By Veronica Sanchez, LMFT
Chances are you know someone with an anxiety disorder. After all, 40 million U.S. adults suffer from anxiety. If you took a poll of your friends and family and asked them “What is anxiety?” and “What does anxiety feel like?” you’d like 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.”
While these answers are true, anxiety goes well beyond the uncomfortable feelings. In fact, many of us don’t have a full understanding of anxiety which means those friends and family members who answer, “I don’t know, I don’t have anxiety,” may not be entirely accurate.
What is Anxiety, Exactly?
First things first, let’s talk about what anxiety is not.
Anxiety is not a thought.
Anxiety is not an emotion.
Rather, anxiety is a physiological sensation in the body – it’s your body’s natural response to stress. (Yes, that’s right, it’s natural.) If you’ve ever felt anxiety, you know it’s not something you choose. It’s something your body does on its own.
So let’s try to normalize the experience, learn to identify it, and perhaps even choose to regulate it from time to time. Not to mention, there are also several different types of anxiety and treatments available. However, let’s discuss the basics of anxiety:
Understanding Anxiety and Why It Happens
On a basic level, anxiety operates like a storm-warning flag. It lets us know something is up and we need to pay attention. Sometimes there is a real physical threat. In this case, anxiety mobilizes us to protect ourselves physically.
But more often, anxiety warns us of a potential emotional threat. What exactly is an emotional threat? Well, based on our past circumstances, some emotions may feel “forbidden” and “dangerous.” When these emotions rise to the surface, your anxiety gets to work trying to cover them up.
Symptoms of Anxiety
Understanding anxiety means first you have to be able to identify it when it presents itself. There are three primary ways anxiety shows up in your body. In the medical field, we call these presentations the “pathways of anxiety discharge.”
Striated Muscle Anxiety
This first pathway of anxiety discharge involves the muscles you have control over and is perfectly natural when faced with possible physical and emotional “danger.”
Symptoms of striated anxiety include:
- Tension in the body, shoulders, neck, and jaw
- Tension headaches
Striated muscle anxiety typically isn’t a problem. Yes, it feels uncomfortable, but you can work, study, and thrive just fine with it. Think of it as a healthy warning sign that something in your body is mobilizing and you may need to investigate your situation further.
You don’t necessarily need to regulate anxiety that shows up in our striated muscles. (Again, it’s normal and healthy!)
Smooth Muscle Anxiety
The next anxiety pathway of discharge is in the smooth muscles – the muscles over you don’t have control over. Smooth muscle anxiety may show up as:
- Gastrointestinal issues
- Sweaty hands or palms
- Tingling Skin
- Itchiness, or prickling
- Migraine headaches
- “Jelly legs”
Do any of these symptoms of anxiety sound familiar? If so, you’ve experienced anxiety over the threshold. It also means you’d benefit from anxiety regulation so you can live your life without anxiety being a burden.
Cognitive Perceptual Disruption (CPD)
The last pathway of anxiety discharge is the most involved. The symptoms of this higher level of anxiety include:
- Going blank
- Losing track of words
- Blurry vision
- Ringing in your ears
With CPD, you could appear physically calm but inside, things are far from calm. Cognitive confusion is the highest level of anxiety. In this state, you must stop, ground into your environment, and breathe to regulate your body, mind, and anxiety.
So What Does Anxiety Feel Like?
While everyone’s anxiety may present itself a little differently, I’ll give you an idea of what my anxiety feels like, just as a reference.
When I experience uncomfortable, mixed emotions, my baseline anxiety stays within the striated pathway. If I’m feeling anxiety, I usually go about my day experiencing tension in my shoulders and upper back. I’ll fidget or feel like I have to move.
But when my anxiety goes past my baseline, or threshold, I notice breathing changes. My breath becomes short and shallow. Then I’m off to the races, experiencing CPD sensations like light-headedness, going blank, and the occasional detached feeling.
It’s normal. It’s anxiety. And, if you’re among the living, you’ve experienced it. Perhaps you’ve felt it occasionally, or maybe it’s a regular occurrence.
Whatever the case, if anxiety disrupts your life, getting help may be a good idea. There are several options to help you regulate anxiety. Some include medication, some can help you learn to identify and manage it without medication. One way we can help is through our IOP San Diego treatment program.
Intensive Outpatient Care in San Diego
Here at BOLD Health, we specialize in helping people just like you with self-improvement, self-realization to overcome emotional obstacles like anxiety. We understand the impact it has on your everyday life, and our team of mental health professionals knows just how to help.
Our Intensive Outpatient Care San Diego program (IOP San Diego), is a 10-week outpatient program to help you identify your anxiety, its triggers, and how you can positively respond when it rears its uncomfortable head. Understanding anxiety is easier than you think. (Not to mention, your anxiety is perfectly natural. Did we say that already?)
Veronica Sanchez, LMFT, is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist at BOLD Health. She provides safe and compassionate therapy for groups and individuals experiencing a range of mental health issues including anxiety disorders. Veronica works alongside our team of mental health experts to provide quality intensive outpatient care in our IOP San Diego treatment program.