Back to Basics: Understanding and reducing anxiety symptoms

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On the weekend I was talking with a new friend, Emily about her very busy and chaotic life. A mum with a 4 month old, a 3 year old and a 4 year old.  A mum who can’t get to the tidying, sorting, cleaning, cooking in a structured way, because the needs of her small children are such that schedules must flex and move in ways that support the five people in her household. This friend of mine does not have an anxiety disorder but does experience anxiety from time to time. Like most of us.  As a group of humans, we are stretched and stressed by major life moments such as a new baby, a new job, divorce/separation, life transitions such as retirement, and death in the family. Often we will have anxious experiences within these life moments. This is completely normal. Emily is prioritizing the needs of her family, over running the household smoothly and it is working for her mostly. Except it is uncomfortable for her to have sticky floors, and unwashed sheets and a car with an odor that just won’t disappear. It’s tempting to use what precious little time she has to herself on overextending herself to deal with those crumbs and handprints. Sometimes, she confessed to me, she gets so fixated on tidying up, that she will stay up until 2am ‘catching up’ and then zombie around the house for the next few days. It’s in days post 2am clean up that she realises that she is feeling anxious about another part of her life, and all she can do is control the housework. Her brain is trying to control her environment so that she can feel ‘safe’ again.

Anxiety can manifest itself in many ways. It can present in an overly functioning ‘perfect’ looking life, or it can create such distress that functioning drops. Anxiety leaves behind a trail of somatic symptoms.  That is symptoms that show up in the body. Racing heart, tingling toes, contracting stomach, clenching hands, headaches, and gritted teeth are all common manifestations of anxiety. The person experiencing anxiety usually feels these symptoms and tries to regulate themselves back to homeostasis, or at least a more comfortable version of themselves.  In Emily’s case tidying the house reduced the immediate pressure, because her external environment was no longer chaotic.  However, the source trigger for her anxiety has not been identified. As you know, feeling anxious is disconcerting and stressful and we are wired to relieve this pressure anyway we can.


Let’s talk proven strategies to understand your own anxiety:

1.    Notice yourself. This is the most important step. What triggers your anxiety? Is it a person, a situation, a group, a place, a time of day? It’s time to play detective and learn more about yourself. Your body is communicating to you distress that you are feeling on an unconscious level and your goal is to allow it to become conscious.

2.    Connect with your body – Once you have identified a trigger, take some quiet time to go into your body and notice how your body is trying to shift the energy around. Place your concentration on those areas that are painful or uncomfortable for you, until the energy moves to another location, or dissipates. When you have your full attention on your body, in an open and loving way, you can receive information or messages that may help in understanding the trigger. It can take some practice to do this seemingly simple task, so keep at it and be gentle with yourself.

3.    Soothe – It’s important to invest in strategies that refuel your tanks. I’ve talked before about consciously using adaptive strategies allow more space for healing. Things that give to your body are things you get energy from like a quiet lie down with a snuggly blanket, a soothing cup of tea, a good chat with a friend, reading a book. Maladaptive coping strategies provide an immediate boost, but no lasting benefit (e.g. shopping, smoking, drinking, drugs).

4.    Work through – This is the most important. Anxiety shows up to indicate something in your life is out of balance. Oftentimes therapy is the key piece of the jigsaw. Someone you can trust to help you unpack what the triggers are, and where they came from can provide unprecedented relief.  Together you can identify coping strategies. Anxiety dissipates when the triggers are limited/removed. This can happen for you through integration – where you make sense of the original event/experience and it folds back into your life.

What does anxiety look like for you?

There is a lot to know and learn about how anxiety presents for you and your loved ones. The best place to get detailed information that is tailored for you is your doctor and psychologist.