I struggle with anxiety a lot. When it hits, I don’t want to do anything. I end up spending hours just trying to manage the anxiety, and everything else in my life gets put on hold. What can I do to prevent this spiral from starting?
Signed: Pre-Anxiety Solutions
Dear Pre-Anxiety Solutions,
Anxiety is a feeling that closely resembles worry or fear. It’s an early alarm system in our brain that is designed to protect us. Many times, the anxiety we feel is appropriate for the situation. It’s a red flag warning that causes us to react quickly to re-establish safety. In high-risk situations, our brains are naturally programmed to produce an emotionally based reaction (fight, flight, freeze or faint) before a logical/cognitive awareness can occur, because if we had to wait to think things through completely first, the danger would overtake us.
But unfortunately, anxiety can also be experienced when no actual threat/danger exists. Because of past unresolved trauma, a genetic predisposition towards anxiety, high levels of stress currently in our life, and/or a lack of knowing how to find a balance on a daily basis (physiologically, emotionally or mentally), our feelings of anxiety sometimes become a more constant sense of dread/discomfort and limit our ability to enjoy basic activities in life. In these situations, the danger/concern is not so immediate or obvious – it stems more from an underlying root cause (that can sometimes be difficult to identify, especially if it is multi-layered or has been happening for a long time) but still creates these unwelcome and unnecessary response patterns.
If your anxiety has started to negatively impact your ability to work, go to school, hang out with friends, maintain relationships in your life or manage your own basic needs, then I would strongly suggest you seek support from a therapist. There are many reasons for heightened anxiety, and unless you are able to figure out what the root cause of yours is, the solutions you try will be, at best, a band-aid answer. And at worse, the solutions you use might actually feed your anxiety and make the patterns much worse (even if they seem to be helping in the moment, they could be, in truth, deepening the anxiety response).
But to help in the moment, I have two suggestions for you, assuming your anxiety is not related to a real moment of risk. Both of these strategies will allow your brain to feel safer, on an ongoing basis. They will help lessen the quick trigger anxiety response that your brain creates. And they are the building blocks upon which other coping strategies can be added (if these foundational pieces are not solid, it’s likely other supports will not be that effective).
The first is sleep – our bodies need to get a good amount of quality rest each night (8 hours on average, for an adult), in order to have the necessary time to refresh and repair our internal functioning (physically, emotionally and mentally). This allows our stress levels to reset each morning; and this allows our brain to process what is happening around us in a more accurate manner throughout the day. With poor sleep patterns (especially chronically), we find our warning signals are heightened and too easily triggered in non-dangerous moments. Our body and brain do not have time to recover from the impact of the day(s) previous, and we set ourselves up for the inevitable stress reaction and crash of anxiety, because it is a protective measure which is trying to help us slow down/get better rejuvenation periods.
The second is physical activity – our bodies/brains need to be consistently active and moving throughout the day. We have all likely heard the expression that “sitting is the new smoking” – when we sit for hours at a time, we suffer a slew of harmful mental and physical side effects. But when we build in activity moments on a regular basis (ideally, for 5 to 7 minutes, every 20-30 min), we can burn off the stress that is slowly building, before it gets to a critical or interfering amount. We use brief moments of muscle tension (countered by the relaxation that follows) to send the signal to our brains that we are calm and safe. We normalize the body reactions (elevated heart rate, faster breathing, quick blood flow, etc) that our brains sometimes misinterpret as a crisis which, in turn, lessens the frequency of our anxiety surges. And we create a source of endorphin/protein release and kinetic energy that can be used to positively power our brains/body for the next short burst of time (instead of needing a surge of stress hormone/cortisol instead).
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