Anxiety as a road sign

anxiety, depression, mental health, psychotherapy

Nervousness, palpitations, spine shivers, irritation, palm sweating, difficulties concentrating, headaches, and stomachaches…  Sounds familiar? These are only a few classic signs of anxiety. Different people experience it in different ways, but it is always an unpleasant sensation in the body that we do not wish to experience in the present moment.

In fact, anxiety is a sign our bodies use to signal that something important is going on and that we should pay attention to our psychological health. Our first impulse is usually to run away from these unpleasant sensations. But what if the anxiety is trying to convey an important message? What kind of message is that? And why is it important to listen carefully?

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is often described as a feeling of worry, which could be mild or severe, and it is associated with the prediction of future events. This is the reason why it is followed by negative thoughts and catastrophic scenarios i.e. all kinds of different stories about future disasters. Physical manifestations that accompany the anxiety include muscle tension, stomachache and an experience of tightening in the stomach, fatigue, exhaustion, and problems focusing. In contrast to fear, where such reaction is always somehow connected to the lurking danger in the outside environment, it appears that anxiety is always about factors and awaiting consequences that are not in the “here and now.”

One of the most important characteristics of anxiety is exactly the orientation toward the future i.e. “inability of the organism to cope with future negative events.”

Anxiety can be also seen as a useful ability to scan the environment in search of threats and imagine the future to the extremes. This ability was very useful to our ancestors. They were trying to survive in hostile environments and fought with various enemies. Whatever the problem might have been, they were trying to solve it efficiently, using their skills to move on and thrive. Therefore anxiety has probably evolved as an attempt of our mind to anticipate and control the surroundings, solve everyday problems, or, very simply put—to help us “live our life to the fullest.”

In modern times, people live in a completely different environment where their problems have different shapes and forms. Rarely do they find themselves in a position where their physical integrity is threatened. However, neurophysiological mechanisms that regulate our response to these situations are similar to those of our ancestors who roamed the savannahs of Africa. These mechanisms evolved in order to protect us from all the dangers in the world. Parallel to our brain which is located in our skull, the so-called “second brain” evolved in our stomach, where all kinds of different neuron paths exist (about 100 million of them). The two brains communicate. Their interaction is connected to everyday stress and it contains changes in physiological reactions, e.g. gut motility, mucosal permeability, visceral sensitivity, gastric secretion, and gut microbiota. The link between the mind and the body, physiology, and psychology of the organism, is reflected in the ways in which stress works and changes the person over time—on both planes. So, feelings such as “stomach butterflies” might be connected to actual processes in the body, and anxiety is the byproduct of a vicious cycle of negative thoughts, unpleasant painful emotions, and maladaptive behaviors—all of which have physiological events in the background.

Anxiety as a road sign

Too little anxiety in life can also pose a problem because it can signify experiential avoidance of authentic human emotions and ignoring important psychological processes. It is as if people live in “a bubble,” maintaining the status quo, being unaware of what is going on in their life. After a certain period of time, the eruption of anxiety can happen, in the form of panic attacks, for instance, characterized by intense bodily sensations. At that point, everything they have been trying to suppress, avoid and ignore, comes out into the open, so the person might be “paying the price” for their previous passivity and lack of conscious awareness. Even when it actually happens, we still have the freedom to choose to a certain extent, by deciding how to respond to whatever has happened.

Perhaps a useful way to understand overwhelming anxiety is to construe it as a warning sign on the road. It might invite us to look deeper, search for roots of anxiety, and find some answers in the meantime. A person can also choose to maintain a status quo and experiential avoidance. For example, various catastrophic thoughts might even reduce levels of anxiety for a while, but long term they can produce more psychological harm. A person can also “drown herself in work,” working long hours, heading to burnout—with the more or less unconscious intention to avoid unpleasant feelings or think about her problems. Instead of just sitting and being with our own bodily sensations, as unpleasant as they might be, we can continue to build new strategies for avoiding our own inner events.

In that case, anxiety might come back even stronger than before.

It is of vital importance not to run away from yourself. There is nowhere to run. No real destination to hide. Your problems are YOUR problems, part of you, and they are speaking something significant to you, about you and your life. Accessing deeper meanings of various emotions is the first and most important step in understanding and tolerance/acceptance of anxiety. The second step is emotion regulation: the realization of anxiety as a natural phenomenon that can exist at an optimal level; on that level, the anxiety is not debilitating as before. In fact, such reframing allows us to understand anxiety as emotional energy which can mobilize an organism into action when it is needed, so it is not seen as a “negative force” or a “demon” as before.

Imagine that you go outside and it turns out it is very cold. You will not say that coldness per se is the problem. No—the coldness will be a sign that you should bring your winter jacket out of the closet. Or imagine that you feel pain in the right arm—it would mean that you should probably see the doctor. Just as the cold or pain in your body are signs of something (i.e. some ongoing process), the anxiety that you feel might be the sign that allows you to understand your psychological processes. It often points to the fact that some significant emotional, relational, and psychological needs (family, friends, work) are not being met. Instead of amplifying anxiety with self-critical thoughts, judgment and just being harsh toward ourselves, we can simply stop doing that. By practicing self-compassion, we can successfully break the cycles of experience that might have been going on for years and years, in which we have felt encapsulated, isolated, and helpless.

Anxiety is not the enemy

Anxiety is not the enemy indeed. It should not be a frightening adversary with whom we should wage wars and battles. Anxiety can be seen as a problem-solving strategy to control the environment; a strategy that is becoming less adaptive and useful over the course of time.

Therefore, we should not try to control anxiety (i.e. catastrophic thoughts, negative scenarios/stories, engaging in noneffective behaviors, etc.) Moreover, as we said before, short-term strategies for reducing anxiety might be effective in the present moment (and that is fine!), but in the long-term perspective, they can only worsen the problem much more. If we just see anxiety for what it truly is—a sign that something is not quite right—we can take constructive action to ameliorate the situation and understand what is the source of our problems: for example, feelings of loneliness, isolation, and neglect that we have been avoiding for a long time; or re-traumatization with an event or series of events (that bring us back to our early childhood); or uncertainty which happened when the person quit her job (change of career path).

Whatever the reason, loosening control is a very common step in accepting anxiety. It means that we cannot completely control our emotions or the behavior of other people. But radical acceptance of all inner and outer events does not mean that we should be lethargic all the time. Quite the opposite, acceptance of whatever it is in the present moment creates a much healthier frame for taking action and solving problems.

By understanding the root of your anxiety, you are developing a new relationship with the source of your suffering. By learning new skills and working on your psychological resilience, you might discover that anxiety starts to have less of an impact on your daily life. There is no point in fighting AGAINST anxiety; it is much better to try to live WITH anxiety.

Accepting your anxiety could lead to the perception of a better quality of your life. And that can make a big difference for you and your loved ones.