It’s Only Anxiety
GPs & Yogis might actually agree…
Sometimes the worst thing you can hear from a doctor are the words “It’s only anxiety” as though the host of terrifying symptoms and sensations you are experiencing are a mere figment of your imagination. I too felt irked by such apathy from the GP, as my admittedly hypochondriacal questions were smirked at. “Is there something wrong with my heart?” “Do I have a problem with my nervous system?” “If not, then why do I feel like I am about to die??” And if the answers to these questions are definitely “No,” then “Will all the muscle tremors, heart palpitations, blurred vision, digestive upset, and memory loss damage me in the long run? Because they really don’t seem like the characteristics of a healthy body?? ”
Head, heart, mind and body
The disregard the Western Healthcare System shows towards anxiety often results in the dishing out of anti-depressants with a patronising pursed lipped glance along with this flippant verbatim. You go to the doctor with real physical distress, looking for understanding and reassurance, only to be told that it must be all in your mind. This can be frustrating when you want the physical symptoms to stop, but let’s not forget that it is in the mind where the problems often start.
In Western society we often consider our psychology and physiology to be distinct from each other, but when suffering from anxiety disorders we start to realise that they are inextricably interlinked. Stress and trauma can cause many afflictions within the body, something long understood by “alternative” medical systems, and gradually our general practitioners are beginning to agree. However, due to the nature of biomedical western medicine being based in the biological by definition, it isn’t always the most useful path to proceed along if you want to avoid numbing pills*.
Doctors do recognise anxiety as a clinical condition, hence the dishing out of drugs – something they’ve done since the mass tranquilliser administration to claustrophobic housewives in the 1950s who started to realise there was a world outside their wallpaper. However, they are still terrible at therapeutically engaging with it as a holistic condition.
As ever, it is a communication problem, because what they are fundamentally saying, that “it is only anxiety” is that you’re heart is not in trouble and you’re not going to die, and this is what you need to be told, albeit a little more reassuringly.
Whatever the delivery, this is useful information, so don’t be disheartened when you come away with little for treatment or comfort. You may feel like the healthcare system has let you down by throwing you to the outside world to fend for yourself, but you honestly don’t need them anyway. Everything you need is right inside you right now. You just have to realise it yourself; convince your animal body that it is safe, and let your intellect take back control over your bodymind again. Once you can embody the realisation that the fear you’re physically feeling is unfounded, you can finally break free of this debilitating condition.
This is all, of course, easier said than done. When in a “state of anxiety” it can very hard to think straight and get on with even the simplest of daily activities. Even getting dressed, washing, and eating can become a struggle, let alone planning your day or fulfilling your ambitions. So insisting that you’re fine seems like the last thing you’re able to do. This is due to the debilitating “brain fog” that accompanies the sensations of impending doom.
In times of immediate danger our autonomic nervous system shifts into the sympathetic mode getting us ready to “fight” or “flee”. This activates the body’s stress response, suppressing the rationalisation areas of the brain – the cortex – and increases the areas of the brain reactive to danger such as the amygdala. http://www.anxietycentre.com/anxiety-symptoms/brain-fog.shtml
Stress hormones, such as Adrenaline, Cortisol, Norepinephrine https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/adrenaline-cortisol-stress-hormones_n_3112800 are stimulants which increase electrical activity in the brain causing us to be more alert and therefore more easily distracted. The hippocampus – the centre for learning and memory – is suppressed in this stress response and so our normal brain function is temporarily impaired, including our abilities to learn and remember information.
All of this is useful when you are in a real state of danger, but when this biochemical chain reaction goes too far, or continues for too long, it can shift the brain into a state of foggy mush as it struggles to process the excess adrenaline. We can get stuck in what is meant to be a primordial survival instinct, yet with no sabre-toothed tigers chasing after us, or trees to climb, there is no where for this instinct to play out apart from in the brain and spinal chord where it was created, hence the feelings of chemical mayhem. It can feel as though we’re losing our minds which increases the anxious feelings creating a vicious and very exhausting cycle. Tasks which require rational and logical thinking are especially difficult to manage. Like writing a blog post about anxiety, like I am now.
