Ah, anxiety – an all-too-common sensation in all-too-many people. Even more common since the ongoing global uncertainties brought about by the coronavirus.
If you know what it feels like, you know it’s awful. You know the side effects of prolonged anxiety include digestive issues, reproductive dysfunction, inflammation, tight muscles, headaches, insomnia, and plenty more.
Our bodies are smart – there is (or was) an evolutionary reason for every aspect of our systems and systems’ responses, even anxiety.
So if our bodies are so smart, what’s the point of anxiety?
Our nervous system is designed to help us quickly move to safety in urgent, life-threatening situations. When our system senses danger, it flips on the sympathetic nervous system, also known as “fight, flight, or freeze” response.
The human nervous system evolved over many thousands of years, helping us fight off bears, run away from dangers we couldn’t fight, and hiding (freezing) when fighting or fleeing didn’t make sense. These choices are completely involuntary, bypassing the “thinking” center of the brain to simply respond, as quickly and efficiently as possible.
As early humans, we needed this very helpful sympathetic nervous system to stay alive. When danger arose – likely many times per day – the sympathetic nervous system would flip on, choose fight or flight or freeze without consulting the rest of the brain. Assuming the body survived the danger, the nervous system would flip back over to the parasympathetic nervous system (aka “rest and digest”).
The sympathetic nervous system is activated by stress. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated when the body senses the danger has passed. We are designed to live primarily with the parasympathetic nervous system running the show.
Ok but I’m not being chased by bears – why am I anxious?
Right. The last few hundred years shifted human life drastically and our bodies haven’t been able to keep up from an evolutionary standpoint.
In modern developed society, we aren’t usually chased by bears or faced with life-threatening situations on a daily basis. Instead, we are faced with intangible stress: Work deadlines, relationship conflicts, financial struggle, global pandemics, political unrest.
Each of these stressors is received by our nervous systems the same way as if it were seeing a bear; the body perceives a threat and flips on the sympathetic nervous system. But because the body cannot physically fight the issue, run away from the issue, or hide from the issue, the system holds onto the stressor and maintains all the trying-to-be-helpful responses like:
- Tight muscles, especially in the shoulders, hips, and jaw
- Under-responsive digestive and reproductive systems
- Elevated heart rate
- Increased breathing rate
- Dilated pupils
- Tunnel vision
One way to look at anxiety is that it is a flood of intangible stressors manifesting in the body, unable to process.
Is there actually any benefit to anxiety?
Someone once told me – a person with anxiety – to take life “one step at a time,” which I thought was funny because, with anxiety, we often see all possible steps that could be taken at any given time. And that is stressful.
Like with anything, if you choose to look for the good in a situation, you will find it.
Anxiety offers the gift of foresight – of being able to predict what might happen in the future and plan accordingly. And of course, there is a balance here. Overthinking potential futures can lead to doomsday thinking, paranoia, or shutting down. Planning and foresight can lead to preventing conflict, better preparation for events or presentations, and helping others foresee potential outcomes.
My anxiety doesn’t always feel like a gift. How can I manage the symptoms?
Glad you asked. There are lots of practices, lifestyle adjustments, and support systems that can help manage anxiety symptoms.
Before you dive in, I recommend a few steps first:
- Acknowledge that the anxiety is present.
- Greet the anxiety with its energy first (usually pretty fast, chaotic, or loud).
- Once you’ve acknowledged and greeted, now start to bring the energy to a more helpful level.
Bring the energy level down with:
- Yoga, of course! Movement, breathing, and being still are all great ways to settle anxiety. Greeting the energy usually means starting with something like vinyasa flow, then slowing it down into a breathing practice, restorative yoga, or meditation once some of the anxious energy has burned up.
- Mindful moving practices like tai chi, qi gong, aikido, walking, or a casual bike ride.
- Yoga nidra. This lying-down guided relaxation practice is gold for soothing anxiety symptoms. If you feel amped up, do a movement practice first, then put on a recording or go to a yoga nidra class. Yoga nidra can be practiced any time of day but can be an especially great way to wind down and prepare for sleep.
- Watch the coffee. As a test, try taking caffeine out of your diet for three days. Besides the caffeine hangover, how is your anxiety?
- Reach out to someone. One of the tendencies of experiencing anxiety is to isolate – this is not helpful. Instead, set up a plan with a close friend or family member for when your anxiety is high:
- You can create a code word or emoji that you can send and the other person will know what’s up.
- When that person receives the code word, they can ask something like, “do you want time on the phone, in person, or just for me to know what’s up?” And you can respond with your preference.
- Spend time outside. Our nervous systems developed before we started building physical walls around ourselves, separating us from nature. Our bodies are part of nature and as such, we need to spend time with nature to recover. Go for a walk in the woods, touch water, lay in a field, or simply place your bare feet in the grass.
What do you do to quell symptoms of anxiety? What works well for your system?