“I don’t have anxiety. I am just a ‘Type A’ personality.” This is what I would tell myself. I have everything taken care of and am doing okay. Everything is normal and healthy for me. I have a job. I pay bills. I am responsible. I have friends. I go to church. I am married. I take tests well. I can make a jump shot on center court. I can speak in front a group. I have adapted well – I don’t have anxiety. This is how I was thinking.
When I would get my blood pressure read, it would always be pre-high blood pressure. I didn’t like that it was above the healthy range, but I would tell myself that it was my genetics because my mother had high blood pressure. I would vow to eat less salt. I was concerned, but I didn’t see it as a problem.
When I began to lead counseling groups, one of the topics that we would teach was anxiety. We would explain what it was, its symptoms, and how to alleviate it. During this time, I started to have a lot of self-reflection. I began to think about the symptoms that I was teaching and applying them to myself. I became more aware of the symptoms in myself. This happened over the course of a few years.
So, what is anxiety? I always thought that it was worrying too much. But what is the difference from worrying and just being concerned? It is very difficult to tell when concern has veered over into the worrying category. So examining anxiety from a mental standpoint is too subjective.
While our minds may deceive us, our bodies do not. Our bodies always tell the truth.
I don’t have any allergies, but my wife is allergic to everything. When pollen is in the air, her body reacts. Her body detects the allergen and misinterprets it as dangerous. Her body goes into “war mode” and launches an immune reaction to counter the danger. Her nose runs, her sinuses get clogged up, her head hurts, she doesn’t breathe as well, she feels tired, and her heart beats faster. Her body causes the allergic reaction, not what she is allergic to. Many times what we are allergic to is harmless in itself, but the allergic reaction may be deadly (as in some allergies to peanuts.)
Anxiety is similar to an allergic reaction. When we feel threatened, our body reacts. Certain processes are activated. Systems of our body go into the fight-or-flight mode or the adrenalin response.
The fight-or-flight mode is the body’s alarm system. Our body goes into overdrive to handle the threat. If the threat is imminent and genuine like an angry, Kodiak bear, then the fight-or-flight mode is very helpful and even life-saving. It helps us to either fight the danger or run away from it. But if the threat is not immediate or it is irrational, then being in this mode is not helpful. Being stuck in the fight-or-flight mode is anxiety.
Our bodies were not made to be continually in the fight-or-flight mode. We do not function well in the fight-or-flight mode for an extended period of time. Our bodies and minds wear down. We become tired and depressed.
So what happens when our bodies go into the fight-or-flight mode?
The hypothalamus in our brain starts a chain reaction that ultimately releases over 30 hormones into our body. This flood of hormones goes throughout the body putting multiple body systems into overdrive while reducing the work in some systems.
Below are some of results of the fight-or-flight response:
1.) Heart rate increases to supply more quickly blood to the muscles in the arms and legs.
2.) The pulse volume increases (the amount of blood the heart pumps with every beat).
3.) Pupils dilate allowing more light into the eye so you can see better.
4.) Veins in skin and digestive system constrict to send more blood to the major muscle groups.
5.) Respiration increases to supply more oxygen to burn energy.
6.) More glucose is released from the liver to increase the blood sugar level to fuel the muscles.
7.) Endorphins (natural painkillers) are released to prevent us from being disabled or slowed down by the pain or injury (though with extended stress, pain sensitivity actually rises).
8.) Muscles tense up, energized by the adrenaline and glucose.
9.) Nonessential systems like the digestive and immune system shut down to allow more energy to the arms and legs.
10.) Senses become more acute.
11.) Brain scans everything looking at the big picture, as it tries to determine where the threat is coming from.
All of these changes in your body are made to help you meet the threat. Your body is prepared to either fight the danger or run away from it. When the threat is only perceived or irrational, then being in this fight-or-flight state is counterproductive.
The negative symptoms that arise from this prolonged fight-or-flight state are as follows:
1.) High blood pressure and sweaty palms from the pulse rate increase
2.) Pounding in the chest from increased blood volume
3.) Light-headed or blurred vision or headache from the dilated pupils
4.) Butterflies in stomach and an urge to go to the bathroom due to the digestive system slowing down
5.) Difficulty catching your breath, dry mouth, or choking feeling caused by the increase in the respiratory system
6.) Higher blood sugar level resulting from the additional glucose
7.) More sensitivity to pain caused by the extended release of endorphins
8.) Muscles twitch, shake, ache, or are restless because all of the energy is going to them so that they can be put into action
9.) Less able to fight off viruses and illnesses resulting from the slow down in the immune system
10.) Headaches, irritable, and moody because the senses are on overdrive and overwhelmed
11.) Mind races making it difficult to concentrate or work on creative tasks caused by the brain frantically searching for the threat
12.) Difficulty sleeping resulting from all the systems being on alert
13.) Tired and depressed because the large muscles are continually working while the brain is not allowed to slow down a focus
With all of this going on, no wonder why an anxious person is tired, depressed, and unproductive. I realized that I had been this way myself to some degree. At times, it was worse and I was really unmotivated. When you are in this state of anxiety, it can be difficult to recognize it, especially if it just seems to creep up on you.
For myself, I hold a lot of tension in my legs. They seem to be a good indicator for me if I am anxious or not. I monitor myself throughout the day and check if they are tense or not. If they are, I purposely contract and then release them. I work on taking deep breaths and slowing down my breathing. I may pray or meditate as well. This allows me to actively put my body and mind in a better and more relaxed state of being.
What about yourself? Have you crossed over from just being stressed or concerned to be anxious? Are you in a state of anxiety and don’t realize it? Maybe you should consider individual counseling.
Have you been having anxiety attacks or panic attacks? Read this article: “Do You Know The Difference Between An Anxiety Attack And a Panic Attack?“