Those who have suffered from the blasé blankety umbrella term “anxiety” will understand how frustrating the condition is. One serious bout of stress in your life when your nervous system goes full power for too long or too fast, can leave a beaten track in your synapses to be trodden again whenever your thinking self gets a little lost. Similarly to those who have “burned pathways in their brain” with the use of recreational chemicals e.g. MJ, LSD, MDMA, alcohol, nicotine, and all the rest of it, these endogenous chemicals leave trails just the same. Sometimes they can re-surface out of what feels like nowhere; you didn’t even know you were worried or stressed! But something in your heart of hearts, brain of brains, nervous system of nervous systems, tells you that you are.
Those who don’t suffer from anxiety (and the list is unfortunately getting shorter) may find it hard to believe that anxiety is a physical affliction as they associate it with a primarily psychological experience which can be attributed to a particular event or situation; getting anxious before a performance for example. Indeed, specific triggers could end up in a full blown panic attack for an anxiety sufferer, yet someone may also be enduring a long drawn out period of jaw-clenching quivers, sometimes lasting days due to no particular reason. This is often labelled “general anxiety disorder” – just as horrible. It’s difficult to explain how convinced you are of danger and how physically you are experiencing the fear of it. If you’re senses are so sure it is happening how can it not be? Mad, yes, but seemingly true.
Realising the unreal
Despite mostly overcoming anxiety, I am aware that there is still a ghost of my anxious past waiting in the wings, and when I began writing this article it had returned to haunt me, perhaps due to cognitively revisiting my own experience for inspiration! However, what I have learnt from a couple of years of battling with this apparition of apprehension, is that it is only a ghost. Just like anxiety, ghosts evoke fear, sadness, and terrible clumsiness, yet just like anxiety they can’t really hurt you. When you realise that the danger your body is sensing is an over-reaction, life becomes a lot less horrifying.
To begin with of course, it is not easy to ignore the physical sensations of anxiety; the hot sweats, the trembling, the heart palpitations, the nerve tingling, digestive upset, muscle aches, blurred vision, tight headaches, the urge to cry and scream, not to mention the confounded brain fog, the feeling of “what the fuck is happening to me??” Unfortunately like true love, the course of true peace and calm never did run smooth. But take it from me, a fellow flounderer, taking a moment to observe your experience, understand it rationally, communicate with your survival instinct, then carry on with your life despite being riddled with anxious ectoplasm, can help to surf the tidal wave of terror without completely wiping out. It is easier said than done for sure, so that’s why I’ve written this article to share how yoga practice and philosophy helped me to overcome the worst.
Embodying the truth
Anxiety is the embodiment of worry. It is a state of being completely consumed by your fears. Gobbled up by the whale. Perhaps our modern age can be blamed in part, although there are many accounts of nervous breakdowns in centuries past. Look at poor Mrs Bennett and her nerves in Pride and Prejudice! Never have I related to a character more. Just like Mrs Bennett worrying about her five daughters we panic as we have all these modern-day roles to fill, gadgets to glare at, pictures to post and money to make.
We can’t change how the world is unfolding, how fast everyone else seems to be moving, or who our daughters marry, and so we can end up feeling like we can’t keep up. And if we can’t keep up, how will we survive? Hence the brain’s incoming warnings signs of impending doom and panic. These evolutionary alert signals still hit us when running away or fighting is not the appropriate answer to our problems (can you imagine Mrs Bennet pegging it round the meadows or putting up her fisty cuffs?? No, exactly, she’s a civilised woman!), so now it is difficult to know what to do with these superfluous sirens when there is clearly no immediate lethal danger afoot.
Due to the stress chemicals firing without a target, anxiety can make us feel “out-of-control”, like our minds are malfunctioning and we’re simply going mad. Therefore, the psychological fear increases and, yes, so do the physical symptoms. The vicious cycle. We may try repressing stressful experiences; resisting them by tensing up our bodies and swallowing our tears, but really, we have to let this stuff process through us. If we don’t then the chemical cocktail builds up inside us like a pressure cooker and BOOM: panic attack, IBS, smack in the mouth, jump off a cliff, school shooting – whatever the explosion, it ain’t pretty. The trick is, to process anxious episodes with calm and control. If we can get a grip of the mind and be reassured that is is not malfunctioning or in danger, we can get a hold of the body too and release this stress in less humiliating or harmful ways.
As we all know, we cannot simply “think” positive thoughts; that deep down everything is really fine and the world is wonderful, we actually have to “know” it. We have to know it in order to feel it so the chemical reactions can be quelled or dissolved naturally. This is where it isn’t so easy: having to convince your body, which is trembling with fear, that your heart isn’t in trouble it’s just over-excited, that your brain will return to normal, and that you will feel ok once you’ve calmed down.
