In 2018 a documentary titled "Free Solo" came to small screens across the globe. If you are unfamiliar with the film, professional climber, Alex Honnold climbed a 3,000 foot peak in Yosemite Valley called El Capitan without any ropes or gear. Yes, you read that right. He summited the mountain without any equipment keeping him plummeting to an inevitable death were he to make a slight error. And again, if you haven't seen it, it's more impressive than you can imagine.
I remember turning the TV on to the opening scene which shows Alex somehow attached to a vertical wall with what appeared to be thousands of feet below him. The camera angles more than capture the danger that he is in and how one small mistake would lead to death. Sitting on my couch, not suspended thousands of feet in the air I immediately felt the physical symptoms of anxiety begin to take over my body. I began to feel the muscle tension taking place in my body. I no longer had the desire to much on the popcorn in front of me as my digestive system was shutting off. I felt my rapid heart rate telling me I better get out of this situation or I was going to be in danger of a series of panic attacks.
Logically I knew that I was not the one in the situation. I knew that I was safe, cuddled up next to my wife in our pajamas on a Thursday evening and firmly connected to the earth. But my body was not understanding this. My body was witnessing a stressful event and thus exhibiting a stress response without my control. And that is because anxiety lives in our body.
Speaking about anxiety without addressing the physical effects would be a paradox. It's impossible to divorce the physical response that one experiences in regards to feelings of anxiety and for our sake we will make no attempt to. Instead, as if with any mental health conditions, if is paramount that we understand the nature of what is taking place rather than find logical workarounds to no longer have to experience these sensations.
I want to begin by addressing the idea of mental health problems as a whole. While anxiety can rise to the level of being problematic in one's daily life, anxiety in and of itself should not be classified amongst the litany of mental health disorders or mental illnesses.
This would be like somebody coming into my office and telling me that they had been diagnoses with sadness after a loved one died. Sadness is not a condition to rid oneself of, it's a response that our body has in regards to no longer being able to operate in the world in the way that we once were able. Anxiety is the same as any other emotion. It exists for a reason and offers us a gift, even though that gift may feel uncomfortable and result in an upset stomach.
It would actually be quite dangerous to not experience a certain degree of anxiety.
How would you know to ever escape a dangerous situation without your trusty anxiety to alert you? But of course you are here because your anxiety has reached some level of disorder that it is no longer helping us out in the midst of danger, but rather keeping us from engaging in life in a way that is valuable to us. And this is usually where I like to assess if we are dealing with any types of anxiety disorders: if our daily activities are consistently being interrupted by anxiety. Another way to look at it would be, is there anything that you aren't doing (that you would like to be doing) because of you anxiety?
There are a number of biological risk factors that might put us in a position where we are more likely to experience a type of anxiety disorder. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is one of the most genetically passed on diagnoses that we see in mental health treatment. I have had very few clients with OCD that did not have a close relative also diagnosed with some sort of excessive anxiety.
Now as we get into what the body does these anxious events, I want to say that I have been here before in a number of ways. I've felt the flight response and the heart palpitations that come along with it. I've experienced the stomach pain and felt the difference in the blood flow before. It is not fun.
However, I do think that what the body does as part of it's normal reaction to anxiety is quite fascinating. It may seem that there is no apparent reason that our body is doing what it is, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.
At Thrive we often utilize a tool called the Window of Tolerance. If you're not familiar with this concept and you are a member at Thrive, I highly recommend checking this out. I guarantee the 60 minutes of learning will not be a waste for you. When our parasympathetic nervous system is turned on, we can still feel connected to anxiety to some degree. This is also referred to as our rest and digest system. When we are in this state we are calm, curious, and connected to all of our emotions. And while we might experience an uncomfortable emotion such as anxiety, we are still in control. When panic starts to set in, our sympathetic nervous system clicks on and our body begins to release these stress hormones. In layman's terms, we might also refer to this as our fight or flight system.
I like to refer to this system as primitive technology that was encoded into us thousands of years ago. At one time it was really quite revolutionary! But it's kind of like running Window's '95 in 2023. It was great at it's time, but we've developed better technology since then. Unfortunately our body's do not make these upgrades as quickly which is why mental health services exist.
The Bear Is Here
In order to understand this system a little bit better, let's use one of the most classic examples when it comes to being in an anxious situation: encountering a bear. Whether you are walking around in the woods in 2023 or 2023 BC, if you happen to come within eye sight of a bear your body is going to run that same primitive software. You are going to immediately begin to experience a shortness of breath as your body tries to take in some more oxygen to prepare you for the upcoming action. You can think of this like whenever you've needed to lift something really heavy and your breathing gets really quick as if to "amp you up." Your body is going to begin to redirect blood away from your extremities and towards your larger muscles such as your quadriceps to help get ready to make a break for it. Similarly, you might even vomit so that you can lighten your load and get away quicker. This has been referred to as "dump and run." Sorry for the visual.
Your vision will narrow as you try and become more acutely aware of your surroundings and it's no longer important to take in the serene surroundings that you might have previously been enjoying. On a similar note, your body will turn off the idea of curiosity because who needs to show up as a learner when there's a bear present?! Logic goes offline as well because using any sort of deductive reasoning is going to take a backseat to escaping.
Have you grown to have a newfound appreciation for your bodily responses and your anxiety? Look at all of the things that your body does to help you escape the bear. Thanks, body!
Unfortunately, your body does not know how to make the distinction between the bear encounter and the social situations that you might experience. The upcoming conversation with your partner or boss triggers the same system in our brain and we experience the same side effects of this system.
What To Do
The most important thing that we can do in regards to long-term anxiety is learn to accept the bodily sensations that we are experiencing. If we can step back as more of an observer and notice what is happening, this will diminish the pain that we experience as a consequence of our anxiety.
Allow your body to make the moves that it is making. Next, we want to try and see if we can trick our parasympathetic nervous system into coming back online.
Try chewing some mint gum as it might cue your digestive system to turn back on. I know, it sounds like a silly one and I'm not saying it's as effective as antidepressant medications, but it might help in a bind.
Lastly, learn to ride the wave of your anxiety and realize that you are not going to have a heart attack, go crazy, or fall into a vicious cycle of panic and disassociation. Our body moves slows when it comes to these experiences and allowing these processes to complete will be more effective in the long term.
If you are looking for a support group to help improve the relationship with your anxiety, Thrive will be offers an Adult DBT Group, and will also be adding an Anxiety Group in the next few months. Additionally I would recommend checking out our course on Anxiety as well.
Of course, if you are already signed up for Thrive's membership all of these courses are included at no additional cost to you!