In the first part of this series ‘Why are mornings so difficult?’, I explored what happens through the night and how mornings can be one of the prime times for anxiety, leading to what I have called the Torch or Torture.
Today I want to talk about the anxiety itself. I would imagine that if you are reading this then you have certainly felt as though your anxiety is really difficult, perhaps overwhelming, maybe even crippling? Anxiety can feel as if it owns us, as if all we are is anxiety. When it feels like this there is a sense of ‘this is all I am...anxiety’ and this can lead to thoughts of feeling useless, not good enough, incapable. What starts as a set of feelings which may become over powering, can end with us questioning our very selves, asking ‘What is the point?’. Ultimately this may lead to depression and suicide ideation, self harm or even suicide attempts. You may be left feeling very alone and isolated.
The anxiety can seem as though it is powerful, almost controlling (something I will return to in another part of this series) almost as though it is a ‘thing’ in itself. It can feel so very bad, so very painful. It may be so powerful that makes things so difficult if not impossible.
I know this because I have suffered from it like this myself! In fact it is part of the reason I wanted to be a counselling, to support others dealing with this! Here is the first saving grace, you are not alone!
Anxiety itself is a warning system. A communication to make our bodies and minds alert to perceived danger. It is a physiological response to this perceived danger in which our heart beats faster, our muscles tense and we become hyper alert. It has developed evolutionarily to increase our chances of survival! It gets us ready to face this danger! In getting us ready it has two main ways of getting us to respond to danger.
The fight or flight response
There is much on the internet about these two systems which are our bodies ways of dealing with danger. We either get ready to fight or we get ready to flee danger. We either fight it or we run away from it, either in the hope of keeping us safe and prolonging our existence.
I want to take a look here at what things go on in our bodies when this ‘system’ kicks in:
heart rate increases and at the same time some blood vessels dilate (open up wider to facilitate the greater blood flow).
We feel our heart pounding much faster. We can at times feel a sense of light headedness. The purpose of this is to provide more oxygen to our body parts which is the energy source they need to react fast!
Our lungs have small vessels in them that receive the air we breath in. These dilate (get larger) so we can take in more oxygen to feed the system which is now more demanding!
We start to breath faster and, in line with our heart beating faster, can feel overwhelming, as if we are having a heart attack.
Our liver now has to work a little harder to covert more glycogen (a complex structure of energy stored in the liver) into glucose (a simple energy source) so that our body has as much energy as it can to either fight or flee.
The aim of this is to provide our mind and body with more energy so we are better equipped to be ready to deal with the danger.
Even our ours are included in the anxiety response as our pupils dilate (become bigger)
This facilitates us being more ‘aware’ as more light is let in so we are better able to see the dangers around us.
As blood is pushed more towards the systems that need it most such as our muscles, blood to our skin is reduced as momentarily, this is not as important.
We can seem pale or flushed in appearance.
To deal with all of the above changes, our circulation works harder to manage supply of nutrients to the essential parts of our body required for fight or flight.
Our bodies are supplied with more oxygen however after this, we can feel light headed and even sick.
Anxiety therefore is a way to keep us safe and alive!
I hear you shouting at this now! Why, because I know it feels anything other than safe or alive. In some experiences, it can feel the absolute opposite of these two things! If you think about all the things going on when anxiety kicks in, it is no wonder we feel uncomfortable, even frightened!
Mornings (and nights...or anytime for some!)
If we now think about the anxiety we have in the morning when, for many, it is at its worst, perhaps we can start to see that our bodies are getting ready, instantly upon waking, to face the perceived danger!
For some people, the feelings that come from all of the above changes shown in the table, perhaps never really go away!
If you look back through what is written above, I refer to the thing we are preparing ourselves for is a perceived danger. I call it this because more often than not, the things we fear (the perceived danger) is a fear of what we think is most likely to happen, not what actually will happen. So what is feared, what gets us into this state and sometimes can keep us here is a prediction. A prediction that something bad or wrong will happen.
When we wake in the morning (or when it is quiet at night), when the distractions are not around to divert our attention (for some there is no diversion or distraction that works), we are left with an overpowering sense of these predictions that confirm to us that things will not go well.
If this situation persists for prolonged periods of time, it can have a devastating effect on our mental health and our lives.
I know that I felt so many negative things when I found my anxiety overwhelming. I felt damaged, broken, that there was something wrong with me which led me to feeling I would never be good at work, nobody would like ‘this’, nobody cares! This how anxiety can then lead to depression and the two will literally ‘feed’ the other.
If we think about what I called the ‘torch of torture’, when we get absorbed into the anxiety/depression cycle, the torch of torture will mean we will, as our anxiety has prepared us to, be hyper-vigilant to evidence that things are bad or wrong. We find ways to prove our worries!
In the previous article to this series, I talked about how the anxiety/depression cycle is often the result of unresolved psychological conflict. In other words, we may have been faced with something traumatic earlier ion our lives which we could not ‘resolve’, we could not at that time, find a suitable solution that would have made us ‘alright’! This can have such a deep impact upon us that can stay with us for a lifetime, often effecting us negatively.