So how do we convince our poor little selves that have been through the mill and conditioned into believing the world is out to get us, that we are going to be alright after all?! Let’s start with the breath. Yes, it sounds obvious, but it is so blooming effective. Please believe me and give it a fourth, fifth, tenth chance. In fact, every breath is another chance. Breathing is the most persuasive communicative method between the body and the mind. When you control your breathing, you can take back control over what the rest of your body is doing and even how your mind is thinking. Thoughts will at least slow down so you can see them for what they really are: mere thoughts. If you’ve been trying it and it doesn’t work, you may actually be doing it wrong.
When we go into a state of panic, we breath more quickly, the body aiming to take in extra oxygen to fuel our fight or flight response. It’s so autonomic, we wont even know we’re doing this until we feel the adrenaline kick in: the tingles in the arms, the breathlessness, the brain fog etc. Sometimes we hear people telling us to “take deep breaths” in order to calm down, but actually this can encourage a big extra gulp of oxygen. We actually need to elongate the out breath so more oxygen leaves the body. This must be done very slowly followed by a gentle deep in breath into the belly, visualise the chest expanding outwards rather than upwards. You can also try breathing through one nostril in order to slow the breath down.
What’s the worst that can happen?
Easier said than done yes. So what if the fear is just too much? What if life is currently just terrifying? What if it’s just not ok and breathing deeply isn’t going to change the fact that life is a fucking shit storm right now??? My anxiety kicked off hard during a time of serious illness. I could see myself getting thinner and thinner, as though I was going to disappear. I felt like my personality was fading with my body, I felt like my life was not being lived, I was the ghost that I feared. And of course, the more I worried, the more my physical health suffered. I was totally trapped in that vicious cycle.
So in order to calm the panics I had to face my fear of fading away and perhaps even dying. In order to carry on living I had to combat the fear of death. This is no light subject, but once you are on the path towards facing the fear of death, life will change dramatically for the better. Perhaps we all must embrace the idea of death; change the cultural consensus that it is a terrible thing. Yogic philosophy explains that beneath our mere mortal earthly bodies we are pure eternal bliss and light. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad to become this again? To shed this heavy husk we reside and often suffer within?
Even if you can’t consciously accept your self as a blissful “soul” entity, you may find comfort in becoming processed back into Gaia the superorganism that you are part of, the great ecosystem you are integral to, to feed the earth and universe with your eternal energy. So connecting with our death, is simply acknowledging our ability to be absorbed into the universe. Even our decomposing body will feed the blessed worms. If we can accept that this is what death is, we can live in serenity. Yes there may be pain, but the pain is worse when we’re fighting ourselves too. Choose your battles. Don’t fight what isn’t there. As Socrates said,“Death may be the greatest of all human blessings”.
Funnily enough, when we trust that whatever happens is ok, it usually turns out that it is ok, and that it was “only anxiety” suggesting otherwise. And life seems worth living again.
Surrender to fear
It might not be death that you fear, it might be failure, humiliation, pain, madness, hurting another person, the death of others – there are obviously endless horrific things that are worthy of your primordial fear and fighting instinct. Whatever it is, there is no good worrying about it if it isn’t actually happening or if there’s nothing you can do about it. You probably just need a hug and a nap. You are not weak. You feel afraid because you are an intelligent being. Life is hard, that fact cannot be denied, so don’t be harder on yourself.
The next time you feel a state of anxiety loom, try surrendering to your fears. Surrender doesn’t mean losing the battle of life, it means ceasing to fight the natural flow of life. Stop resisting the inevitable. Stop fighting yourself. When panic sets in, say to yourself, “so what if I die/make a tit out of myself/fail/lose/kill somebody? I am only love, light bliss eternally, the rest of me is useful scrap for the earth, and so is everyone else”. Spirituality helps eh? And if the shit is about to hit the fan, what’s the point in wasting your last moments worrying about it or worrying for the sake of worry itself, so much so that you can’t function?
Anxiety is a sign that you are over-worked, and despite the adrenaline probably absolutely knackered. It is the result of an evolutionary rut where the stress response to danger has not caught up with the modern lifestyle. So let the body process the chemicals and let yourself evolve. Breathe out the fear pheromones on your long deep out-breaths. Get used to letting go. Eventually the ghost will find peace and let you go too. Trust.
