Understanding Anxiety – Part One

 Guest Post By: Genrys Goodchild

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Think about a power outage for a minute. All at once, all electric appliances switch off and the room goes quiet. It is in that moment you may realize how ubiquitous the hum the fridge, tv, computer is to your everyday. It seems such a stark difference only when it stops.

Anxiety can be a little bit like that, in my experience. If you struggle with generalized anxiety, sometimes you only notice how prevalent it’s in each day when you have those rare moments when it finally… stops.

There are different types of anxiety – generalized anxiety (which is what I struggle with), panic attacks, social anxiety, phobias. It’s an extensive list, and by no means will we be able to dig in to it all in the space of this blog. Since generalized anxiety is such a huge part of my lived experience, I figure it best to focus on that.

This has been broken up into a series of two posts. In this first post, we’ll explore what generalized anxiety feels like and where it can come from. In the second post, I’m going to outline different ways of coping.

It’s important to note that in no way am I, nor is my sister – Muse & Mystic, a licensed medical professional. All the information in these posts is for informational purposes only and cannot take the place of consultation or treatment with a licensed medical professional. We urge you to consult a doctor or other another medical professional if you have any questions related to any medical concern.  

I want to preface this next section by sharing something that has been a hard won insight. For most of my life, I felt (and was made to feel by others) that the anxiety I felt was abhorrent and made me weak. I now see that it is anything but. In a world such as ours – full of horrific injustice, suffering, violence, trauma, greed and destruction – anxiety may be the sanest thing about you. It means you are seeing things clearly.

That’s not to say it doesn’t feel terrible, because it does. I just want to make it really clear that struggling with chronic anxiety is not something to be ashamed of and does not make you weak. It means you’re empathetic and you care. The world has not succeeded yet in deadening you to it, and that’s a good thing.

But I agree that anxiety which never stops is not helpful or productive for living a joyful, fulfilling life, and it can take a toll on those around you. In many cases, anxiety was a justified, healthy response to the environment or situation we found ourselves in, but now that our situation has changed, our body and mind have yet to catch up.

So these are the questions we turn to now: What does anxiety feel like? Where can it come from?

What Anxiety Feels Like

Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways, both physical and mental. Its important to recognize here that the body and mind are not separate entities and they constantly reinforce what’s happening with the other. Here’s what anxiety can feel like for me:

  • A tightening in my chest and shortness of breath
  • A tensing of my jaw, shoulders and neck
  • Nausea or intense gastrointestinal pain
  • Throwing up
  • Dizziness or lightheaded feeling
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Sweaty armpits and hands
  • A sense of looming dread
  • Constantly anticipating the ‘other shoe to drop’
  • Pacing and muttering to myself without being aware of it
  • Startling very easily

Perhaps you recognize some of these feelings and sensations. Perhaps you feel like this every. single. day. For the better part of my life, I certainly did. It’s only been in the past few years that I can go longer and longer periods of time without feeling anxious. So trust me – I’ve been there.

Despite millions of people struggling with anxiety every day, it’s been a widely misunderstood experience. A popular understanding of it is that anxiety is just something ‘that’s in your head’ and it’s just a matter of outwitting yourself with rational thoughts. It isn’t that simple. Anxiety is not something you can get rid of just by thinking. In fact, thinking too much might be part of what’s driving your anxiety.

So, where does anxiety come from?

My understanding of anxiety has been greatly informed by the research of Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, who is a clinician and trauma expert. He wrote the massive book The Body Keeps the Score and if you’re a reader like me, it can change your life.

I also have learned a great deal from the work of Dr. Judith Herman (an American psychiatrist) in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Terror, Dr. Peter Levine, who wrote In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness and Dr. Gabor Maté who has written In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters With Addiction.

What these doctors, researchers and professors agree on is that in most cases, chronic anxiety comes from trauma. It’s almost impossible to reach adulthood in this society without experiencing some form of trauma – either because of violence, abuse, racism, ableism, patriarchy, homophobia or transphobia. For those of us who are oppressed in more than just one way, the trauma can be further compounded. So your generalized anxiety probably isn’t just anxiety that ‘comes out of nowhere’. If you really think about your life, you can probably guess at some of the experiences that might be at the root of your chronic anxiety.

Bessel van der Kolk describes it this way: “We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” 

In particular, these researchers have found that childhood developmental trauma can be connected to more severe cases of chronic anxiety, addiction, depression, auto-immune disorders, and personality disorders such as borderline. The effect of trauma or stress during childhood is varied and intense, but what matters for our purposes here is that the younger you are, the more difficult it is for you to handle stress. It can affect how your brain develops, how your nervous system develops, and how your immune system develops. I know that can be alarming to read because it might make things seem hopeless and entrenched, but bear with me.

The ways in which your body, mind and soul adapted because of stressors as a child were actually ways it sought to protect you. Your body, your mind and your spirit did the best they could with what they had to endure experiences that might have been, frankly, unendurable. That’s okay. To others, it might seem as though now you’re just “crazy.” Yet, if they understood what trauma can do to a person, it wouldn’t seem crazy it all.

Think of it in this way. If you heard a loud bang just now, your heart rate would jump and start pounding, you might freeze momentarily as you sharpen your senses to locate the source of the potential danger. Your fists might clench and you might feel ready to jump up and take action. All of this happened without you being consciously aware of it, and that’s because your ‘animal’ brain (part of your autonomic nervous system) reacts faster and more powerfully than your conscious mind does. Once you realize with your conscious mind that the bang was because something fell off a table, you will feel your heart rate slow, your muscles unclench, maybe you feel the urge to shiver or shake to discharge that sudden burst of adrenaline. You relax, continue on and forget about the incident, now that you know the danger has safely passed.

For people who are traumatized or anxious, there’s no real baseline to return to in this scenario. It is tremendously difficult to relax and feel at ease, even when we rationally can understand that danger has passed. A loud noise could ruin your whole evening, because you don’t manage to reach that place of knowing in your whole being that things are safe for you, because that place has never existed. You feel suspended in a current of nervousness and fear.

This is because stressors in your childhood or adolescence told your body to always be ready for danger, and even though you’re no longer in immediate danger, your body and your nervous system don’t know that. Acute post-traumatic stress can also have this effect, but the ways of helping adults work through particular incidents of trauma can be different from helping those who experienced more sustained traumas as a child (referred to as complex post-traumatic stress disorder). I hesitate to say that it’s ‘easier’ because post-traumatic stress and the resultant anxiety or depression is not easy for anyone, but adults who experience trauma may have a healthier baseline to return to, and so treatment can be more straightforward.

So, now that we understand anxiety often comes from some form of trauma, and is a holdover from a survival strategy your body and mind employed to protect you, how do we manage it? How can we heal? How can we cope?

The good news is that just as your body and mind adapted in the past, it can learn and develop in powerful new ways now and in future. You have a remarkable, innate capacity to heal. In part two of this series, I will detail the different methods I’ve tried and what’s worked for me.

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