• Dr. Sharon Livingston

Understanding Anxiety

We all feel it from time to time, often for no apparent reason:

Seemingly out of nowhere, your heart and breathing rate quicken.

You become hypervigilant to your surroundings; hypersensitive to sounds, light, smells.

You feel uneasy, unsettled, tense.

You’re perspiring even though you’re not cold.

Why? What is wrong with me? There is NO REASON for me to feel this way.

You know you’re not sick . . . or are you? It’s getting worse. Is the pain in your chest serious? Was it just a gas bubble? You feel light-headed and can’t catch your breath. Do you need go to the ER?

The feelings are hard to control. The various symptoms and combinations make you feel uneasy in your own skin.

The more you condemn yourself for the feelings, the more you try to stop them, the longer they persist. And now you can’t concentrate on what you need to do, which makes you harder on yourself. You want to throw your hands up and just . . . give up? Give up what? You can’t “cry uncle” because you are there alone in your dilemma. And, you have to go on with your day and that makes you more tense.

What Triggers Your Feelings of Anxiety?

Maybe you’re worried about a problem at work with your boss. Even thinking of your highly critical employer starts your heart racing. Maybe you have butterflies in your stomach while waiting for the results of an exam. But more often, the trigger is not readily apparent. And the more intelligent you are, the more likely you are to recognize the signals of threats without tying them to a person or event.

You’re not alone. Anxiety is the most commonly reported emotional condition in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults and probably far, far more who do not seek help.

In life, everyone experiences anxiety from time to time. For most people, feelings of anxiety come and go, only lasting a short time. Some moments of anxiety are shorter than others, lasting anywhere from a few minutes to a few days.

Anxiety symptoms range from mild distress to moderate discomfort to intense panic reactions. Most people with mild-to-moderate responses tend not to get help, so they’re not counted in the anxiety statistics. Most cases of anxiety are diagnosed when the person who is panicking is so frightened that they seek medical attention.

Anxiety is a normal emotion. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it is adaptive and promotes survival by either stirring people to steer clear of perilous places or by giving them the energy and strength to confront the danger.

Since the earliest days of humanity, the approach of predators and other forms of danger set off alarms in our bodies that result in self-protective actions. The perceived danger causes a rush of adrenalin, a hormone and chemical messenger in the brain, which then triggers the “fight-or-flight’ response. Anxiety prepares people to react to the potential threat, to take action so they can return to safety.

There are markers of real threats, things we can notice through all our senses. When a child touches a hot stove and feels the pain of the excessive heat, he feels frightened and immediately withdraws his hand. Dad sees the threat and yells to him “don’t touch.” But it’s too late, his hand feels the sting of heat. The child then learns to avoid the burners or the pots on top of them. This learned response is protective.

An Example from My Life.

A number of years ago my Doberman made it clear he needed to go out. It was 5 AM in Manhattan just before sunrise, so it was still dark out. We stayed close to home, walking around the block, a few times to give him an opportunity to relieve himself.

Two men who seemed by their raucous talk and the way they were hanging onto each other to be inebriated, staggered past us. They suddenly stopped, laughed, spun around and started heading back towards us motioning towards my dog.

One of them had something in his pocket that was pointed in our direction. A knife? A gun? An icy wave of dread raced up my spine. I told my dog, “Easy!” in a loud firm voice. “Easy” is actually the command to go on alert, be ready to pounce if needed, although most people would think I was telling the dog to calm down. That stopped the two men for a moment as I intended. Then I commanded my dog to “heel” as we ran half a block to my building and safety.

The cold shiver up my spine was raw fear in response to that threatening moment. The men acted in a manner that was menacing. I made the right decision to get to safety as quickly and efficiently as possible.

How Might a Moment of Imminent Danger Transform Into Anxiety?

Following that experience, on another occasion seeing two men of the same age and appearance, I might consciously or unconsciously be reminded of that scary event. Since the first two had started coming towards me and my dog, maybe these men would also be dangerous.

But what if they did . . . While not an apparent danger in real time, the chance of being bullied or physically harmed might trigger a sense of anxiety, making me decide to steer clear of them. Even though they may be perfectly friendly people, they reminded me of the ruffians. Heart pounding, I might cross the street or turn back the other way to avoid the possibility of having to encounter them in an altercation where I would risk personal harm.

