Anxiety is defined as "intense, excessive, and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations" (source: Mayo Clinic). When anxiety is taking place, your heart rate or breathing may increase; you may experience sweating, shaking, or feel easily fatigued. Anxiety, or stress, is understood to be the response to any stressor.
Stressors happen regularly, but it’s up to us to know how to respond to those stressors. If you have the diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder, you struggle with having anxiety that is out of proportion to the stressor. Or, in other words, smaller stressors can lead to significant worry, fear, catastrophic thinking, or other stress symptoms.
There is much more to the anxiety response than merely your body responding to a stressor.
1. THOUGHTS. Humans are complex beings; we all carry various types of thoughts, whether conscious or unconscious: memories, expectations, assumptions, mindset, inner dialogue (your inner voice or inner critic), or lenses in which we see the world based on our experiences. This leads us to interpret stressors in different ways. And the bottom line: Thoughts lead to feelings. Thus, addressing feelings requires you to first address your unhealthy thought patterns.
2. OTHER EMOTIONS. Additionally, anxiety is frequently considered a secondary emotion. This means that anxiety may be at the surface, but other emotions are underneath or driving that anxiety. Thus, focusing only on the anxiety symptoms is going to limit the relief you can feel. Frequent emotions that underlie anxiety can be: embarrassment, disappointment (in self or others), frustration, confusion, feeling invalidated, loneliness, shame, or feeling a sense of impending failure. Here are a few examples of how core emotions lead to anxiety:
- I am embarrassed and ashamed that I can’t keep up with work tasks, so I feel anxious whenever I am about to go to work.
- I feel insecure and worry about being judged by others, so leaving the house causes panic attacks.
- I am disappointed that I can’t perform the way I’d like to, and that makes me feel on edge. I am now constantly waiting for another moment that I’ll fail or disappoint myself.
- I am frustrated at my spouse for how he/she is treating me, but I don’t know how to address it, so now I feel anxious.
- I am angry at myself for having limits, which now is causing me to feel nervous and overwhelmed at all the tasks I’m not behind on.
3. BELIEFS. Your core beliefs are another lens in which you see yourself and the world. These certainly determine what you think and feel. Core beliefs are critical when someone is experiencing anxiety. Many times, someone’s core beliefs are invalidating and shameful and ultimately don’t allow room for someone to experience difficult emotions. But core beliefs require personal reflection because they are oftentimes subconscious, and you may not be aware of them. Here are some examples of core beliefs that are unhealthy:
- It is not appropriate for me to be anxious or upset. It must be stopped.
- Nothing will ever work or help me. At the core, I am a helpless and ill person.
- The world is dangerous.
- People are not trustworthy.
- Emotions are not trustworthy.
- I’m destined to fail/I can’t overcome hard things.
- Life is against me.
- My only hope is medication.
Interventions for Anxiety
Now that we’ve laid out some causes or drivers behind anxiety, this can help inform how you can support your body and mind when you feel anxious.
1. View your emotions as feedback. When you feel something, your body is giving you a message. In the case of anxiety, your body is telling you that something feels wrong and needs comfort (such as any of the above examples given). If you are able to approach your anxious state from a neutral, objective standpoint rather than a catastrophic or judgmental standpoint, it will be a little bit easier to find ways to help regulate or comfort your body.
“I notice my heart rate is increasing and breathing is more difficult. My body needs more oxygen, and my brain needs a quick break from work.”
“Why is this happening to me again? Now I’m gonna be behind. This is never going to end.”
2. Validate yourself. It’s ok to have feelings (even the “bad” ones). Reframe your mindset when you experience anxiety. Rather than punish or discipline yourself when you feel anxious, practice self-compassion. This also means you need to avoid looking for a quick and easy fix (such as medication or even drugs) to address your anxiety. When you are invalidating your emotions, you can even become anxious about becoming anxious. Reframing to self-compassion looks like:
“I’m feeling stressed. It makes sense based on everything I’m going through. This is a normal human response, even though it’s uncomfortable.”
If you struggle with this, imagine how you would respond to a family member or a friend if they told you they were anxious, then practice that with yourself.
3. Calm your nervous system. Coping skills to help calm your nervous system are essential for helping you get out of fight or flight and to better understand what is leading to your anxiety. Many people get stuck and try to overanalyze themselves without first addressing nervous system activation. When you are in fight/flight, your logical brain is not activated, and you go into a primal survival state. No one can analyze or reason in this state. Coping skills help to calm your nervous system by increasing oxygen flow to your brain and bringing your mind back to the present (instead of the future or past). Some helpful coping skills to support your nervous system include:
- Box breathing
- Guided progressive muscle relaxation (many can be found on YouTube and are less than 5 minutes)
- 5-4-3-2-1 senses grounding skill
- Listening to classical music
- Going for a 5-minute walk outside
- Placing ice on the inside of your wrists
4. Challenge your inner critic. This is a key one related to regulating your thoughts. Your inner critic is that negative voice that repeats in your head, accusing you when you can’t keep up and predicting all the ways you will fail. Your inner critic also labels you and increases your insecurity. Identifying what your inner voice is saying to you in your thoughts and then contradicting it is life changing for your mood, especially anxiety and depression.
Once you’ve walked through these steps, you can gain more insight into other thoughts, emotions, or core beliefs that aren’t serving you. But first, start with the basics and take care of yourself—physically and mentally. And remember, anxiety isn’t a weakness; it’s just a normal human experience in response to something else going on. Stop looking for that easy fix and focus instead on how you can listen to your body and take care of yourself. It does get better.