Updated: Sep 4, 2020
Anxiety can show up in many different ways. It isn't always as obvious as we may think. It isn't all screaming and shaking and hyperventilating into brown paper bags like we may see on TV. Often it's none of those things at all. We may often mistake anxiety for other things such as laziness, impatience or a multitude of physical symptoms, without ever knowing or acknowledging the underlying cause.
Our bodies are hard wired to perceive danger, and sometimes that mechanism can run a little too sensitively, perceiving everything as danger. Our bodies and minds do what they are meant to do, and they protect us. Sadly, sometimes this means everyday life becomes extremely challenging. The body/mind perceive everything as life-threatening and cannot discern between the BEEP BEEP of a text message and a saber toothed tiger; it responds the same way. We end up stuck in a fight/flight/freeze response that can feel impossible to get out of.
When we are in that state, things can feel very challenging. We may be easily irritated, restless, feel discontent, like we need to move, or change things, or like we just cannot stay still. There may be a nagging feeling of something being wrong, and needing to get away, get away get AWAY! We may notice ourselves being reactionary to things... Wanting to shout or hit out at people who stand too close to us in queues, being triggered very easily by things people say, feeling like everyone is out to get us somehow and wanting to hurt them before they hurt us. Or we may feel like we are watching our own life drift by, like it's almost a dream of some sort. Like there is a haze between us and the world and we cannot seem to find the way through. Or like everything is just so f'in LOUD! And close! And bright! And too fast, and unceasing, and relentless and constant and and and....
Or maybe you find you just do not really want to engage in life. You don't like any changes. You don't like new things. You don't really like old things either but at least they are familiar and therefore more predictable. You just want to stay home, watch TV, and people keep trying to make you DO things. You make plans but then cancel them, and even you are not even sure why half the time. You start projects but cannot finish them, despite spending hours and hours every day thinking about how you're going to do them, and all the thousands of variables you need to take into consideration. You may feel like you always need someone to tell you that you have done it right, that you are doing OK. You may not want anyone to tell you anything just in case they tell you something you don't want to hear and so you try to avoid any meaningful conversation at all, sticking with the "I'm fine!" story wherever possible.
We may feel none of this. We may have no sense of any of these things going on under the surface. We may think we are OK, and then be watching TV one day, and seemingly from nowhere, this feeling of doom sweeps through the body and mind, and you just know you are going to die. Not in 10 years time, or 50 years time, but right now. Like RIGHT NOW. And you can feel your heart pounding, and your breath feels stuck, and the worst part is, you have absolutely no idea why or where this thought came from, but now it's engulfing you and you can't get out and breathing is so hard because it seems pointless as your brain screams in sirens about death over and over and over. And then, when it passes, which it always does, you don't want to tell anyone. The shame comes, and with it the confusion, and the fear. What the hell is wrong with you? Are you broken? What even WAS that? And the big one: if/when is it going to happen again? And it haunts you, placing you in a loop of fear about fear.
Anxiety can affect anyone, at any age, in any job. There is no shame in suffering with anxiety. Let me repeat that: There is NO SHAME in suffering with anxiety. We all do to some degree, yes, even you. Our modern world is so fast, and so complex, and so overstimulating that unless we do the work of learning to work with ourselves and recognise our patterns, our bodies and minds are on hyper drive pretty much all the time. Sometimes it's a quietly humming hyper drive, and other times it is that white noise intensity that you cannot possibly ignore, but it seems, to a degree, most of us are in fight/flight/freeze a lot of the time.
It actually explains a lot... Like why most people seem to be so tired all the time and never feel rested. The body never quite lets us fully rest because it's got that "danger danger" thing running in the background all the time in one form or another. It's actually almost relieving to know it's not that there is something wrong with you. In a weird way, your body is just doing it's job of protecting you. It's just doing it a little too well.
Luckily, there are things that can help. Talk therapy, holistic therapies, creative expression work and yoga (to name a few) can all help to relieve symptoms, treat the underlying causes and teach constructive coping mechanisms. They can help you to connect in with yourself, and find the ways to turn that "Danger" perception down a little. They can help you learn how to work with your body rather than against it. They can teach you creative ways to express yourself so the pressure doesn't build up quite so high. They can release the physical tensions and restrictions that are both causing and caused by that fight/flight/freeze mechanism. They can provide a safe space for you to be honest and fall apart when necessary. You can identify the best coping mechanisms specifically for YOU and your life. There are also many support groups and other resources available to help you. Most importantly, please know you are NOT alone.
Some simple, generalised things that seem to help are:
Go for a walk. Notice the ground beneath you. This seems to calm a lot of people. It helps burn some adrenaline off too, which physically helps you relax more easily. If you can't go walking, then take all the attention to your feet and feel them on the floor, move them around, see how many toes you can feel. Is your heel touching the ground? How about the arch of your foot? Wiggle those toes. Roll the feet back and forth. Just feel your feet. It helps take the attention as far away from your thinking as possible (literally from your head to your feet!), and at the same time gives your brain something constructive to do.
Look for the Space:
Often when we feel anxious, we feel closed in. A good practice that we can do anywhere is to look for the space. This even works on the M25, or on the Underground in London. Space is ALWAYS the most abundant thing, wherever we are, it just takes a bit of practice to notice it. Looking up is usually a good place to start. Look around, and between too. This helps the body to realise it's not trapped, that there is enough space to breathe. Again, it engages the brain in a more constructive way as well.
There is a reflexology point in the centre of the palm called the solar plexus reflex. You know that butterflies in your stomach feeling? That's the solar plexus. To put it very simply, it's a big bundle of nerves. Take the thumb of one hand, and gently (or firmly if it feels better) press it into the very centre of your opposite palm. Make small circular movements. Press hard, press as lightly as you can. See what feels the nicest. This treats the solar plexus itself via the reflex point, but also gives you something physical to do, and to focus on, which helps bring the anxiety energy down a few notches. It's also easily done wherever you are. It can be done really discreetly so no-one would even notice you were doing it. A good one for meetings, or at work, or in queues, or anywhere really!
Reach out. Call people. Text. Set up a system with your close people where a certain emoji or single word is the bat signal that you are feeling anxious and need help. Sometimes we can't communicate or articulate ourselves very well when we are in anxiety, so get this set up when you're on a good day, so you can utilise it on a bad day. Often just having someone know we are struggling, is enough to help us find some space and re-gather ourselves. Most people who care about you would rather have the opportunity to be present for you than to find out about it later and wish that they could have been.
Dance it out/move it through:
Don't be afraid to MOVE! Your body thinks it needs to escape something or fight. That often means it's packing a LOT of energy (enough to fight off a tiger or run from a wild boar) and what we tend to do is try to sit still. Don't be afraid to stick some music on and move, dance, wiggle, jiggle, rock, shake... Just move. You may feel ridiculous doing it, but you'll feel better afterwards. It helps the adrenaline dissipate and also appeases the body's need to DO something.
And finally, be proud of yourself. Anxiety is hard. Really hard. And yet here you are, showing up, and keeping going, and keeping breathing, and keeping trying. You are doing life. If you are reading this, please know how amazing you are, no matter what you might think of yourself.
You are loved.
You are held.
You are safe.
You are enough.
For more support and information:
https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan/ (if you need to talk to someone right now)
(Pic Credit: Unknown)