By guest contributor to THE SOCIAL RESERVE: Jennifer Messenger
Anxiety. Just upon just saying the word a tightness forms at the base of my throat—it’s an all too familiar feeling. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 40 million or 18% of people 18 and older in the United States suffer from one of the many varying forms and degrees of anxiety. Anxiety is a very normal reaction to events such as divorce, the death of a loved one, a change in career, a move to a new city, or any other event that essentially alters a person’s day to day life.
Anxiety, in all its forms, from social anxiety to PTSD creeps into the quiet moments of life and threatens the very foundations of who we are. That is why it can feel like such an uncontrollable force in our bodies and minds.
I was always the shy kid in elementary school who clung to the teachers rather than making friends, and in college I was the student who never participated in class discussions. When I had something to say, I sat sweating and twirling my hair, going over and over again in my head what I wanted to say, but completely unable to raise my hand. Given that history, it is no surprise that anxiety has been lately gripping me again. Everything in my life has changed in the past few months; I left my husband and my home, I started a new job, and I had my heart broken by the first person I had feelings for in ten years other than my husband. In short, it’s been a struggle that has fueled many long nights of remarkable suffering and has lead me to explore what exactly this anxiety is.
To start at the beginning, threat is at the heart of anxiety, it is the initial flight or fight response when faced with danger. According to evolutionary psychology, anxiety persists from its original use as a reaction to threat. As evolution goes, those with the best ability to perceive threat and react to it appropriately (escape, or fight when escape is not possible), were more likely to survive. Thus, anxiety has been passed down to the best of us. These days the types of threat that we were originally made up to perceive are less prevalent, and other threats to our mental well-being take up that space.
According to Henry Emmons, writer of “The Chemistry of Calm,” fear is a three layered circuit system in the brain:
1. The Lower Brain, which I refer to as the “the reactive brain.” It receives input from the senses and reacts automatically if there is an immediate threat.
2. The midbrain, which I call “the emotional brain.” This is where the emotions of fear and panic are generated, providing important signals that further decisions or actions are needed to respond to some perceived danger.
3. The higher brain, or “the unthinking brain.” This is where all the incoming information is considered and decisions can be made as to what response is needed, if any.
So, according to Dr. Emmons, it is when the flow of information in these circuits get crossed that different types of anxiety emerge. It explains why someone like myself with social anxiety reacts with a thumping heart, shaking hands, and cold sweats to group discussions. There is no threat to my physical well-being, but my body is reacting as though there is. The real threat is to my ego, my sense of self.
In Rollo May’s book “The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology,” May writes:
…anxiety strikes at the central core of his self-esteem and his sense of value as a self, which is the most important aspect of his experience of himself as a being. Fear, in contrast, is a threat to the periphery of his existence; it can be objectivated, and the person can stand outside and look at it. In greater or lesser degree, anxiety overwhelms the person’s discovery of being, blots out the sense of time, dulls the memory of the past, and erases the future…
This is a very apt description of anxiety in my experience. It’s the feeling of lying in bed with that choking sense of dread that just keeps circling around and around, it does not allow for logical thinking about the past or future, it grips the core of your mind and body like a vice. But the threat, the fear, is not that some predator is going to jump out of the woods and eat you, it’s a feeling that there is something wrong with the way your are existing in the world, and if the way you are existing in the world is wrong, then you are wrong, and that is a threat to your sense of being.
I found that it was the worst just after I began my new job. I would go to work at the new place—which I absolutely love and where I have from the beginning found a sense of camaraderie and belonging—but I would feel so full of longing and grief for what had been. I felt that I had been cast out and forgotten by the very people who had supported me through my struggle in the months leading up to the separation from my husband—now that I was no longer in their presence, I no longer mattered. It filled me with that all too familiar bubbling, choking, anxiety. To that point, I found another very telling description by May:
Another significant aspect of anxiety may now also be seen more clearly— namely, the fact that anxiety always involves inner conflict. Is not this conflict precisely between what we have called being and nonbeing? Anxiety occurs at fulfilling his existence; but this very possibility involves the destroying of present security, which thereupon gives rise to the tendency to deny the new potentiality.
It seems that as I explored my new potentiality, especially having had to destroy my former security that was my previous job and my marriage to do so.
But, as everything must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, I have come through this feeling much better. And as much as anxiety is a highly individual experience, it is one that everyone, on some level, experiences. The extreme cases, the ones that bring people to the hospital, while sadly not uncommon, are still the extreme. Everybody has experiences that challenge their being, and working through the emotions and anxiety caused by those experiences is part of life.
Emmons puts forth several ways to help get through anxiety that include: getting enough sleep, mindfulness/meditation, awareness of ones emotions and inner experience, being open to kindness and compassion from others, cultivating gratitude, and connecting to the natural world.
Now that I have reached the end of my most recent bout of anxiety, I realize that I too employed all of those inner resources to feel better. Doing yoga daily, which cultivates mindfulness, has been extremely helpful. Getting outside has been just as helpful, especially while on walks with my two and half year old, which has me seeing the beauty of the world through her.
I have since fostered a feeling of gratitude for life and an appreciation for the struggles that make me a more whole person. Anxiety will happen, and in the moments when it’s hard to breath, the most important thing is to keep breathing and to know you will get through it.