What is Your Anxiety Trying to Tell You?

Anxiety can be very distressing and disruptive.  It can cause disease, stress and illness.  It can impair our relationships and even our sense of self.  Anxiety can really get in the way.

Or, it can be a powerful messenger, here to wake us up.

Welcoming, rather than fearing anxiety can help you understand and learn from it.  When we try to avoid, distract, or push it away it doesn’t leave.  It usually just stays under the surface, making us feel worried and on edge.

There are a few ways to know what your anxiety is trying to tell you:

To understand it, you first need to become aware of when it’s happening.

The first step is to learn what anxiety feels like for you.  Your body can usually feel anxiety before you are even conscious of it:

  • Start paying attention to the first signs of anxiety in your body and mind and taking note of when they are triggered. They are different for everyone, but some common ones are:
    • Tightness in chest
    • Sweating or chills
    • Racing thoughts
    • Shortness of breath
    • Tightness in neck or shoulders
    • Rapid heartbeat
    • Tightness in stomach or nausea
    • Feeling worried or scared
    • Feeling frozen or like you have to escape

Next time you have these feelings, slow your body’s chemical anxiety response down:

  • “Name it to tame it.” Telling yourself “I’m feeling anxious right now” allows your brain to slow down and prevents the “fight or flight” response.
  • Slow your breathing down. Inhale through your nose for a count of four, and slowly exhale out of your mouth for a count of four until you feel more relaxed.
  • This allows the Parasympathetic Nervous System to kick in and calm you down so you can think clearly.

Now that you’re calm, you can try to understand your anxious feelings:

  1. The act of slowing down allows you to learn from and respond to your anxiety rather than reacting to it in your old ways.
  2. When starting to learn about anxiety, research has shown that writing down what’s in your head can help a lot in understanding. Over time this process becomes automatic and you don’t have to write it down.

The steps to understanding your thoughts, write down:

  1. What happened? The event, just the facts without judgments:
    • A meeting with my boss. He asked about the project that isn’t completed yet.
  2. Feeling:
    • Anxiety
  3. Automatic Negative Thought (ANT):
    • I’m the worst employee ever!
  4. Evidence to disprove this thought:
    • I have gotten multiple positive reviews.
    • I often receive positive feedback from peers.
    • I have achieved measurable progress on the project already.
  5. Use the data to formulate a more realistic statement:
    • “I’m doing the best I can, I know I’m a good employee.”

Slowing down and investigating your anxious feelings helps you learn what they were trying to tell you:

  • In this case, the anxiety’s message was “Slow down, think about your self-judgments, and be kinder to yourself.”
    • Next time you’re triggered in this situation you will be able to be more aware of why you feel anxious and be able to remind yourself of your worth and feel better.

Learning about your anxiety helps you rewire your brain:

  • By learning more about your anxiety, you are creating new more peaceful neural networks in your brain.
  • This can help you feel anxious less frequently and less intensely in the future.
  • Next time you one of your old “triggers” comes up, you can feel able to welcome it and learn from it, rather than being scared.

Anxiety is often caused by unconscious thoughts and feelings.  The more you understand your own anxiety, the more you can use it as information to help you grow!