Many months ago I gave a presentation at my local library about anxiety. I had promised the attendees that I would post it on my site for their review, but I got side tracked with new clients and never came back to do what I said I would. I’m sorry about that. However, I’ve decided to go ahead and post about anxiety, but it’ll take a slightly different form. Instead of redoing the presentation as a video, I’m going to post in several parts across several weeks. I love helping clients with anxiety and more posts will give me an opportunity to cover all of the same subjects I cover with them while expanding to cover specific issues of anxiety that are not relevant to all clients. Anxiety as it pertains to Trichotillomania is not the same animal as it pertains to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I think multiple posts will allow me to cover more of the subject in-depth.
So to start, what is anxiety? What’s its purpose? Anxiety is actually a good thing. If you’re reading this, you’re likely looking for a way to reduce your anxiety and probably think saying it’s a good thing is absurd. If you’re suffering from an anxiety disorder, that isn’t a good thing and you’re right. But as a place to start, I think it’s important to understand that the purpose of anxiety is based in survival and surviving is a great thing.
Fear and Anxiety:
I often ask my clients if they can define for me what anxiety feels like. They usually respond by saying something along the lines of “it feels like fear”. So is anxiety the same thing as fear? What’s the difference? Strictly speaking anxiety and fear are two different states. Fear is imminent. If someone were to point a gun at me, I would feel a great deal of fear. Whatever is causing the fear is happening to us right in that moment. An animal attacking, a car swerving into our lane etc. We feel fear as a response to an imminent threat. One could think of anxiety as something like the opposite of fear. That is, anxiety is happening in our minds and our minds are usually thinking about something that is not happening in this very moment. If I see someone with a sidearm at the mall, I may start worry that he or she will point it at me even though nothing like that is happening. “Did I turn the iron off?” “Are doors locked?” “Will mom and dad ground me when they see my grades?” “Will the plane crash? ” These are all thoughts about the future or the past. Our worry and anxiety are preparing us to act on some future scenario or, irrationally, some past scenario. It may be tempting to think that this is just an academic distinction but as it turns out this is the first step to treating an anxiety disorder. It’s important to understand that anxiety takes place in our minds and it’s usually because we’re thinking about something that happened already, or hasn’t happened yet.
Anxiety is a good thing:
So we understand that anxiety is driven by our thoughts and it’s an emotional state that’s preparing us to do something. That’s why it’s a good thing. Sometimes we have to do things that require extra focus and attention. When I give a presentation, or meet a new client I’m usually mildly anxious in advance. This in turn drives me to prepare by either rehearsing or thinking through the various concerns I think my new client may have. My palms don’t sweat. I don’t hyperventilate. I don’t panic. but I do feel anxiety. As it turns out feeling mild anxiety is exactly the best place to be in most situations. The anxiety response is a very well studied phenomenon and research shows us that our best performance comes when we’re mildly anxious.
Notice that the “performance” (i.e. giving the presentation, speaking with someone new etc.) is at its highest when anxiety is squarely between low and high. This makes sense because if I don’t feel much anxiety with regard to my presentation, I’ll likely under-prepare and generally take it less seriously than I should. As a consequence my performance will likely be pretty bad. To the right side of the diagram we see that if I ruminate, fixate, and generally freak out about my presentation I’ll be so anxious that I’ll likely freeze up and fail miserably. Maybe I’d be so freaked out I’d fail to show up!
The Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion:
Let’s go back to that question I ask my clients. What does anxiety feel like? To better understand the question let’s talk a bit about the difference between a feeling and an emotion. A feeling is something you sense via your body. That is, your feelings derive from senses like touch, sight, smell, hearing etc. Some people include things like heat, cold, pain, pleasure, pressure. You get the idea. Feelings come from your body.
Emotions on the other hand come from your interpretation of your feelings. So as a very simple and silly example, if you walk outside and it’s hot you may interpret that as a lousy thing and “feel” grumpy. If you sink into a warm bath of the same temperature you may “feel” relaxed. Emotions are a result of how we interpret (think about) our feelings.
So when we get down to it, many times anxiety feels like sweating, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, tense muscles etc. How you interpret that can many times escalate the anxiety. I’ll delve into that more next time, but for now I’d like to leave you with something practical that you may find useful. I should stress here that I am not attempting to provide therapy via my blog. But I can provide you, anonymous internet reader, with links to resources that many people have found useful in bringing down anxiety.
Some Useful Tools.
If anxiety comprises of distressing thoughts about the past or the future coupled with some or all of the bodily sensations listed above, then it makes sense that doing the opposite may (and often does) reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness and meditation are a counter to anxiety because it helps move thoughts away from the future or the past to the present. It moves rapid breathing to slow, rapid heart-rate is reduced etc. Even if practicing it does not completely remove the anxiety, it likely will help reduce it to a manageable level. Diagnosable anxiety disorders may be more severe and require interventions specific to the disorder, but learning to be mindful is something like pouring the foundation of a building. Once developed the skill is invaluable and helpful in moving through the rest of therapy. It may even be all that’s needed for simple issues.
With that in mind here are some useful links. It’s important to note that many people find mindfulness and meditation difficult when they start. Just like any skill, it gets easier the more you do it. I encourage clients to set a practice schedule and stick to it. It’s also important to cut down on as many interruptions as possible when one is practicing. It’s no use attempting to practice mindfulness when the kids are screaming and the washing machine is spraying water all over the laundry room. One practices so that in times like those the skills kick in out of habit and overall stress is reduced.
This was originally recorded by Dr. Wendy Wolfe and is posted on the All About Depression website. I encourage you to check out their other recordings and posts as well.
Here’s a YouTube video that may also be helpful.
If you don’t like either of those, poke around a bit on YouTube. There are tons of videos out there that can be helpful in reducing anxiety.
See you next week.
What Everybody Ought To Know About Anxiety: