Anxiety presents itself in such vastly different ways in all of us, but there are a few things that remain constant and true. Anxiety serves a purpose. Anxiety is not solely a bad thing. Anxiety is what alerts us to potential threats or dangerous situations. Anxiety is a physiological coping and defense mechanism that works to keep us safe and alive. The problems with anxiety that arise are when anxiety is not just functioning as a ‘once in a blue moon’ occurrence at a time of intensely high stress but rather when it is, or becomes, the default setting that we find ourselves operating with. On a biological level anxiety is when the stress response is activated, which most of us will also know as the fight or flight response. It seems to me however that in general we talk about stress and anxiety as though they are some intangible thing that happens in our brain without mention of the impact on the whole body. I strongly believe that it is essential that we acknowledge what’s physically happening when those stress hormones are pumping around our body as a result of what’s taken effect in our brain.
Tuning in to these sensations can be a more accessible way to acknowledge how we are feeling. It is also an incredibly effective way to understand ourselves better. It is not always easy to start talking about the feelings and thoughts that we are having especially where anxiety is concerned. We can however begin with a little more ease, to talk about the physical experience of anxiety and how it feels within our body. Approaching our anxiety in this way can serve to be highly effective, or at least that has been the case for me. Naming and identifying the physical effects of anxiety on my body has allowed me to open up and speak about the feelings and thoughts that go with those bodily sensations. To this day, I continue to use this approach to inform my personal self care and wellness practices.
Panic or anxiety attacks are impossible to ignore, we will be terrifyingly aware of the visceral experience our body goes through when an attack like this hits. They are a truly horrific experience to endure. With high stress and anxiety however the signs & symptoms in our body are not always as obvious, they are often something that we pay little attention to, if at all. In fact most of us are probably guilty of shrugging them off even if we do notice them. These are signals that our brain & body is giving to us, telling us something isn’t right and that we must pay attention to what it is trying to communicate with us. It has been my own personal experience that dismissing these signs and signals has led to even higher levels of anxiety and at times, in severe situations; a panic attack. Whether it is an anxiety disorder or low levels of anxiousness we are experiencing I believe there is an important conversation to be had. I believe that as a society and with all that we have had to endure this year in particular, there is a consistent degree of low level anxiety in most people right now. Understandably so. The signals and symptoms I will go on to talk about here are specific to my experience of anxiety but they can be relevant for anyone who lives with anxiety or anyone who experiences any level of anxiousness. It is the degree and the severity to which these show up that will vary from person to person.
“Breath is the link between mind and body” — Dan Brule
The first, and most distinct indicator for me is always evident in my breathing. I have a tendency towards shallow breathing in general but a noticeable shortness of breath or any sudden change to my breathing, which sometimes includes sighing a lot is a strong indicator that something doesn’t feel right for me. The closer I get to a panic attack the shorter and more laboured the breath will become. This can often be coupled with a tightness in my chest. A feeling that there is a giant weight on my rib cage making it feel impossible to breathe deeply and easily. This is because when the stress response kicks in a number of things happen, namely that the adrenal glands begin producing adrenaline to pump around the body to get the heart rate up so that it can effectively and quickly send blood to the muscles to prepare for fight or flight. This will speed up our breathing to provide us with more oxygen for the same reason. Slow, conscious and mindful belly breathing serves to counteract this by tapping in to the Parasympathetic Nervous System and activating the rest and digest state within the body. To put it simply; we can take the power back via our breath. It will calm and soothe our nervous system, while also bringing awareness to our breath making it easier to spot these changes when they happen in the future.
“The time to relax is when you don’t have time for it” — Sydney J. Harris
Headaches, for me, are another huge indicator that I’m feeling under pressure, overwhelmed or anxious. This usually indicates that I have been feeling this way possibly for longer than I am even aware of. In my case, headaches usually stem from tightness in the neck and shoulders and also the fact that I have a tendency to clench my fists without realising it. I noticed that I would climb into bed feeling particularly anxious and I would be attempting to fall asleep as I lay there in bed with tightly clenched fists, as if I were braced for battle. Aching muscles in general when I haven’t done anything physically to explain the aching is always something to be mindful of. Again this occurs because of the stress responses that contracts the muscles to prepare to fight or flee. Massage has been the most effective way to counteract this tightness in my muscles. A firm but calming massage helps to release the muscles while also engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to reminds the body that it is safe to relax.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
— Thomas Dekker
Sleep is something I have spoken about at length in a previous blog, but typically disrupted and not enough sleep will lead to fatigue and exhaustion whether it is anxiety or for any other number of reasons. It is worth being aware that fatigue can also occur as a result of the crash that happens after a spike in adrenaline too. Persistently finding ourselves in the stress response will leave us feeling exhausted as we crash each time we experience it. Progressive muscle relaxation techniques and also massage work really well in helping to improve the quality of my sleep in this case. It is also important to ensure I maintain a calm and mindful pre bedtime routine.
“At its worst, anxiety can feel like death. At its best, anxiety feels like a cramping stomach.” — Ari Eastman
We all know the ‘butterfly in my belly’ feeling that is associated with nervousness and fear. This is caused by the reduction in blood flow to this area. The blood is instead being directed to the muscles to prepare for fight or flight. This can lead to feelings of nausea, upset tummy or for anyone like myself an IBS flare up. Any technique that will work to soothe and calm the body will alleviate these symptoms such as deep belly breathing, progressive muscle relaxation and also a number of soothing food and drinks too, I’m personally a huge fan of lavender tea.
These are just some of the symptoms I am familiar with on a personal level, but this is not an exhaustive list. There are so many ways that anxiety can show up in our body, this will vary greatly from person to person. If we can learn to identify these signals, and listen to what our body is telling us, then we can learn to self soothe in a very personalised and individual way. Instead of spending most of our time in fight or flight we can learn to move towards the opposite, and the optimal; rest and digest. The goal, in my opinion isn’t to never feel anxious again. The goal isn’t to be calm all of the time for the rest of my life. They are not realistic goals. For me, the goal is to consciously notice when I go into the stress response and rather than go against it or ignore it, learn how to manage within it, acknowledge what I’m thinking and feeling and to find ways to soothe and calm my nervous system. Our anxiety must be given the opportunity to flow through the body. We must allow ourselves the chance to complete what Emily & Amelia Nagoski refer to as ‘the stress cycle’ in order to return to the rest and digest state, in order to feel well again.
For me, anxiety and my overall mental health is like an old injury that flares up when I’m not taking care of myself, when I’m not listening to my body’s needs. When an old injury flares up we know what to do; we need to rest it, apply heat, maybe take an anti-inflammatory. In the same way I have learned what I must do when I have an anxiety ‘ flare up’ and the habits I must form in order to avoid it taking its toll on me. My hope for this piece is that it serves as a reminder to all of us. When we notice these sensations in our bodies it is important that we take heed in them. That we listen to them. I vehemently believe that a conversation about self care and wellness cannot happen unless we are adept at noticing the signals our body is giving us when something is not right. When our brain and body are telling us that they need more attention, care, compassion or rest; we must listen.
It’s difficult to alleviate or soothe any issues or concerns we may have if they don’t feel attainable. For a long time, anxiety felt to me like something that was solely affecting my brain and something I was powerless against. In learning to tune into my body, in learning to recognise the signals it gives me and in working to actively self soothe I now trust that I am no longer powerless. I am in fact resilient as a result. You are too!