Originally published on Medium.com on December 21, 2019
Where Do Our Anxious Feelings Come From?
We all experience anxiety differently. For some of us, it comes in the form of remembering that we haven’t finished our holiday shopping and might not get it all done in time. For others, it’s spurred by endlessly rehearsing and overthinking important, upcoming events and situations. And for others still, it arrives for no reason at all. This last case is one of the most challenging forms of anxiety, and it’s what I’d like to spend most of this post discussing.
No matter the exact way by which your anxiety manifests, it ultimately comes from one of two places: your mind or your body. That is, either you chew over fearful thoughts and send yourself into an anxious spiral, or your body’s fight-or-flight system engages and makes you feel anxious through various physical symptoms.
The interesting thing about these two sources is that they work in tandem. What I mean by that is, if your anxiety begins in your body — through physical symptoms such as sweaty palms or constricted airways — it typically moves quickly to invade your mind, forcing you into patterns of negative, looping thinking.
Or, if your anxiety instead begins with negative thinking, it’s usually not long before said thinking leads to physical manifestations of fear — a racing heart, trouble catching your breath, etc.
In both cases, at least until we break the cycle, the anxiety intensifies as it jumps between these physical and mental realms. To make what I’m saying here a bit more concrete, let’s take a look at a couple hypothetical examples — the first starting with the physical side of things and the second starting with the mental.
Let’s say your heart starts racing, seemingly, out of nowhere. This terrifies you. In turn, you jump into your head and ask yourself, “Why the heck is my heart racing? Is something wrong?” This creates more uncertainty in your body, which, indirectly, causes your heart to race even faster. And that, in turn, propels you back into your head, where the process begins again.
Or, let’s pretend you had an important math test yesterday. You start to worry that you failed the big exam and wonder what that might mean for your future. That worry sends your body into overdrive, causing your palms to sweat in the process. This scares you and pushes you to worry about two things now — the math test and the perspiration. In response, your body kicks off even more scary, physical symptoms, and the cycle continues.
Though these are of course just hypothetical examples, they highlight an important concept in fear — something I call the anxiety synergy. I talked about this phenomenon at length in my first book, Get Out of Your Head.* I use this term, and the word synergy, because, as I just explained, the mind and body often act together to create more anxiety than they could if they instead acted independently of one another.
Though it’s never easy to pull ourselves out of fearful states, I sometimes find that reminding myself of how the synergy works can provide me the permission I need to break this cycle of increasingly more intense physical symptoms and negative thoughts.
For example, when I say to myself, “My palms are sweating even harder now simply because I started worrying about them sweating in the first place,” I tell my mind and body that what’s happening is okay. That usually cuts the legs out from under my negative thoughts, which in turn, puts my mind at ease, and, eventually, allows my body to return to calm.
One of the most difficult things about implementing such a solution, however, is that we don’t always have a specific source we can label as the cause of our anxiety. When we have such a source attributed, we can often stifle, if not turn off, our fear circuits fairly quickly. However, when we don’t have that source, it can be pretty difficult to do so.
For example, if we’re concerned about our unreliable car breaking down on the way to an important work meeting, we can remind ourselves that it’s just our vehicle, and our thoughts about it, that are making us anxious; nothing has actually happened to the car just yet. Simply cut off the thinking, and we’ll likely also weaken the synergy and the anxiety associated with it.
However, when we’re nervous for what appears to be no reason at all, it’s much harder to engage in this sort of practical, methodical thought suppression. Without an explainable reason for our anxiety, our minds begin searching, worriedly and endlessly, for the cause of our fear. And, as such, the synergy often expands.
Digging Into Out-Of-Nowhere Fear
As I write various pieces of content, be it a book chapter or blog post, I’m constantly talking to new folks to understand how fear manifests in their own lives. I find that it not only helps me come up with new ideas, but also makes me more empathetic to the multitude of ways anxiety can rear its ugly head.
As of late, one of the common threads in my conversations has been this concept that anxiety sometimes arises, seemingly, out of nowhere. During a recent chat, one woman I spoke with described it like this: “It’s this gripping sensation — just my stomach turning out of nowhere, then my heart racing. It’s this feeling like something is terribly wrong, even when it’s not. I don’t know where it comes from or why it occurs, and that makes me even more anxious.” I think many of us can relate to this sort of experience; it’s a terrifying and unsettling one.
Again, though it’s not necessarily easy to pull ourselves out of any anxious state, I think these ones, where we can’t identify what we’re anxious about, are likely the most difficult at all. If we could attribute our fear to something, then we’d likely have a reason for making it go away; saying something like, “Oh that’s just me fretting over getting all my work done,” goes a long way at calming our nerves. But, especially in these out-of-nowhere cases, we can’t always do that — at least not with some other solution on our side.
Luckily, there is a solution, or, at least, an explanation. That explanation dictates that, for many anxious people, the brain’s fear circuits (which include, but are not limited to, various structures such as the amygdala) tend to be somewhat overactive. As such, they often send us fear-related signals even when there’s nothing in front of us over which to be anxious. Though this might seem like a frustrating or not-so-helpful explanation at first, there’s more to it than meets the eye.
In reality, this is the attribution we’re often looking for. It’s the explanation we can point to when fear takes ahold out of nowhere. Now, instead of feeling our stomachs turn and immediately jumping into our heads, we can step back and say, “I’m anxious for no reason, and that’s not a cause for concern. Sometimes my body just does this. It doesn’t necessarily mean something is wrong and it isn’t an invitation to jump into my head and make this whole thing worse.”
This kind of thinking gives us the same permission as any other attribution of fear — it helps make us feel like we’re not crazy and typically allows us to shut off the rumination associated with the anxiety. This, in turn, often powers down the synergy shortly thereafter. And that, regardless of where our anxiety actually arose from, is all we really care about once we’ve fallen down the spiral of fear.
Thanks for reading! Curious to learn more?
Then grab a copy of my book, Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety.* It covers many of the topics I discuss in my blog posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear. Check it out if you’re looking to level-up your anxiety-alleviating skills.
Or, if you’re not yet ready to jump into the book, head on over to some of my other articles on managing anxiety:
Five Effective Ways to Mitigate Coronavirus Anxiety
There’s Nothing Wrong with Having Negative Thoughts
*Disclaimer: The above links are affiliate URLs, which pay me a small commission when readers make purchases through them.
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