Don’t give up on your “Self”
Anxiety can make you feel completely helpless and vulnerable and the longer it goes on, the longer you feel you’re in a mess. Ironically, the longer you have anxiety the more you can learn how to deal with it. It becomes the devil you know – which is better than the one you didn’t when it first caught you off guard. Dealing with it comes with practice. So do not worry if it seems that this suffering is endless.
Every episode is another opportunity to practice getting back your grip. To recondition your out-of-sync survival instincts. The more we panic when panic occurs, the longer the episode will be. If you can sit back, surrender your fear to the healing process. Just take a moment to tell yourself that you are not about to die; that you are fine and just need to keep breathing. That’s all.
If this all feels like I’m stating the obvious, well I am, but I assure you I am not saying it because I don’t think you’d heard it before. I’m offering what I couldn’t find during my frantic internet research during acute attacks – and that is an in-depth insight into the psycho-spiritual as well as scientific aspects to anxiety. For me, it was all about unravelling this psycho-neuro-physiological knot that had got caught up in what felt like the back of my neck, in my belly, and around my wrists (oddly enough).
Due to the cause of my anxiety being due to known, yet complex causes of psycho-neurological stress (office work, eating in stressful conditions, constant building noise pollution, belittling boss: classic contemporary shite), I reasoned that if my mindbody relationship got me into this mess, it can jolly well help me get out of it. It was yogic practice and philosophy that finally helped me pick apart the trauma tangle by adding in the logic of the self, or “soul”.
Yoga helped me realise that “me” or “I” wasn’t defined by this panicking body, or this over-active mind, but led me to consider that perhaps a soulful, higher, “self” was able to step in and sort stuff out. As my mum always told me, “YOU are always in control”. This always begged the question, so who is this “you” if it is not the mind or the body? Who is it observing, knowing and calmly controlling? Well “you” are nothing but the truth, the light, the life, the bliss – the bit that lives forever. “You” are the one that knows what’s really going on, the one that is ALWAYS safe and the one that the mind and body are here to serve.
Plan of action
All this crazy spiritual bollocks is hard to get the head around for sure. It’s just something to consider and perhaps utilise if it helps. In the meantime, if you literally cannot just get on with writing your PHD or driving a heavy goods vehicle without knowing your shakey hands will feck it up big time, despite your deep breaths and yogi outlook, don’t get frustrated. Have an escape route at the ready. A plan at hand for when the ghost comes to haunt you.
When anxiety hits start by repeating to your mammalian brain “stop worrying you fool, we’re fine!” Or any other such “mantra” that can help e.g. the slightly more philosophical, “don’t go in your mind where your body is not” and crack on with a simple soothing task like running a bath, or doing a doodle. Here is a nice website who have come up with a nice choice of soothing mantras for you to learn and repeat.
If your energy is low, lie, or sit down and let the waves of adrenaline and panic wash over you. Count the breath – in for 4 counts, and out for 8. Try and detach the negative emotions you associate with these physical sensations and just observe the sensations for what they are…sensations. Then try to encourage each part of your body to relax every time you breath out. Don’t worry about disappearing, dying or going mad, you wont. You might even fall asleep. The brain fog will clear. And even if you did die you’d become a vital part of the atmos! Surrender to the processing of chemicals, and know that the universe loves you and is rooting for you to survive and thrive. It is. It’s the law of nature.
If the anxious energy is high I strongly recommend dancing! Dancing is an amazing way to release that adrenaline in a free way without needing to think to much! Just moving your hips, releasing tension from the spine and enjoy the niceness of movement. If you can manage to deal with technology enough to put some music on then definitely do it.
Try listening to:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv07q-SFgNc Or any of Meditative Mind’s music that uses solfeggio frequencies that appeal to your brainwaves.
Drink chamomile tea and have a spritz of Rescue Remedy! Guaranteed efficacious medicines from nature – no clinical trials necessary!
You’re anxious because you have a mind, a body and a moral code. It’s totally natural to get out of sync sometimes. Remember, we are all working it all out together. Take from this article offer of advice what works for you and discard the rest. I don’t mind. It’s your life, healing process, peace of mind. You decide what works for YOU.
Check out the next post for details on how Yoga Practice can alleviate anxiety.
