When Anxiety Attacks
The problem with writing a blog entry on anxiety is that there will always be more to say. How can I possibly cover everything that’s important to say?
I can’t, of course, and, while that honestly caused me some initial stuckness, I decided it might be most helpful to focus on how to recognize when anxiety is a “problem”, versus a more “normal” or common experience of anxiety. One of the things I notice most when someone is newly beginning therapy with me and presents with anxiety is that their symptoms have gone untreated for a fair amount of time, often in part due to most everyone being able to say they’ve felt anxious before.
Anxiety is purposeful and helpful in some situations. It can serve as a warning that something is wrong. Let’s imagine you’re having a nice picnic. Out of nowhere, a bear comes out of the forest, heading in your direction. Feeling anxiety will help keep you safe by mobilizing you to get the heck out of there or to otherwise do something to keep yourself safe!!
But, when someone has an anxiety problem, it’s as if “false bears” are all around (work with me here….). The false bears can pop up multiple times a day and in multiple situations. It’s generally quite challenging for the person experiencing the anxiety to determine whether it’s a “real bear” or not, as the body and brain act as though the threat is real, imminent, and that there’s no way to be talked out of it. Just as you would be hard pressed to convince your fellow picnickers, “relax and have some more potato salad, why don’t you” if faced with an actual bear at your picnic, so too is it very hard to rationalize when in an irrational state of mind. When it can be identified as a false bear, it’s still hard to get the body and thoughts to calm down.
And yet we see this all the time (the trying to rationalize with the irrational). Since everyone has experienced anxiety at one point or another, we run the risk of minimizing others’ experiences, confusing extreme for normal. (such as, “Oh yeah, I have anxiety too; I had to give a presentation and I was sooo anxious thinking about talking in front of all of those people”)
Anxiety in it’s extreme state doesn’t always have an underlying cause or reason. Asking yourself or a loved one, “What are you anxious about?”/ “What do you have to be anxious about?” does not always reveal an answer and sometimes even creates even more anxiety and frustration. Although there is value when able to determine and mitigate an anxiety trigger (eg, “I’m feeling anxious because it’s really crowded here so I’m gonna walk over to where there are fewer people”), when a reason can not be identified, it is often best to do a combination of acceptance, self-compassion, coping tools, and/or distraction.
When searching for a reason or trigger that can’t seem to be found, I advise clients to gently tell themselves something like, “I’m anxious because I’m prone to anxiety”, “I’m anxious because I have an anxiety disorder”, “I’m feeling anxious and there’s not always a reason”, or “I’m anxious; it stinks but I’ll be okay”.
Sometimes anxiety just attacks/ just happens. Similar to if you’ve had a sprained ankle, every once in awhile it may ‘act up’ with no discernible trigger, or when sometimes you have an upset stomach for no identifiable reason. With a combination of empathy, acceptance, education, and learning and practicing coping skills and strategies, the “false bears” can hopefully get smaller and pop up less frequently, and your anxious one can, in time, feel a little more relaxed and a little more able to enjoy life’s picnics.