Making sense of anxiety

Last week I read a wonderful article over at Hey Sigmund, called ‘Anxiety in Kids: How to turn it around and protect them for Life’. It has only been a few months now that I have really been able to admit to myself that I suffer from anxiety – before that I mostly denied my symptoms, both to myself and others.

Making sense of anxiety

It is a bit like shoving stuff into a dark corner, and then shining a light on another part of the room so that nobody will look in that corner. The dark corner is still there – always there, and forever having new stuff dumped into it. You have to keep moving the light further and further away from the corner as the stuff piles higher and wider, and it definitely helps if you look in the opposite direction, but sometimes the stuff will inevitably be seen, and when it is it feels like an overwhelming amount of stuff to have to admit to owning.

I have found it hugely empowering in the past few weeks to be able to write about it, and to make sense of myself now that I am seeing myself more as who I am than as who I would like to be. I am being reminded that the beauty of the room includes that dark corner – and without sorting the corner out, the room will always feel ‘less than’, or like something is missing.

Understanding anxiety

Something that is missing for me is a true understanding about how and why anxiety works the way it does. I am able to look at things quite objectively, and understand them on an experiential level, but when it comes to full explanations about what is really going on in my body, I get lost. Scientific writing makes my head spin.

It is because of this fact that I was particularly drawn to the part in Karen’s article that gives an explanation about how anxiety works in Kid-language. Knowing what is actually happening when anxiety strikes is actually incredibly helpful in being able to deal with it.

Why anxiety feels like it does

“Anxiety is something that lots of people get but it feels different for everyone. Adults get it too. It happens because there’s a part of your brain that thinks there’s something it needs to protect you from. The part of the brain is called the amygdala. It’s not very big and it’s shaped like an almond.”

Okay, straight away I’m happy. Now I have a reference for it. The amygdala is a part of my brain. It is small and is shaped like an almond … so – what does it do, and perhaps more importantly for our inquisitive minds, why does it do it?

“If your amygdala thinks there’s trouble, it will immediately give your body what it needs to be strong, fast and powerful. It will flood your body with oxygen, hormones and adrenaline that your body can use as fuel to power your muscles to run away or fight. It does this without even thinking. This happens so quickly and so automatically. The amygdala doesn’t take time to check anything out. It’s a doer not a thinker – all action and not a lot of thought.”

The amygdala works the way it does because it needs to be able to keep me safe. Yesterday, I felt this working when I heard my Son’s screams echoing around our neighbourhood. It sounded like he was hurt – from the tone of his screams, I thought he might have broken something and I felt my tired body click into action immediately. I was strong and powerful as I ran across our section to the source of all the noise. I was able to admire the true reason why we need this facility within our bodies. A few minutes ago, nothing would have made me run even one metre. Now I was scaling our section, skipping over stones and rough ground with my bare feet, and I couldn’t feel a thing. Genius.

I reached my son.

He wasn’t broken – he had a (admittedly very large and quite deep) prickle in his toe. Relief. Panic over. Now to breathe a bit so I can allow my heart rate to slow, and my racing body to return to normal. In this scenario, I had used up a lot of the energy my amygdala had released into my body, and it was relatively easy to return to normal. What happens, though, when the amygdala mistakes a non-threatening situation for a threatening one?

fire-alarm

I remember being a child and finding it incredibly scary walking into my classroom. My amygdala had, of course, mistaken this scenario for a threatening situation, and it was pouring me full of oxygen, hormones and adrenaline so that I could fight or run from my attacker.

Oh. But there wasn’t one.

“If you don’t need to run away or fight for your life, there’s nothing to burn all that fuel – the oxygen, hormones and adrenalin – that the amygdala has flooded you with. It builds up and that’s the reason you feel like you do when you have anxiety. It’s like if you just keep pouring petrol into a car and never take the car for a drive.”

In the rest of this section of the Hey Sigmund article, Karen goes on to explain what happens inside of our bodies that make us feel the way we do.

  • The brain tells our bodies to stop using the oxygen for breathing and to send it to the muscles to help them to run or fight … so we might feel breathless, and we might also notice the blood rush to our face.
  • The oxygen builds up because we aren’t using it to run away, so we might begin to feel dizzy or confused.
  • Our hearts start beating faster to pump the oxygen around the body – and in doing so, our racing heart can make us feel sick.
  • Our arms and legs are charged up, ready to fight or flee – and so the might tense up and feel tight.
  • We sweat so that we don’t overheat when (if) we do need to run or fight.
  • Our digestive system shuts down so that we can use that energy for running or fighting if we need it – and so we might feel sick, or like we have butterflies in our tummy.

“As you can see, there are very real reasons for your body feeling the way it does when you have anxiety. It’s all because your amygdala – that fierce warrior part of your brain – is trying to protect you by getting your body ready to fight or flee. Problem is – there’s nothing to fight or flee. Don’t worry though, there are things we can do about this.”

It is fascinating, to begin to understand why I sometimes feel the way I do … all because my amygdala perceived a threat. In my opinion and experience, understanding the way you work is as empowering as any technique to deal with the problem – so I hope this helps. If you’re looking for some constructive methods for dealing with your child’s (or your own) anxiety, click here to read the rest of the article at HeySigmund.com!

Am I a Chameleon

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  • Great post Kathryn. My daughter suffers from anxiety from time to time. I love how you’ve talked about the darkened part of the room, great analogy.

    • Kat

      Thanks Ruby – it helps me a lot to use metaphors to describe and make sense of feelings and behaviours.

  • Hunter Moody

    For anyone suffering from anxiety or panic attacks, I always recommend the 60 Second Panic Solution which completely transformed my life. http://inersche.com/2015/03/15/how-i-overcame-my-anxiety/ The technique was created by a lady named Anna Gibson and over 7 years of research was put into it. It teaches you how to stop your anxiety/panic in less than 60 seconds. Worked great for me.

  • This is great – it’s how I start off teaching my Mindfulness Courses as it then makes so much sense to people. I also like the smoke alarm analogy.

  • Great analogy of the fire alarm not being able to tell if the toast or the house is burning when it reacts to smoke.