*I’d like to add a post-publishing note here to clarify that I don’t want to disparage correct and effective medication administered as a result of a productive relationship between patient and biomedical physician. In fact I have heard great things about treatment pathways that involve good councelling and psychotherapy along with intelligent, controlled and responsible medicating.
I am in no way “doctor-bashing”, but instead highlighting the tendency of Western medicine to quick fire strong drugs to patients who have not been given the chance to understand their condition and therefore work with their mind-body relationship before resorting to further chemical disruption. Side-effects of medications can often give the patient further problems and should not be treated as lightly as they sometimes are. This is from my experience of many doctors of Western medicine in the UK and in Sri Lanka.
Again, the bottom line is that the patient should be informed and in control as much as possible.
9 thoughts on “It’s Only Anxiety”
What a great article, Flo! Both intellectually as well as as practical advice, I loved and needed this. Thanks!
Ah thank you for taking the time to read it Karo, I’m so pleased if it was helpful to you in any way. Always lovely to connect somehow with great souls such as yourself, whatever the circumstances 🙂 Hope you’re well and happy aside from any anxiety. Much love. xx
Dear readers, please see note at bottom of article clarifying my views on “numbing pills” – I mean no offence nor disparagement towards western medication, simply a word of caution and awareness.
Smashed it Flo! Great stuff. I am often haunted by the apparitions of apprehension and find the power of breath an incredible cure. Nice to have the intellectual contextualisation to back it up. Keep ‘em coming!
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Sorry just went through the beginning of this. Just wanted to say that real women’s issues that doctors can’t diagnose, and don’t understand enough of to recommend to another doctor, often get diagnosed as anxiety.
In India, cultural ideas often leave women with no support system when they are not well.
I often am shocked to see this, and to see women for whom this is the norm, and who find this acceptable. The medical profession doesn’t often understand how lack of support at home affects women, and women’s health issues.
And telling a woman struggling with no family support when she is not well that it’s anxiety is not the solution.
I think I would like the medical profession to treat women better. Some doctors do, and I am grateful to have had doctors who care. But many doctors don’t.
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Hi Anitaelise, thank you for your comment. I wholeheartedly agree with you, and can assure you that that kind of treatment does unfortunately effect women in the UK too. I hope my article does not suggest that it is ok to be diagnosed with anxiety when other issues are presenting and alternative support is needed. This article is speaking to those in an actual physical state of anxiety who literally feel as though their body will expire when there actually is no other problem than the fear itself. This is most probably what is (sometimes unfairly) considered a “first world problem” – as in, the modern world stress of keeping up with the “rat race” is primarily to blame for mental health issues. People often do not feel they can take a break from work/responsibilities in order to heal or at least rest enough to rebalance their nervous systems. The “Anxiety Diagnosis” has indeed many guises, that work to either empower or indeed disempower the sufferer. Here I was offering empowerment to those who may be able to help themselves.
Since writing the article I have also found that there are many physical illnesses ie microbiome imbalances that manifest as anxiety and go untreated as anxiety is diagnosed. However, from a neuroplastic perspective, the mind can also help the body adjust its chemistry and physiology to achieve calm.
Please do challenge further if you feel it necessary. I’m grateful for you’re engagement and only wish to be corrected if I am misleading/misguided. Communications such as this are essential for our development as a communal species.
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No actually I didnt mean to imply your post is misleading at all. In fact, a lot of health issues can be treated by treating stress and anxiety.
Just wrote in as I thought that a discussion on anxiety is a good place to highlight this aspect of women’s health.
Thanks for taking the time to reply so promptly!
Thanks Anitaelise, yes it is a great discussion to be had indeed!
Women have been tarred with terrible brushes of irrationality throughout history and cross-culturally. This is clearly a means of patriarchal control universally. Being “diagnosed” with “Hysteria” is the famous example in European history, and the neurotic housewife in America dosed up on zanex (Could you give an example in India?). As you say, this degrading treatment has barely been admonished today with the “anxiety” diagnosis now taking over.
But perhaps there is some hope in the way that patriarchy-induced anxiety itself has become a recognised issue? Something that was once considered a female problem is now admitted to by men as well as women. This is an achievement for feminism I feel, as sensitivity has become culturally acceptable. Of course, it is not a solution, but the world opening up and sharing true feelings must be a step in the right direction.
I hope you have not suffered too much in the ways you have described. Any time you want a women-to-woman chat, let me know 🙂
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