What does anxiety look like? Recognizing the signs and taking control
Updated: Mar 15
Have you ever noticed how your body responds to anxiety? Think about a time you were anxious, make a list. Although every one of us is unique, here is a general list of common symptoms. Your may list may have some or all of these, or perhaps some different ones not listed.
Rapid or pounding heart rate, palpitations and chest pain
Trembling, shaking or twitches
Sensations of shortness of breath
Feelings of choking
Feeling dizzy, unsteady, or lightheaded
Frequent trips to the bathroom
Did you know that your body is responding to your anxiety before your brain has had a chance to process your environment and/or thoughts? Recognizing these signs can be one of your best tools in taking control of your anxiety before it takes control of you.
If you’ve been in an anxiety-reduced response for some time it’s likely that you could be living on hyper alert; sensitive to sounds, smells and other stimuli. In times like this, we may use distorted thinking patterns to interpret information. For example when I was younger I was attacked by a dog, and my brain interpreted the information that dogs are dangerous. After that, when I came into contact with a dog, whether they were or weren’t dangerous ceased to matter. Based on my experience, I would always and instinctively interpret any dog as dangerous. Any situation where I might be exposed to a perceived threat my body would be responsive, on hyper alert.
Let’s say I’m going for a walk outside, I might be shaky, I might have racing thoughts or images, my heart would beat fast, I might have sweaty palms, tingling sensations, tightness in the chest, headache, nausea, or the feeling of a weighted brick on my chest. Those are some examples, there are many more and symptoms are unique to each person. My relationship with anxiety has been ongoing throughout much of my adult life, although I am happy to report it is nearly nonexistent now! When you can become aware of how your body responds to the perceived threat you can start to reduce the physical symptoms, then our brains respond creating more rational thinking patterns that make logical sense to why we're feeling the way we're feeling.
Recognizing the signs is one thing, how do we reduce the symptoms?
Take a deep inhale for 4 seconds. Hold it for 4 seconds. And exhale for 4 seconds. Do this several times in an effort to reduce some of the physical sensations. This is called foursquare breathing. Another breathing technique, is called candle breathing. Take a deep breath in, keep going in until you can't anymore, and then exhale very slowly. Imagine you are gently and consistently flickering the flame on a candle. Try to make your breath last 20 seconds or more.
If you’re feeling tense, focus on the body part that feels tense. As you breathe in, engage those muscles, and as you exhale relax that muscle group very gently. For example, if you’re feeling tense in your shoulders, take a deep breath in and squeeze your shoulder blades together. As you exhale release the tension in your shoulders and imagine the breath giving much-needed oxygen to the muscles in your shoulders. Do this a couple times for each muscle group where you’re experiencing tension. Allow the oxygen in your breath to go to each of the muscle groups creating a space of calmness.
Often when we’re anxious we are recycling all the adrenaline coming from that fight or flight response. It's much better to get that toxicity out! Stand up and relax, imagine there are roots growing from your feet reaching down, deep into the ground. Imagine that you are taking this anxious energy and releasing it into the planet, allowing the planet to take this energy because it no longer serves you.
You can also run! Don't think about it, just go! Run around the block, up and down the stairs five times, do some jumping jacks, go for a bike ride, or anything else that speed your heart rate. Exercise and other physical activity produces endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers. Regular exercise can alleviate chronic anxiety and reduce the frequency and severity of panic attacks, but in moments where you are recognizing the signs and need a quick dose of endorphins, this is an awesome tool to keep in your back pocket.
The amygdala is the piece of the brain that regulates emotions such as sadness, anger, fear, control and aggression. It’s purpose is to communicate incoming messages to the rest of your brain and body. For example, we interpret something as fear, our body responds with shaky hands, racing heart, and shallow breathing. When we are experiencing this fight or flight response our amygdala grows. The amygdala stores memories of fearful events by remembering our body's responses. When we practice meditation we are shrinking the amygdala, and the prefrontal cortex (which is responsible for the higher functions of the brain such as awareness, concentration, and decision making) actually becomes thicker. When we tune in and recognize our body’s physical sensations we gain control over how are are able to respond to the perceived danger or threat. The more you practice meditation, the more readily available the skills of being present will be.
While we experience a great deal of anxiety in our beautiful and complex minds, our physiological responses to anxiety are concrete and measurable. They are also key in taking the reigns during stressful moments and triggers. Recognizing your symptoms and using techniques that work for you to calm yourself is incredibly empowering in itself. This is an ever evolving process, try to embrace it.