Anxiety: Causes, Effects, & Recovery
Clinical BSW, Clinical Psychotherapist & Sensorimotor Trauma Therapist, Yoga & Qigong Practitioner
That the birds of worry and care fly over your head, this you can not change,
but that they build nests in your hair, this you can prevent
– Chinese Proverb
The word anxiety has been used since the 1500’s and comes from the Latin word anxius, which means ‘worry of an unknown event’. I have highlighted this definition as many people are unaware that anxiety symptoms are more commonly connected with concerns about what is imagined and anticipated in the future rather than anything immediately real and occurring in the present moment. This is different to what may be referred to as ‘healthy anxiety’.
Anxiety is also often used interchangeably with fear to describe a certain state or feelings, however anxiety and fear are different. Fear is the physical response to an identifiable external, or internal (such as a real medically diagnosed condition) threat. It is an instinctual life-preserving response to danger. Anxiety is most often not a response to immediate danger. It is mostly associated with memories of fear, anticipation of fear, anticipation of anxiety itself (known as anticipatory anxiety), early childhood conditioning, and perhaps a biological predisposition to being anxious.
Anxiety is felt as an uncomfortable nervous system stress response that can range from healthy to very unhelpful, and with mild to more chronic cognitive, emotional, behavioural, energetic and physiologically distressing symptoms. In a more chronic and acute state a person may feel immobilised, frozen, and dissociated/out of their body.
Everyone experiences anxiety at some time or another. It’s natural given that we live with such uncertainties and unpredictability at times. The feelings come and pass through usually without too much problem. And of course there is what we may refer to as ‘healthy anxiety’. Healthy anxiety is a body-mind stress response that we experience when it is necessary for us to be concerned about something that is actually happening in our lives. Anxiety in this regard is our innate body’s way of letting us know that something needs our attention and possibly action. Healthy anxiety can help us prepare for future actual events. Sometimes it is even a way of calling us back to our deeper authentic self and a resolution of past issues.
Anxiety becomes a problem when there is nothing happening in our immediate environment or internally within us in the Here & Now that warrants an anxious response. It also becomes problematic when the symptoms of anxiety persist over a prolonged period of time.
Anxiety can involve any of the following feelings, thoughts, physical, and relational responses:
- Dread, panic, terror
- Brooding fear about something that might happen
- An overwhelming sense of apprehension and uncertainty
- Physical symptoms such as tension, sweating, palpitations, increase pulse rate, choking, nausea, hot flushes, chills, dizziness, unsteadiness, abdominal discomfort, and shortness of breath, headaches, fatigue, diarrhea, frequent urination, more perspiration.
- Contraction and tightness through the body as an attempt to contain and control underlying emotions.
- Suppressed and vulnerable immune response
- Unpleasant feelings of helplessness, isolation, disconnection,
- Feelings of being unable to cope with the imagined situation
- Pre-occupation with catastrophic thoughts, images, anguish and unhelpful rumination, and worries about yourself, others, events, and our world
- Pre-occupation with losing control, going crazy, or dying.
- Spiritual and energetic disturbances; spiritual emergency and emergence.
- Confusion, as sometimes it seems that we do not appear to be worrying or ruminating about anything at all. The physical symptoms of anxiety are a complete mystery to us and we cannot identify any or many of the emotional or psychological components very often associated.
Anxiety often involves a negative and catastrophic looping dialogue in our mind that becomes preoccupied with safety and interpreting life in the present moment as being more dangerous than it actually is. It is a state that is preoccupied with either the future or the past, seldom about the actually of the present moment of the Here & Now.
Anxiety is maintained by the part of our brains that processes fear. This part of the brain cannot tell whether fear originates from an actual immediate real life physical threat or from imaginary thoughts and images of a frightening or overwhelming situation. Regardless the body-mind automatically and unconsciously prepares itself to addressed the real or imaginary threat in the same way by producing survival responses of flight, fight, freeze, dissociation, or attachment cry.
These survival responses involve the release of chemicals and hormones that create the anxiety state. Once these chemicals and hormones are in the blood stream they take a little time to be processed through even when we may have realized that it is with our imagination that we have been frightening ourselves and arousing an anxious state.
From a medical perspective the experience of anxiety can encompasses several conditions including:
- Generalized Anxiety Experience (GAD)
- Panic Experience
- Obsessive Compulsive Experience (OCD)
- Post-Traumatic Stress (PTSD)
- Social Anxiety
- Specific Phobia
- A genetic vulnerability and family history of anxiety
- Learnt anxiety when growing-up with anxious care-givers
- Early childhood experiences of neglect, trauma, overly cautious or critical caregivers, abandonment, growing up around alcoholism, caregivers who suppressed your expression and self-assertiveness.
