Although we shy away from fear, it is essential to a healthy life. Fear heightens our senses, creates focus and guides us towards safety. Fear is our intuitive voice that tells us to run, shout, stay still, be silent, crouch, hide or do whatever is needed in that perilous moment. Fear is supposed to dissipate after the danger has passed, yet frequently, it doesn’t ebb away. Without dissipation, fear energy lingers in the body and the psyche. It shows up as jangly and jumpy energy, cycling and whirring through the mind. It’s felt in the pit of the stomach as a sense of dread. This is anxiety. It’s an aftermath of fear, with our alarm bells still ringing after the danger has passed.
The original source of any fear may be unknown to the conscious mind. The event that triggered the body’s responses could have happened, months, years or even decades ago. If the conscious, rational mind could see it now, the event might not seem fearful. Anxiety, though, is held in the subconscious, which perceives that you still need its protection. Because the original fear wasn’t fully released, anything similar can re-trigger feelings of being unsafe. Unlike the original fear that brought sharp focus at that moment, the aftermath of anxiety is a muddled energy, making it difficult to know what is and isn’t safe. When anxiety keeps whirring, we remain constantly on alert, unable to fully relax.
Symptoms of chronic anxiety
We can easily become accustomed to low levels of anxiety, so much so it becomes our norm. As such, we may not recognise its full impact on our life. The following emotional and physical symptoms are typical of unresolved anxiety.
- Constantly on edge
- Feel a sense of dread
- Headache, neck or back pain
- Digestive issues
- Brain fog
- Heart palpitations
- Difficulty in sleeping
- Sweaty or clammy hands
Changes in Behaviour
- Avoiding anything fearful
- Abusing alcohol or drugs
- Comfort eating
- Reckless risk-taking
Some of these symptoms might not be related to anxiety, so please consider what else is happening in your life. But, when you read this list, did you mentally tick several responses? Perhaps some were a surprise to you—that these uncomfortable experiences might be anxiety-related. Releasing anxiety can lift many challenging symptoms off your shoulders.
As well as anxiety-inducing events in our personal lives, we are all touched by the uncertainty going on in the world. War, power struggles and areas of conflict are igniting across the globe. Climate Change is no longer a theory but a reality. And the pandemic showed us that our lives are far more interconnected than we once believed. Watching, reading or listening to such stories can lead to a feeling of helplessness, which increases stress and anxiety. We may feel we must stay on top of everything happening, yet it is possible to be more selective about how and where you read/see the news. Watching the late-night news just before going to bed, with imagery and stories of awfulness, is not a good recipe for peaceful sleep.
Taking back control
Faced with a scary, precarious or dangerous situation, the subconscious sends chemical messages to instigate immediate reactions before our eyes and conscious mind have processed what is going on. These reactions are the body’s fight-or-flight response to keep us safe. These instantly activated responses include;
- Rapid breathing and increased heart rate. This increases oxygenation in the blood, sharpening our senses. Our muscles are also primed for action.
- Adrenaline levels rise, increasing our ability to focus.
- Cortisol increases blood sugar levels to provide more energy.
- Blood flow in the digestive system decreases, allowing more to go into the limbs, again in case we need to run or fight.
- The conscious, rational part of the brain goes partially offline as it operates more slowly than the rest of the brain. This is not a time to analyse; rather, this is a time to react. The part of the brain that processes emotional memories, learnt behaviours, and instincts now responds at lightning speed.
We rarely need to run or fight wild animals any more. However, our body still has this default setting, even though our anxiety is likely to be about family stuff, deadlines at work, financial insecurity, or poor self-esteem. We can’t stop our body’s natural fear response, but we can begin to consciously breathe deeply for a while. This small action has an amazing effect on our anxiety. In the space of a few minutes, deep breathing tells the brain that we are safe. Feeling calmer restores access to our rational mind as it reverses the fight and flight response. Thinking clearly again allows us to see more available options.
Breath is the bridge which connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts. Whenever your mind becomes scattered, use your breath as the means to take hold of your mind again—Thích Nhất Hạnh
Chronic anxiety changes rapid breathing into habitual shallow breaths. This change is subtle, so we are often unaware of this change. It’s only after practising deep breathing that you can feel the difference. To address long-term anxiety or something that triggered anxiety in the moment, try this simple exercise.
Choose somewhere quiet and either lie down or sit comfortably. Now, breathe in through your nose. Keep your shoulders still, and imagine the air is filling a balloon in your belly. When you feel full of air, hold your breath for a second. Now, exhale through your mouth, using your diaphragm and ribs to squeeze the air out of your lungs. It helps to make a haaa sound as you exhale. Repeat ten times. Notice that breathing like this is like a mini workout, yet the effort should not be strained or forced. After these ten breaths, allow your breathing to return to normal.
Take a second to notice how you are feeling. Do you feel calmer? Are you able to see things slightly differently than a few minutes ago? If you still feel on edge, take another ten deep breaths and check in with yourself about what you sense has changed.
If anxiety has become part of your life, create a new daily breathing routine. Good times for this practice are in the morning and or in the evening. You can even do this in bed. On waking, it helps set you up for the day. Just before you sleep enables you to drift off more easily.
Restoring your boundaries
Anxiety that is regularly triggered by someone in your life is best addressed by creating strong personal boundaries. Whether it is your boss, a family member or a partner, it’s not OK for them to humiliate, shout, or generally be obnoxious to you. This is true even if you have made a mistake or done something foolish. Everyone deserves respect. To find out more about boundaries, please see my earlier article, Personal Boundaries and how to say no gracefully.
Look after your precious soul
Whatever has or is triggering anxiety, know that everyone has experienced these feelings at some point in their life. Even those who appear confident may still be a bundle of nerves under the surface. Mental Health UK estimates that over 8 million people in the UK are experiencing an anxiety disorder at any one time. If you are struggling with anxiety, please know you are not alone. And if anxiety lingers, there is no shame in asking for help.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) are powerful ways of releasing old fears. I have used EFT with clients for over 15 years, and it still amazes me how quickly people can change their perceptions about what happened and how that changes how they feel about things. Book a free 30-minute taster session to find out more. Or find a counsellor or psychotherapist in the UK via https://www.bacp.co.uk For qualified EFT practitioners worldwide, see https://eftinternational.org/