling worry that keeps you up at night, the feeling of tightness in your chest, or the worst-case scenario thinking that keeps you scrambling to ‘be prepared for anything’. Each of us has our own experience of anxiety—whether that is day-to-day anxiety or diagnosed anxiety—because no one is immune to the curveballs and challenges of life. We are going to go behind the scenes and learn about two key aspects of anxiety: our brains and our thoughts.
Curtain #1: Anxiety in Our Brains
Anxiety From Real vs. Imagined Threats
Understanding what is happening behind the scenes of an anxious brain gives us a road map to discover new solutions and strategies. Whenever we perceive a threat or danger, a part of our brain called the “amygdala” is activated. The amygdala is like a smoke detector—it is constantly on the lookout for danger in order to protect you! However, the amygdala has difficulty distinguishing between real or imagined threats.
Physical Symptoms of Anxiety
When the amygdala is activated, it sends signals all over your body to help fight the threat. You may notice physical changes in your body:
- shallow breathing
- elevated heart rate
- muscles tenson
- butterflies in your stomach
It’s important to recognize this fact—your brain’s response is healthy and normal.
Breathing Exercises for Anxiety
So how can you—the conductor, pilot, and brave one—help to navigate and regain control when your body is feeling awful and overwhelmed?
Take deep breaths and activate the relaxation response in your body. Regularly practice these deep, calming breaths when your amygdala is not firing off signals throughout your body. Two of my favorite ways to practice breathwork are:
When you become a pro at breathwork, it will be much easier to help your body return to a relaxed state.
Curtain #2: Anxiety in Our Thoughts
We can become masters at masking or hiding our anxiety from others. In Freeing Your Child From Anxiety, Tamar Chanksy describes this as a swan gliding across the surface of a pond while underneath paddling like crazy. Behind the scenes, anxiety can lead us to live on high alert. Our anxious minds have a vivid imagination which illustrates a story that is not based in reality. We can become so caught up in the story our anxious mind is describing that living in the present moment can be difficult. Worry is the active part of anxiety and is relentless in its efforts to keep our minds occupied. However, our ‘worry brain’ does not have to have the final say in how we approach life.
How to Change Your Thoughts
You have the power to change your thoughts. Our worry brains lead us down well-worn thought pathways…filled with “what ifs?” or “I can’t do this”. You get to choose how you approach challenging and anxiety-provoking situations. Whether that is falling asleep at night, giving a presentation at work or in class, or being in social setting—you can learn to stop your worry brain from spiraling out of control.
Boss Back Your Worry
I know bossing may get a bad reputation, but it can be so useful in letting the anxious part of our brain know who’s in control. You can do this by having a list of empowering phrases (e.g. “I am safe right now,” “I am in control,” “I am brave,” “I am capable,” “I am the boss of my thoughts”).
Because our anxious brain can lead us astray from the present moment, it is so important to bring your whole self back to the present moment with mindfulness. What is happening around you? How is your body feeling? How is your breathing? What thoughts are you noticing?
Learn and Recognize Common Triggers of Your Anxiety
There are several ways you can do this: notice what is happening around you when your worry increases, journal daily and find patterns (thoughts or circumstances) that coincide with anxious thoughts, or seek professional help to help you in gaining insight and learning coping strategies to address anxiety.
Anxiety and Vulnerability
While you are the expert of your experiences and struggles, I do know what it is like to face my own struggle with anxiety. Something that I have found helpful in my own experience with anxiety is vulnerability. Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” (p. 154, Braving the Wilderness).
If you are like me, then the thought of this may sound terrifying to you because you may tend to gravitate towards maintaining control, safety, and comfort. However, vulnerability is the “most accurate measure of courage” and begs the question “are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?” (p. 154, Braving the Wilderness). So who are the people in your world that you are willing to have 20 seconds of insane courage with and share the parts of you that you typically try to keep hidden or are too afraid to expose?
As a counselor, I have been honored to walk alongside clients as they have taught me about their own lived experiences with anxiety. I would love to be a part of the process in helping you navigate what is happening behind the curtains.
Get Help for Anxiety
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