Psychologist comforting his patient

By Veronica Sanchez, AMFT

Psychologist comforting his patient

If you take a poll among friends and family about what anxiety is, you might get answers like:

“It’s when I wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.”

“It’s feeling like I can’t sit still.”

“It’s uncomfortable.”

“I don’t know. I don’t have anxiety.”

Well, yes. However, anxiety is so much more. For many of us, we weren’t taught about anxiety or what it feels like and much less how to regulate it. Anxiety is a physiological sensation in the body. It’s not a thought. It’s not an emotion. So, let’s try to normalize the experience, learn to identify it, and maybe even choose to regulate it from time to time.

On a very basic level, our anxiety operates like a storm-warning flag, to let us know that something is going on, sometimes there is a real physical threat and the anxiety mobilizes us to protect ourselves physically, but more often, anxiety warms us of a potential emotional threat. For reasons based on our individual histories, certain emotions feel forbidden, and anxiety enters the picture to try to cover-up those “dangerous” emotions.

There are three primary ways anxiety shows up in our bodies.  We call these pathways of anxiety discharge. The first pathway or level is called striated muscle anxiety involving the muscles we have control over. Striated anxiety includes tension in the body, shoulders, neck, and jaw; hand clenching; tension headaches or fidgetiness. This anxiety pathway is not really a problem, it feels uncomfortable, but we can work, study, and thrive through this type of anxiety.  This is that healthy warning sign that something is being mobilized and we should investigate further.  We don’t necessarily need to regulate anxiety that is showing up in our striated muscles.

The next anxiety pathway of discharge is in the smooth muscles – the muscles over which we don’t have control. Smooth muscle anxiety might show-up as nausea, gastrointestinal issues; sweaty hands or palms; skin tingling, itchiness, or prickling; migraine headaches or “jelly legs.”  Any of this sounding familiar?  If so, you have experienced anxiety that is over threshold and would benefit from being regulated so you can operate most effectively in your life.

The last pathway of anxiety discharge is cognitive perceptual disruption (CPD). This type of anxiety will have us experiencing sensations like disassociating, going blank, losing track of words; blurry vision; ringing in the ears; dizziness and even hallucinations. A person may even appear physically calm but is cognitively confused in this highest level of anxiety.  In this state, we need to stop and ground into our environment and breathe in order to regulate our anxiety in our bodies.

Just as a reference point here, I’ll offer what my anxiety looks like when I’m experiencing uncomfortable, mixed emotions. My baseline anxiety is within the striated pathway, I usually trek along my day experiencing tension in my shoulders and upper back with fidgetiness or the occasional urge to move. Now, when my anxiety goes past my baseline, I notice my breathing becomes short & shallow and I’m off to the races experiencing sensations of CPD including light-headedness, going blank and the occasional detaching. It’s normal. It’s anxiety. And, if you’re among the living, you’re experiencing it occasionally or maybe regularly.

The first step to regulating anxiety is understanding what anxiety is so we can attune to ourselves and address it.  If you’d like to learn more and better understand how you can take control of your anxiety let me know! I’m Veronica, thanks for sharing some space with me today.

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