There are many contributors to why anxiety occurs and why this protective emotion can turn into a debilitating mental health issue. For those who struggle with clinical anxiety, there often seems to be two modes of operation: trying to figure out how to avoid the impending anxiety and then trying to survive anxiety when it strikes.
This can become an all-consuming process.
Developing a better understanding of the anxiety spectrum can help stop the paralyzing cycle of anxiety, shame and pain. Insight into the whys behind the anxiety spectrum can decrease the many myths around it and help those who love someone struggling with anxiety develop more compassion for this common issue.
MYTH: Anxiety is just people over-reacting to things that other people do not stress about.
MEANING: Anxiety is not over-reacting. It is a combination of worry and elevated emotional and physical arousal. When we are stressed – for whatever reason – our body kicks into a stress response where our brains go into fight, flight, freeze or numb out mode. This stress response helps the body realign resources, speeding some functions up while slowing others down in order to address the perceived threat. What we interpret as stressful may vary from person to person. What we feel is what we feel, and it takes courage to feel. It is important that we do not evaluate our emotional response as “right” or “wrong.”
Sure, there are ways to respond to anxiety that are better than others, but pressuring ourselves to always “have it together” is unrealistic. Life is challenging at times and it is so important to choose compassion and respect instead of holding to the unrealistic expectation that there is only one correct way to live. No one has it all together all of the time. No one. We are — gratefully — not robots, but complex people with diverse stories and experiences.
What we interpret as stressful may vary from person to person. What we feel is what we feel, and it takes courage to feel.
MYTH: I could get a handle on my anxiety if I could just figure it out.
MEANING: Many who struggle with worry, stress and clinical anxiety have tried to think themselves out of their struggle only to create more anxiety, shame and feelings of despair. When anxiety strikes, usually one or more of the following is a contributor:
- Distressing life events such as loss, major life transitions, chronic daily struggles.
- Negative core beliefs about safety, feeling overly responsible for outcomes, not being in control.
- Family history including genetics, family patterns around boundaries, managing anxiety and roles, neglect/chaos/abuse, physical illness.
- Temperament, personality, perfectionistic tendencies.
MYTH: Avoiding stressors is the best way to decrease worry and keep the threat of anxiety down.
MEANING: This is a tough one as clinical anxiety is a tricky foe. The brain wants us to be safe, so the logical conclusion would be to avoid being in a situation that could possibly trigger another intense experience of anxiety. Yet, this avoidance can lead to deepening the power of the anxiety. The world may continue to shrink and feel unsafe if anxiety is not addressed as soon as possible.
When the nervous system adapts to a heightened alert mode, it becomes more vulnerable to reactivity. This means minor threats may cause a fight, flight, freeze or numb out response physiologically, even though logically we know we are safe. White-knuckling chronic stress — out of fear of being a burden or feeling more ashamed of being stuck in anxiety — only contributes to the body becoming more sensitized, making it harder to accurately determine threats to safety.
Myth: If I can just control my reactions to anxiety and stress, I will be ok.
MEANING: Stuffing our emotions is kind of like steam building up in a volcano: it eventually blows. Untreated traumas or distressing life events can impact anxiety responses in the present. Anxiety is not something to be minimized or devalued. Seeking help as soon as possible increases the chance of better treatment outcomes and sustained relief.
Stay tuned for Part III of this series, Spotting the Signs of Anxiety. Find Part I, here.
Image via Milena Mallory