Why am I feeling anxious?
Anxiety is quite the buzzword these days. It seems like every teen I meet has struggled with some form of anxiety, whether it is social anxiety, stress related to academics or a general sense of dread about the future. The truth is we all have anxiety. Our bodies are equipped with an alarm system that lets us know which situations are safe and which ones could be dangerous. When this alarm system is overactive, our bodies respond to benign situations as if they are dangerous. An example could be experiencing extreme fear when having to give a presentation. When someone’s anxiety interferes with daily life or is extremely out of proportion to actual threats then an individual may be diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder.
In her latest book, Under Pressure, Dr. Lisa D’Amour sheds light on how anxiety can actually serve as an ally. Despite the common discussion, anxiety is not all bad. Anxiety is a warning sign, letting you know that something is off or there is something you need to pay attention to in your current environment. For example, your anxiety may be triggered when you are walking home alone at night in an unfamiliar area. In this example, the fear that is activated is actually helpful because it alerts you to the fact that your current circumstances could become unsafe. Other times it may be more subtle. You may feel anxious if you have been procrastinating on a school paper that is due in the next few days. Here your anxiety is working as “a protector”, helping you avoid the potential consequences of not turning in your work on time.
Here is what happens to your body when the alarm response is triggered.
When the brain interprets a situation as threatening, stress hormones are released triggering the body’s fight/flight/freeze response. The sympathetic nervous symptom is now activated. You may notice increased heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath, and/or digestive issues. Emotionally you may feel nervous, irritable or a sense of impending doom. Your mind will scan your environment for threats and logical thinking goes out the window.
“Anxiety overestimates how bad something is going to be and underestimates our ability to deal with it”. -Dr. Lisa Damour
Here are a few things to consider:
Anxiety can affect one’s thoughts, physiology, and behavior. Not paying attention to your basic biological needs can often be a culprit for anxiety symptoms. Feeling hungry or tired can make your alarm system more susceptive to become activated in unnecessary situations. Additionally, believing that you have little or no control over your circumstances can also contribute to worsening anxiety symptoms. Finally, not having adequate emotional support can certainly make anxiety worse.
So what can you do when you feel anxious?
- Ask yourself: Is there something here I need to pay attention to? Sometimes mild anxiety can alert you to the behavior you may want to change. Did you just say something that you might regret? Are you putting off a project that you should’ve started last week? Often recognizing and remedying behavior can be enough to calm the nervous system.
- Try grounding yourself. The 5,4,3,2,1 Game helps you interrupt the anxiety loop. Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste to bring yourself back to the present. Another helpful grounding tool is 3 S’s. Recognize the Surface you are sitting or standing on, notice physical Sensations like the temperature of the air touching your skin, and finally notice all the Sounds around you at this moment.
- Deep breathing is an excellent way to activate the Parasympathetic nervous system which triggers the body’s relaxation response. When your breathing is slow and deliberate, your brain gets the signal that you are safe. Try these helpful breathing techniques: Square breathing Diaphragmatic breathing.
- Recognize just like any other feeling, this too shall pass. All your feelings come and go. You have never had one feeling that lasted forever. It may be extremely uncomfortable but if you can ride it out, you will see that you are capable of handling this emotion.
- Make sure you have a support team to reach out to, whether it is a friend, parent or counselor. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can be a helpful treatment for those suffering from anxiety disorders. Group therapy can also be a great place to share openly with people struggling with similar issues.
Finally, remember you will have to practice these techniques over and over to rewire your brain’s response. The more you practice, the more you train your brain to respond to situations in a new way. Be sure to reach out to your healthcare provider if you have noticed worsening anxiety symptoms.