No doubt many people have been feeling unsafe in a world of uncertainty the past year. With the invisible threat of COVID-19 swirling the planet, it’s safe to say even those who typically feel secure have been on edge.
This brings me to the topic of anxiety, which is an emotion that’s off the charts in recent years. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health diagnosis.
Here are a few statistics that may interest you:
- Over 40 million people over the age of 18 in the U.S. have been diagnosed with at least one anxiety disorder.
- Less than 40 percent of that 40 million actually commit to long-term treatment to manage or overcome the anxiety.
- Those that are diagnosed with an anxiety disorder at up to five times more likely to be admitted into the hospital with some sort of psychiatric illness.
That’s a lot of people struggling with high levels of anxiety – and many are not doing much to try to manage it.
Now, there are many millions more who struggle with high levels of anxiety who haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Many of them have never even stepped foot in a psychiatric or mental health facility to discuss their anxiety levels.
They simply live life with intense anxiety, or “chronic survival mode”, and quite honestly, their quality of life suffers because of it.
Neuroplasticity: What Is It & Why Should We Care?
According to Wikipedia, neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to change throughout life through growth and reorganization.
It is the ability of the brain to be rewired in better, healthier ways.
For those that struggle with anxiety, this is great news.
To put it simply, if you’re struggling with higher levels of anxiety, your nervous system and brain have learned to remain in “survival mode”. Even though you’re not necessarily in dangerous situations (like being eaten by a tiger or crushed in an avalanche), your nervous system thinks you are.
It’s adapted to life in hypervigilant mode, always on the lookout for danger. It’s thinking it is in danger and shoots a chemical cocktail through your body that makes you feel “anxiety”.
Now, that’s great if you truly are in danger. If a bee is zoning in to get me, I want that chemical cocktail to boost my adrenaline to get me out of there, fast!
But many who report high anxiety aren’t really in dire or life-threatening circumstances.
But their brain/nervous system thinks they are.
The newer science of neuroplasticity says you can work toward rewiring those neural pathways in your brain that automatically think danger is lurking around every corner.
It takes time, effort, and likely some expert help, but it’s possible.
Learning, Growing, and Healing Anxiety
I won’t get into all the “whys” of how you may have become ultra-anxious. Reasons could range from early childhood trauma, abuse, neglect, insecure attachment style, accidents, chronic stress, lifestyle choices, and more.
Many people struggle with high levels of anxiety because they are on the go all the time. In a world where hustle is perceived as “successful”, it’s not hard to immerse yourself in work, activities, and more activities and never really stop to check in with your body.
When is that last time you paused and checked in with your nervous system to see if its hyper aroused, hypervigilant, or stuck in the “fight, flight, or freeze”/ stress response?
How many times a day do you pause, do a body scan to see what’s going on in your thought life and body?
It’s easy to just get stuck on autopilot, running, ruminating, pushing it, escaping, numbing out – you get the idea.
But, we can change this.
Feeling The Anxiety
The sensations of anxiety used to make me feel like I was going to die. I would do all that I could to NOT feel it: Repress, get busy doing something, or disconnect completely from my emotions. (Space out, shut down, go elsewhere in my mind, etc.)
But once I started learning that the sensation of anxiety is just that – sensations – I started learning how to feel it, be with it, and let it pass through my body, so-to-speak. I am learning to relax into it, not judge it, and at the same time remind myself (my nervous system) that it is safe.
I am taking the time to breathe slowly, deeply, which also helps me calm that anxiety.
I am taking a season to learn more about managing anxiety by getting in touch with my thoughts AND my body. Learning tips, tricks, and techniques to help rewire my own brain and let my nervous system relax more often.
If there’s one thing I think the pandemic is prompting us all to do is look at some of the things we’ve been repressing or avoiding for a long time – anxiety being one.
Working With A Professional
Not everyone can manage or overcome high levels of anxiety on their own. If you’re struggling with the kind of anxiety that keeps you hibernating at home, self-medicating with alcohol or drug, disconnecting from your emotions (shutting down, zoning out, etc.), then you may want to reach out to a therapist or somatic experiencing practitioner who specializes in treating anxiety and/or trauma.
There are many techniques that can help you begin working through that anxiety, and laying down new neural pathways in your brain that help you feel more calm.
You don’t have to go through life letting anxiety keep you from living your best life. Our bodies are very intelligent, and anxiety does play an important role for survival. But if that anxiety has gotten out of hand, that’s your body giving you a message to get in there and do some inner healing work at the mind, body, and spirit level.
Stay tuned in future articles for more practical tips and techniques for decreasing anxiety levels.
For now, go check out this informative article to learn more about rewiring the anxious brain: