“Anxiety is a body event.”
Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.
As a clinician in private practice, one of the phrases that I hear myself saying over and over, often in this way is this: “Remember, anxiety is a body event.”
So what does this mean?
First, this statement, “anxiety is a body event”, reminds us that when we feel anxiety, it is made up of physical sensations. While you may not have all of the symptoms, people often describe an increased heart rate, sweating, tingling fingers, chest tightening, chest pain, nausea or pain in their stomach, feeling hot, and changes in breathing that usually show up like quick, short breaths.
These symptoms are often followed along by a deep sense of fear, of feeling closed in and needing to get out. You may feel as if you are about to die. This can also show up like an overwhelming irritability that may lead you to lash out at people around you. Anxiety is about “fight or flight”, so some of us are likely to want to run . . . and some of us get ready for a fight.
And all of this is NORMAL and NATURAL; we need this system! The problem is that this system has been triggered by some internal or external event that has bypassed your “thinking” brain and is talking directly to your body first. This reaction is about survival, and correct or not, your lower brain has decided to pull the switch to help you live through whatever is happening.
Depending on who the client is, sometimes we will take crayons or a pen and draw our nervous system together, linking our anxious brain with our lungs, our heart, our muscles, making a stop by the adrenal glands sitting on top of the kidneys, all the way down to our feet, since running is something that anxiety will often lead us to want to do.
So with that understanding of how anxiety, something that starts in our brain, affects our body, that leads me to the perhaps more important place.
Second, this statement, “anxiety is a body event”, reminds us that we need to talk to our body first before we talk to our “thinking” brain.
It is a common mistake. I see lots of parents who try to reason with their child that “No, there is a not a monster under the bed.” The child remains scared, so the parent thinks that saying this LOUDER and THREATENING some punishment will surely make this situation go away. At that point, the child has probably gone into “freeze” mode due to the anxiety getting worse, not better.
And even though I have used the example of child and adult, you can easily see where this happens between two adults, especially adults in a relationship. I will often have the spouse come in with a patient to learn about what anxiety is so that they can respond in a way that helps the situation be better, not worse.
This is why interventions with anxiety are often activities like focusing on the breath in your belly, taking a warm bath or shower, taking a walk, petting the dog, getting or receiving a hug.
The body only understands soothing and calming, not communication filled with words like “But that isn’t real!” or “For the last time, you are not about to die!” Even though anxiety sometimes starts in the thoughts, most often the future-oriented, “what if” variety, it proceeds to the physical very quickly. The physical body is where the intervention must first be targeted.
So with all that “in mind”, remember that anxiety is a body event. We feel it physically, but that also means that the key to working through it in therapy and at home is physical too.
If you are interested in the subject of anxiety, my wife and I have a book forthcoming from Kregel Publications. Go here to follow the progress. Release date is expected to be Fall 2020.