- An accumulation of years of stress and worry: long working hours, stressful and chronic life experiences, heavy smoking
- Perfectionist thinking and habits
- Poor breathing habits, shallow breathing and a contraction of emotion in an attempt not to feel.
- Poor nutrition
- Not knowing or allowing oneself to truly relax
- Lack of self nurturing
- Low levels of social and relational supports
- Illness or particular medical conditions such as an over active thyroid or adrenal gland
- Hormonal changes
- Certain medications
- Illicit drug use
- Excessive alcohol use
- Too much caffeine
- Negative and catastrophic self talk and images
- Avoidant behaviours
- Mistaken beliefs about self, others, or the world
- Denial of feelings
- Lack of assertiveness
- Poor posture, poor breathing habits, and muscle tension
- A lack of meaning and purpose and lack of spirituality
Pathways to Re-balancing the Nervous System and Healing from Anxiety
There is a significant amount that you can do to assist in your recovery from anxiety. However sometimes when the nervous system is highly and chronically active,medication prescribed by a qualified doctor may be necessary to assist with reducing chronic distress and anguish. Specific phobias, obsessive compulsive, and post traumatic stress experiences usually require the assistance of a qualified professional in addition to the self help strategies outlined below.
Please keep in mind that if you have tried and persisted with many of the following with little relief from the anxiety this does not mean that you have failed. It may just be that you need some professional counselling support to assist further, or it may be purely an indication of how your nervous system is unconsciously and automatically operating on such a high alert level and thereby needing some companion medication support.
The following may be of great assistance in the recovery from anxiety:
- Counselling to learn how to address and challenge unhelpful thinking and mistaken beliefs; to deal with situations rather than avoiding, and to address the causes of anxiety related to adverse childhood experiences, and trauma
- Examine and journal in what ways it is your imagination that is frightening you and making you anxious. Can you take responsibility for this?
- Journal what is actually happening Here & Now, and notice how much of you is living in your mind either in the past or anticipated future.
- Diaphragmatic breathing: Anxiety often leads to a shallow contraction of breath, or hyperventilating in the case of a panic attack. The consequence of contracted and shallow breathing is that we subconsciously attempt to stop ourselves from feeling all the emotions that push the anxiety. When all the emotions build to boiling point then we have a panic attack. Regulated breathing with a slight emphasis on the slow extended out breath is a way to best manage some of the physiological symptoms of the anxiety. Then it is important to acknowledge, and come to an acceptance of what the underlying emotions are conveying.
- Grounding & Centering techniques
- Progressive Muscle Relaxation & Relaxation in general (Sometimes relaxation is very difficult for some people who experience very heightened anxiety as there is a fear of what may happen if they let go of what they maybe unconsciously resisting. In this case it is important to speak with a qualified counselor who will assist with re-programing the body-mind into safety around relaxation)
- Autogenic relaxation
- Simple mediation
- Attention training
- Watching TV, cooking, exercise in general, having a bath,spending time with people whom you feel safe and comfortable with, developing a hobby, art work, developing a playful attitude
- Distracting yourself and giving your attention and involvement towards anything that you may find pleasurable or interesting
- Making a decision not to feed any negative thought or image
- Getting out of your head and into your body and the world via: Being in nature, gardening, walking, swimming, dancing, singing, playing an instrument, being sexual with a loving and caring partner
- Yoga, and Qigong practices
- Developing a committed and regular spiritual practice (by this I am not referring to religious doctrine however a spiritual practice may be part of a religious faith) and prayer.
- Learning how to be in the Here & Now rather than the anxious projected future, or in the past. Gestalt and Mindfulness counselling can help with developing these skills
- Developing compassion for your self
- Using positive creative visualization and imagery
- Imagery healing
- Develop skills around self assertion
- Experiencing gratitude for all of the small everyday positive aspects of life
- Good nutrition
- Some naturopathic supports
- Body work/massage
- Caring for others, or animals
Please call Christina or Wilhelm to discuss your needs on Christina on 08 9430 9533.
Anxiety Disorders – SANE Australia
Headspace: Australia National Youth Mental Health Foundation
Grow: Peer Support for Mental Health
Aframi: Support for people caring for individuals and families experiencing mental health concerns
“The Book of It: 10 Steps to Conquering Anxiety” Bev Aisbett (2008)
“The 10 Best-Ever Anxiety Management Techniques” Margaret Wehrenberg (2008)