The Physical Versus the Psychological
What is Anxiety?
You may have noticed a lot more material in the media about anxiety lately. But, do you actually know what it is? Today I’m going to give you a mini-course on anxiety, how it happens, and what you can do about it.
Anxiety is our body’s response to a situation that our brains perceive as stressful.
Anxiety is the instant reaction of our nervous system to a perceived threat. Our nervous system is made up of the parts of our body designed to keep us safe and to regulate our body’s functions - this includes the brain and outgoing nerves which connect them to your body.
Anxiety can range from worry, to fear, to panic. Sometimes it’s adaptive, as it allows us to respond appropriately to threats or events happening in our environment that may cause us physical harm. However, sometimes, the anxiety response gets turned on when not needed and causes more harm than good.
The PHYSICAL side of anxiety
Let’s just be honest, anyone who has ever experienced anxiety knows firsthand how much it SUCKS. Your body feels stuck on “on”, you are always on high alert, and your heart constantly feels like it is about to beat out of your chest. Let’s not forget the shaking, sweating, nausea, and overall jitteriness. Anxiety is very physical, and that is what makes it so distinct. These symptoms make anxiety hard to miss and ignore. Your body is doing its own thing, and you are very aware of everything that is happening. It can feel like there is very little that can be done and it often feels like you have no control over it. The physical symptoms of anxiety can be very distressing and alarming and end up causing people to be anxious about their anxiety. Ironic right?
There are a lot of interventions geared towards the physical symptoms of anxiety. Any google search will bring up strategies to help relax the body. Mindful breathing, grounding, and relaxation techniques are the top contenders. Although these strategies are great to help decrease acute anxiety and the physical side of anxiety, in my experience, these strategies only address part of the problem. When anxiety hits, not only does the body go into overdrive, but so does the mind.
The PSYCHOLOGICAL side of anxiety
What do our thoughts have to do with it? This may be something you are wondering. The other side of anxiety that we don’t hear as much about is the side that tends to cause the most distress for people, the THOUGHTS!! Many people think that they are only feeling things in their bodies, but anxiety is always a partner to anxious thoughts - even if you’re not aware the thoughts are happening. Anxiety can hijack your thinking. Anxiety can result in an overactive mind that is hard to turn off. The term used to describe this is called rumination. Rumination is the act of thinking about something over and over again. Rumination is the brain’s way of trying to solve a problem, which can be adaptive in some cases, but in others it creates more harm than good. Rumination can intensify the anxiety experience and prolong it.
Let’s go with an example.
You have an upcoming job interview and you have done your best to prepare for it. You have looked up the company’s mission statement; you have created a list of your strengths, and you have come up with the reasons why you are the best candidate for the job. Your interview is tomorrow and now you are lying in bed at 1am wide awake. You are going over the worst-case scenarios: What happens if I mess up? What happens if they ask a question and I don’t have an answer to it? I will make a fool of myself! You are then brought back to thinking about the disaster of an interview you had a year prior. Here comes more rumination, now! There is no hope. You will fail at this one, too. You just know it! It’s now 3 am and you are still at it. You won’t get good - or even enough! - sleep and it will compromise your interview.
You get the point. This is thinking that simply is not helpful. All it does is create even more anxiety. That’s exactly what you needed, right? 🙄
It is normal for people to get stuck in cycles such as the one described above from time to time. It happens to the best of us. It becomes problematic when this type of thinking pattern repeats itself over and over again, if it is super distressing, or if it starts to regularly have a negative impact on you and your life.
Strategies to help target the psychological side of anxiety
Let’s get to the good stuff now! You are probably wondering what you can do when the thoughts themselves are part of the problem and make your anxiety worse. You can’t just stop/turn off your thoughts, right? Or can you? That is the big question.
What if I told you: you have more control over your thoughts than you think?
There are several strategies that can help you decrease your anxiety by retaking control of your thoughts.
Let’s walk you through some helpful strategies that you can use to tackle your anxiety-based thoughts. Here is a list of my top 6 recommendations on how to help tackle rumination and decrease the anxiety caused by thought patterns that are simply not helpful.
Distraction: When you catch yourself in an unhelpful cycle of anxiety-base thoughts, find something that you can do to help break this cycle. Distraction techniques may include calling a friend or family member, counting backwards from 100 in increments of 3, picking a category and naming as many things that you can think of that fall within that category, or watching a movie.
Thoughts are not facts: Just because you have a thought it does not mean that it is helpful. It does not mean you need to hold on to it and do something with it. We’re not taught to look objectively at our thoughts to determine whether they are adaptive. Thoughts are NOT facts, thoughts are mental events that come up depending on the mood we are in. For example, if you are feeling anxious, it’s not uncommon to think that something bad is going to happen. It may feel very real to you in that moment, but the act of thinking about it won’t make that bad thing you fear happen. BUT if you conjure up stuff by thinking about it, please contact me and I’ll give you some Lotto numbers to work on!
Distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful thoughts: Helpful thoughts are patterns of thinking that help us solve a problem. These are the thoughts that kick in if you are driving and your gas light comes on. They guide you and make sure that you stop at the gas station instead of continuing on and running out of gas. Unhelpful thoughts, on the other hand, cause more problems and anxiety than good. You have a full tank of gas and you are trying to figure out where you will be the next time your gas light comes on and whether you will be within a close enough range to a gas station to fill your tank up. What happens if that is the one time you leave your wallet at home? There is no way for you to predict this, your brain is trying its best to solve a problem that has not happened yet, with the good intention of trying to keep you stress-free, but ironically, trying to prevent this kind of stress causes more stress than it’s worth.
Fact check your thoughts: Thinking Traps are patterns of thinking that are unhelpful, and they tend to get people quite stuck in their anxiety cycles. These thinking patterns include All-or-Nothing thinking, Catastrophizing, Mind Reading, and Overgeneralization. Recognizing these patterns of thinking in yourself is the first step to being able to shift them. In Cognitive Behavioural therapy (CBT), we use specific tools, such as thought records, and encouraging discussions. The point of these discussions is to challenge unhelpful thoughts by looking at the evidence that exists to support the unhelpful thoughts, as well as the evidence that does not support the unhelpful thought. This then allows you to come up with a balanced, believable alternative pattern of thinking that is less anxiety-provoking.
Understanding your anxiety trigger: Knowledge is power. The more you know about different situations that cause you anxiety, the more power you have to prepare yourself for and lessen the impact these specific triggers have on you. When you have an idea of what specific situations bring up anxiety for you, you can prepare ahead of time and develop more effective coping strategies.
Worry Period: If you caught the worry bug, one thing you can do it to create a worry period. This is a set time where you allow yourself to worry about anything and everything. The goal is to use this time strategically and commit to the rest of your day being worry free.
It may feel hard to believe if you’re stuck in a pattern of suffering, but it is possible to stop rumination and get relief from anxiety-based thinking. I have seen it happen in my work hundreds of times. The notes I have offered above are only a small subset of the many strategies that exist to help manage the thought side of the anxiety equation. Overcoming anxiety can be hard to do on your own, and you really don’t have to slog it out. Why not get the support you need to change these habits, and benefit from an expert’s experience giving anxiety the beat-down? Call our clinic at 613-877-4148 to connect with a trained professional who will help you navigate the healing and recovery process.
You’re worth it!