Anxiety is nothing new. In fact, it’s a problem shared by thousands of people across Vancouver, the Lower Mainland, and the entire world. But right now, anxiety is more common than ever, in light of the ongoing crises our communities are facing together.
Put simply, anxiety is the body’s response to perceived threat. Sometimes, anxiety may mobilize us in productive ways, for example, spurring us to study for a test when we’re aware of the threat of failing. But anxiety can feel terribly unproductive and uncomfortable when it’s in response to a threat that we can’t do much about. Our “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system is activated — and yet, with no clear outlet.
Painfully, there are plenty of these perceived threats around right now, which we may feel we can do very little or nothing to alleviate. Stressors like COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and climate change pose very real threats to our health and livelihood. The contentious public debate around these issues can also become yet another stressor, leading many people to fear conflict with friends and family, social rejection, or isolation.
Identifying Feelings of Anxiety
The good news is that typically, anxiety is not an urgent medical concern. It can even be managed independently — but that starts with getting in touch with your body, and recognizing your symptoms of anxiety for what they are.
Some common, telltale symptoms that you might be experiencing anxiety include:
- Shallow breathing
- Difficulty focusing or concentrating
- Difficulty sleeping
- Rapid or racing thoughts
- Muscle tension
- Rapid heart rate
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Dysregulated emotions that feel hard to control, like bursts of sadness or anger
- Feeling unsafe or having a sense of impending danger
Tracking and working with some of these physiological responses can be very helpful. However, if you’re new to this kind of self-guided work, I suggest trying it out in the presence of another safe, trusted person. The regulation needed to ease anxiety is much more accessible in connection with someone else. When we’re connected to another regulation becomes co-regulation, and we can collectively manage a much bigger load, often leading to a faster and easier resolution of anxiety.
Managing Anxiety Independently
Once you’re aware that you’re experiencing anxiety, it is possible to manage and respond to it on your own. While the guidance of a therapist or counsellor may be needed earlier on in your work with anxiety, as you progress it can be very empowering and useful to cultivate independent regulation practices that allow you to identify and manage anxiety, particularly when you find it to be holding you back at work, at home, and in social situations.
Here are a few self-guided practices that I’ve found helpful for myself and my clients who are experiencing anxiety.
- Self-compassion: Judging our experience of anxiety is likely to increase that anxiety. When we see our anxiety as “annoying” or “meaningless” we perceive it as a threat, worsening the cycle of our body’s fight-or-flight response! Instead, we must come to see our anxiety as information that needs to be heard and understood, and compassionately respond to it as an indication of some kind of suffering.
- Grounding: Anxiety is the experience of “too much too fast” in our system. Grounding strategies slow our nervous system, bringing us back into regulation and presence.
- Breathwork: Breathwork is another avenue for slowing the nervous system. It can be particularly helpful in more acute experiences of anxiety, or as a daily preventative practice.
- Spirituality: Having a set of spiritual principles that guide your life can be a helpful way to not only make meaning of your anxiety, but also gain a sense of power to work with it. Many of the experiences that create anxiety and distress in our adult lives, are connected to patterns or themes that require greater attention. A perspective on suffering that opens us to see anxiety as a messenger, pointing us towards the source of the message, liberates us to begin to track our anxiety differently. We may begin to notice when we shift from settled to anxious, and how we notice that shift in our bodies, all of which increases our sense of inner sight and leads to opportunities for healing and expansion.
- Journaling: Journaling allows us to begin to have a conversation with our anxiety. Through journaling, we are tracking when it began, intuiting what it may be about, and meeting it more lovingly.
These strategies work by inviting us to connect more deeply with our body, allowing it to reveal what the anxiety is trying to communicate.
If that sounds like a confusing idea, imagine the anxiety as a friend, persistently knocking at the door when we’d rather stay on the couch and ignore it. If we can muster the willingness to get up and say “Okay, I’m here to listen. What do you need?” we can often begin to get some guidance.
Treating Anxiety with Therapy and Counselling
Treating, rather than simply managing, anxiety tends to come back to allowing its root cause to emerge. For that reason, I recommend trying these techniques alongside therapy, to provide a safe and healthy space to process what these techniques uncover.
Even though anxiety is usually not a medical emergency, sometimes it is best to seek professional treatment, especially for anxiety that becomes chronic or persistent. Chronic anxiety, if unaddressed, can manifest as more serious or chronic health issues like digestive issues, body pain, or dental issues due to clenching and grinding. It can also cause difficulties in the workplace or with relationships, and overall impact our quality of life.
A Safe Space to Work Through Anxiety
Whether your anxiety is mild or moderate, chronic or a more recent concern, there are tools and resources to help you manage it — either with support from professionals, or on your own.
If you’re one of the thousands of people across Greater Vancouver experiencing anxiety, we invite you to try out these self-guided strategies for managing it. Then, reach out and book an appointment at Shoreline Counselling if you’d like to dig a little deeper and talk through what could be causing your anxiety.