Where I talked about the perceived danger, it is more often than not a ‘danger’ from our past, often childhood, that we feel will catch us out at any time! If we think about the conflicts we could not find a solution to when we were a child, it is these that we actually fear, as if they will happen again and again we will not be able to cope with them...almost as though we will disintegrate! Perhaps these felt so painful emotionally that you felt totally at sea back then, helpless in your pain and trauma? So, in having such unresolved conflicts, we constantly must be ready for the perceived danger!
Get to know the fear
This may seem ridiculous to read initially! I can imagine many readers may be thinking such things as ‘Know it...I live with it moment to moment!’, ‘I want to get rid of it, not get to know it!’.
Those living with anxiety often seek to get rid of it, think of it as bad, horrible. I get it, it feels awful, I know. But what we are saying to ourselves here is that we wish to get rid of a part of us. There is a part of us that is bad, dangerous, perhaps destructive? If we think that of ourselves, how can we ever feel good enough?
Also, in getting to know it better, to listen to what it is telling us, we can start to understand what it is trying to warn us of, this perceived danger. It may tell us that we will fail, or we will not cope at work, that people will not like us, our partner is going to hate me, I am not good enough! In fact I challenge you to write down every single thought or feeling that comes up for you when the anxiety is at its worst!
Once we can get to know it better we can have a far clearer picture of what is afraid of, or warning of, or what we are angry about.
This can take some time to truly get to know it, but I feel as someone who has suffered with crippling anxiety and who has become a counsellor, it is a worth while journey!
I like to look at things simply, I am a simple person and if I can understand a basic outline of something then I can feel able to understand the deeper details. So here goes with a very simplified version;
Imagine you are an infant, very young, perhaps below five. You have not yet learnt the emotional and practical skills you need to get on in the world. You still rely heavily on your caregiver for emotional and physical support. You need your caregiver to survive and protect you. Now imagine one day you are happily playing and someone comes up to you and scares you. Really frightens you. Perhaps an older child or another adult. They confront you simply by asking you a question. You become terrified. You have been warned about strangers and they are asking you something you cannot answer. You become absolutely petrified in that moment. You quickly look around for you parent/caregiver, to find some safety, some help and support and they are nowhere to be seen. You experience all of the fight and flight reactions noted above. They are overwhelming. You feel so afraid, so helpless, so frozen, so very vulnerable, so alone. Eventually the stranger goes away, however you are left with all of these overwhelming feelings and you parent/caregiver was not there. You later tell them what happened and they comfort you but, it is too late. The feelings are too strong to be comforted away. Perhaps you have bad dreams, find sleep difficult or become clingy.
As you get older and anxiety seems to take over you, what you may fear in this anxiety is what has perhaps been forgotten; the above experience. What you perhaps fear is that you will be faced with other situations that would leave you in the same terrified, lonely, helpless place. It is a real fear. There is panic that you will feel that awful and helpless again. A fear that you will not cope. However in a way, as an adult, it now feels worse. If we do get to that ‘not being able to cope’ again, we may believe we may not be able to go to work, we then cannot pay our bills, then we may loose our accommodation, our partners will leave us...basically everything that ends up with us feeling so very alone and vulnerable will be conjured up in this fear with the belief it will happen! How so very terrifying.
However, if we get to know this anxiety, it is actually telling of to be weary of a perceived danger. There is an added irony that the depths of our anxiety, we almost create the same situation again, a sense of helplessness. If our anxiety becomes disabling, then perhaps what we fear might happen will become a self fulfilling prophecy.
Here we see one of the founding principles of psychoanalysis in action, what Freud (1856-1939) called ‘the compulsion to repeat’ which I will explore in another article as it is beyond the scope of this one.
In having a good understanding of this, we can start to positively change. What can be explored once this is known is the following:
Becoming aware of how often it is repeated in relationships.
Start to understand how we may engineer situations to create a similar outcome/feeling to what we did when we first felt or experienced this.
Understand that how you coped (or did not) is different to now. Although you may not believe it, you have a whole different, more advanced set of psychological tools than you did back then!
If the above three can be known, then you have the choice of positive change. To do it differently.
To then understand what may stop you from doing it differently!
The Psychological work to be done
The above noted points are non exhaustive, but give an insight to how positive change, away from anxiety, can occur.
They take participation. As with anything worth having, quick fixes are not fixes. This takes effort. Perhaps like going to the gym. I see this kind of work similar. You cannot go to the gym once and expect to be healthier or fitter. It takes commitment and a wish to change.
Change is change right? I would argue that the positive change I am discussing here, real change, is change that you experience, that you understand and that stays with you for life! This is where this kind of change differs from going to the gym perhaps. Stop going to the gym and you may loose muscle mass, or become less fit.
The change I talk about here is a deeper more permanent change. It is a fundamental shift in the way we think about ourselves and the world. This kind of change is deep positive change.
In working through the above, you can move into a more positive place in which irrational anxiety no longer overwhelms you. Perhaps, for once in your life, you could be free from it!
What will you do with your freedom?