Anxiety is a buzz word we throw around when discussing feelings of nervousness or discomfort. It’s also a clinical diagnosis that requires physical or cognitive (thought) symptoms lasting a certain period of time, symptoms severe enough to interfere with daily functioning. We could discuss the clinical requirements to diagnose something like generalized anxiety disorder, but a simple google search can offer you that. Instead, I want to discuss what actually happens in our brain, body and environment to create anxiety. Let’s break it down into manageable, bite sized pieces to help de-mystify this state of being that effects more than 40 million adults ages 18 and older in the United States today.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where does anxiety come from? Many of us are taught that internal peace is a direct result of external circumstances. We may even attribute our lack of peace, or our anxiety, to other people’s behaviors and actions and, as a result, hold ourselves emotionally hostage to them.   Even though our circumstances impact us, in reality, that felt sense of peace we seek is actually a complex process neurologically that takes into consideration much more than our external circumstances.  It starts with our brains receiving information (stimuli) from the world around us, processing it (and no one person processes the same stimuli in the exact same way) and then, as we are processing it, our brain almost simultaneously sends signals to our nervous system with direction on how to respond. 

 Our brain asks the split second question, “Is this environment, person or thought a threat?” If so, our sympathetic nervous system gets activated. We could call this the “gas pedal” of the nervous system. There are other times when our brain interpret stimuli as safe, and therefore activates the parasympathetic nervous system (“the brakes”). If the gas is activated and gets stuck, we put our guard up and start experiencing all those nervous system responses we commonly associate with anxiety like racing mind, racing heart, tendency to run away or act immediately. Comparatively, when we have a healthy, regulated nervous system, we are able to face external stimuli, respond accordingly and then effectively “pump the brakes” when needed, as to avoid being constantly “running” on edge (a state of being that many with anxiety surely can identify with).

 So, in a very oversimplified form, peace and anxiety are actually byproducts of how our brain interprets the world around us to our nervous system. Anxiety doesn’t always make sense to bystanders because no one’s brain has exactly the same thoughts and no one’s nervous system is wired exactly the same.  Have you ever experienced frustration during COVID when a family member or friend chose to isolate in one area but you saw them grocery shopping the next week? We simply can’t assume what someone’s internal processes are simply by looking at their external behavior.

So what do we do with this information? How do we apply it to our own lives? One main element of consideration is to re-examine our relationship with control.

A common anxiety response is rooted in the false belief that we must be in control of everything at all times to be safe. Many people relate to this feeling of wanting to release control but are not sure how to do it. They may be doing the hard work of changing their thought patterns and trying to release control yet still feeling anxious.

Why does this happen? Over the years, we’ve actually trained our nervous systems so they become like a fine tuned instrument. Our environments play a key factor in this tuning. If you had a parent who was consistently looking for danger around every corner, your nervous system became fine tuned to it.  If you lived in an environment where you weren’t emotionally or physically safe, your nervous system may have become fine tuned to even the slightest glimpse of disdain in your partner’s face.  It need not be from a traumatic event, just everyday life stressors can lead us to develop nervous systems that are constantly on the lookout for what could go wrong and how to prevent it. 

 Thankfully, just like most cells in our bodies, our nervous systems can be regenerated.  There are brain and body based therapies that can do just that, but here’s a quick intro into into a simple body/brain based anxiety intervention.  Next time you encounter a situation where there is chaos on the outside but you desire peace on the inside, plant your feet firmly on the ground, sit up tall (even better if your back is up against a chair). Push your feet into the floor and notice the solid ground beneath you.  This is called anchoring. Breathe in slowly to a count of 4, hold it and then breathe out to a count of 4.  While you’re doing this, focus on these words, “I have what I need for this moment. What I’m worried about may or may not happen, but I’m resilient and I can handle it.”  Some offer this as a prayer of sorts: “Thank you God for giving me everything I need in this moment. What I’m worried about may or may not happen, but You are with me, and together we can face whatever comes our way.”

Seems simple, but by doing that small exercise you have activated the “brakes” portion of your nervous system.  Even the physical act of breathing in and releasing it sends a message to the nervous system to let go of the death grip of control we may have on the situation.  From that regulated place, we can actually make active decisions that will be helpful, not just frazzled reactions. When you choose to pause and re-frame your external situations like this often, it becomes more of your default mode and your nervous system follows suit.  It takes time but you’ll see the benefits if you do it consistently. 

It’s important to use a comprehensive approach in treating anxiety. We are comprised of body, soul and spirit, so taking into consideration each facet of our being is important. Check out this weeks Positive Talk Podcast episode (dropping Thursday 12/16) for additional information about how to integrate peace into your physical, emotional and spiritual life.