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Anxiety

What Does “Anxiety” Actually Mean? 

"Anxiety" is a description of an activated nervous system.

Key points

  • Anxiety is universal, powerful, automatic, and intentionally unpleasant. There is no reason to take it personally.
  • Anxiety is not subject to rational interventions, and the way to lower it is to simply lower your stress reaction to threats.
  • An important and critical step is to separate your “identity” from anxiety and develop a “working relationship” with it. 

Every living creature has a threat-avoidance response that involves every cell in their bodies. Humans are unique in that we possess language and can name it. Anxiety is a word that describes this intentionally extremely unpleasant sensation that compels us to take action to alleviate it. There are levels of intensity. Here is a word progression that falls under the umbrella term of anxiety:

  • Alert
  • Nervous
  • Afraid
  • Angry
  • Paranoid
  • Terrorized

The neurochemical state that we have labeled as anxiety is an amoral powerful survival reaction in response to stress and is not the cause of it. It is how we evolved, and it also keeps us alive. You can’t and don’t want to get rid of it. It is so powerful you can’t control it by rational means. It is hardwired and automatic. You might as well try to have a conversation with the hard drive of your computer.

Relentless anxiety is the worst aspect of suffering for many people. So, if rational interventions can’t work, how can you lower your anxiety? Since it simply describes the feelings created by your body’s neurochemistry, the answer is to learn and use approaches that lower your stress hormones, metabolism, and inflammatory proteins. In other words, you can stimulate your body to switch from flight-or-fight physiology to safety.

Effectively Dealing With Anxiety

The goal is not to control or “manage” this reaction, but to develop a “working relationship” with it. As you quit fighting anxiety, it will be less disruptive to your quality of life. There are four aspects to consider:

  1. Separating your identity from it. Anxiety is not who you are as a conscious human being.
  2. Using tools to directly lower your stress chemicals (output) through stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system (vagus nerve).
  3. Increasing the resiliency of your nervous system.
  4. Becoming aware of the input into your nervous system that creates threat physiology.

Separating Your Identity From Anxiety

The first step is to separate your conscious identity from this all-encompassing feeling and view it as simply your body’s mechanism of protecting you.

One helpful step is to eliminate the word, “anxiety” and substitute phrases such as, “heightened stress response,” “elevated stress hormones,” or “increased sympathetic tone.” Any words that describe your body’s heightened physiological activity will do. What happens with many people is that they feel badly about these disturbing feelings and impulses. However, they are universal, and why would any of us take them personally? It has nothing to do with your identity or value system. In fact, the research shows that the more of a well-intentioned person you are, the more you will fight these deep impulses, which reinforces them. The result can be crippling anxiety.1

Piman Khrutmuang/AdobeStock
Source: Piman Khrutmuang/AdobeStock

Another separation strategy is to visualize a large thermometer on a wall. As you feel your physiology become more activated, describe the intensity of emotion with one of the above words. Then mentally assess your “temperature” in light of the “thermometer.” Again, the way to lower anxiety is to use tools to shift your physiology from a threat profile to that of safety. In other words, “lower the temperature.” You’ll be using approaches from all three areas: input, nervous system, and output.

As challenges keep coming at you, you’ll learn to use methods from each category multiple times per day. The key is learning to process adversity effectively and efficiently so as to minimize your time in threat and maximize your time in safety. Healing can only occur when you are in safety and not consuming your body’s resources to survive. There will be many times when stresses are overwhelming or when you are overtired that you will not do well. That is the norm.

Once you can consistently separate “you” from this physiological reaction, you’ll be free to “observe it” and get on with your day and life. You must break loose in order to move forward into the life you desire.

Recap

Thoughts are what you think, and unpleasant ones can be considered “mental pain.” They are processed in similar brain circuits as physical pain and that is why they are so disruptive. They create a flight-or-fight response with a resultant surge of stress hormones, increased metabolism, and inflammation. Emotions are the feelings caused by these changes in your body’s neurochemical profile. The word that describes this heightened state is anxiety. It is not primarily psychological.

This is a critical concept in that you cannot control these automatic and powerful survival responses with rational means. It is huge mismatch. You cannot outrun your mind.

Anxiety is a universal survival reaction that is your protector. You cannot and don’t want to get rid of it nor do you want to take it personally. There are many ways to develop a “working relationship" with anxiety, use it to move forward with your life, and heal. The critical first step is to separate your personal identity from it.

Questions and considerations

  1. Every cell in your body is bathed in and affected by stress hormones and inflammation when you are in flight or fight. It is the reason why people identify with this sensation when it actually has nothing to do with who they are as a person.
  2. Really consider anxiety for what it is. It describes the feelings generated by your physiological state when your body is in a survival mode. It is critical to understand this situation, as the conscious brain is no match for the unconscious brain.
  3. You cannot control the unconscious aspect of your nervous system, but you can reprogram it. It is a step-wise process and why The DOC Journey is in the sequence it is.
  4. View your unconscious brain as your guardian and learn to develop a “working relationship” with it. As you quit fighting the unwinnable battle with anxiety, you’ll have much more energy to live an enjoyable life—and heal.
  5. You cannot heal when you are in flight or fight and consuming your body’s resources to survive. Healing can only occur when your physiology is one of safety.

References

1. Wegner DM. The Seed of Our Undoing. Psychological Science Agenda. Jan/Feb 1999, pp 10–11.

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