The Evolution of Anxiety

Today, running from larger animals, predators and other sources of real time danger is a less pressing concern than it would have been for early humans. Our ancestors survived through fight-or-flight responses to threat. Anxiety was an emotion that helped protect humans in an Immediate Return Environment (IRE). Our brains were built for solving short-term, acute problems. There was no such thing as chronic stress because there aren't really chronic problems in an Immediate Return Environment. Animals in the wild do not demonstrate chronic stress. Professor Mark Leary of Duke University observes, “A deer may be startled by a loud noise and take off through the forest, but as soon as the threat is gone, the deer immediately calms down and starts grazing.” When you live in an Immediate Return Environment, you only have to worry about acute stressors. Once the threat is gone, so is the anxiety.

Today, instead of dealing with IRE menaces in our immediate environment, most of our anxiety revolves around work, money, relationships, family life, health, accomplishments.

What’s interesting about the differences is that most of the stressors we deal with in everyday life require a pause to think and evaluate before acting. It is often not a good idea to take action to the discomfort spontaneously because there are potential negative repercussions. For example: your boss says something cruel to you in front of others. You probably won’t lash back by hitting him. You have to think about it and come up with a plan. This is referred to as a Delayed Return Environment (DRE). In such an environment, we are more likely to hold onto to the stress, which keeps the tension and angst of the problem whirring in the background of our minds.

Problems in a Delayed Return Environment can rarely be solved right now in the present moment. Will I have enough money to pay the bills next month? Will I get the promotion at work or remain stuck in my current job? Will I repair my broken relationship? Hence, the delayed relief and continued tension.

So why is it important to understand what anxiety is and what might be precipitating your feelings?

Appreciating ourselves for being human and responsive helps us to deal with the potential danger or risk. Instead, we tend to blame ourselves for our unpleasant feelings instead of commending ourselves for our intelligence in recognizing the signals of threat.

Rather than Blame Yourself, Try This:

An uncomfortable sensation arises. Reflect:

I’m feeling _______. Not sure what’s triggering it. What might it be?

Could it be? _________? _________?_________?_________?_________?

Ok, I think it’s this. Thinking about the feelings I was experiencing, I was reminded of ___________. That makes sense. I saw ________ and it reminded me of _______

Is that a concern now? Yes? How so? What might I do to protect myself?

No? Great. I can let it go.

Anxiety Can Also be Helpful

Anxiety can offer a variety of benefits to our lives:

  1. Anxiety Makes You Pay Attention When we are anxious, our attention shifts to things that are important in our lives. It makes us recognize things that deserve our attention and then becomes instrumental in preparation and motivation.

  2. Anxiety Can be Motivating Research shows that anxiety is a powerful motivating force. It drives you to do things to solve the problem.

  3. Anxiety Can be Protective It is a way to protect us from danger. When we address potential threats, realistically, we protect ourselves from harm.

  4. Anxiety Can Help You Prepare If you have a big speech, test or event coming up, you may feel anxious as it approaches. Anxiety drives you to prepare for the situation, to cover all the bases and to consider what you would do in worst-case scenarios. Studies show that in certain situations, anxiety can help you be more prepared for a disaster or difficult event.

  5. Anxiety Pushes You to Communicate with Others Talking with others is a way we dispel fears or find solutions to real concerns. In reaching out to others there’s an opportunity to help us find support and a safe place, and it can be effective in bonding and creating closer relationships.

The next time you are experiencing anxiety, take a moment and ask yourself what purpose this anxiety is serving you, is it helpful or harmful? Fortunately, there are some simple steps you can take to manage your anxiety.

To wind down your emotions and physiology …

Applaud yourself for figuring out the connection!

Go for a walk, work out, dance – MOVE! – exercise burns away anxiety.

Write about it in a Journal.

Put some ice on the back of your neck. See my article here: https://www.sharonlivingstonphd.com/post/how-to-ice-stress-and-anxiety

Drink water to detox the stress hormones you’re experiencing

Call a friend and help them solve a problem – Focus on someone else and help them with something they’re worried about

Watch comedy – laughter is great for stress relief

Would you like some more ideas on dealing with anxiety? Feel free to contact me. DrSharonLivingston@gmail.com www.sharonlivingstonphd.com 603 505 5000

Remembering who you are with all your strengths, feelings and intelligence!

Dr. Sharon Livingston