If you are experiencing anxiety you may be feeling a pervasive sense of uneasiness, worry, fear, apprehension and/or panic. These feelings can be triggered by certain situations. With anxiety, the intensity and frequency of worry about a situation seems out of proportion to the actual likelihood that what is feared would actually happen or that the consequences would turn out as badly as imagined. You may experience anxiety about a situation that others would not find fearful. Although triggers for anxiety can be external, having to do with events that are happening in the present moment, anxiety can also be experienced at any time from internal events such as remembering something that happened in the past or thinking about a situation that could happen in the future.

At other times when anxiety strikes, you may feel fearful and anxious without knowing the cause. You may begin to feel overwhelming physiological sensations such as sweating, tightness in the chest, trembling, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat and stomach ache, without knowing the trigger. This is very confusing and frightening and is common in panic attacks. Individuals who experience anxiety or panic attacks may try to avoid situations that they feel might bring on anxiety or an attack. They may also develop compulsive rituals to lessen the anxiety.

 

What does anxiety feel like in your body?

The emotional symptoms of anxiety are often accompanied by noticeable physical sensations in the body as your nervous system kicks in to prepare you for a fight, flight or freeze response. It may be helpful to know that the uncomfortable sensations in your body are natural and are your body’s way of trying to protect you in a situation that, to you, seems threatening.

Physical symptoms of anxiety are numerous and include: stomach ache, nausea, tightness in the chest, increase in body heat and heart rate, dry mouth, trembling, sweating, clammy hands, rapid breathing, dizziness or light-headedness and heaviness in your legs.

 

The fight/flight/freeze response:

The fight response: This response is for self-defence. The fight response in dangerous situations is natural and imperative. The physical sensations in your body such as increased heart rate and respirations are to prepare your body to protect itself. It is very common for the body to respond in fight mode when you feel emotionally threatened. For example: A parent in the car with you tells you to slow down when you are driving. Your emotional response is that you feel criticized and threatened. Your behavioural response is that you yell at your parent to get out of the car if they don’t like your driving. Your physiological responses may include perspiration, increased heart rate and rapid breathing.

The flight response: This response is to keep you safe from danger by escaping unharmed. In everyday life, we can experience this response in situations that are not actually dangerous but that we perceive as threatening, such as: giving a public talk, going to a party with people we don’t know, or starting a new job. For example: You are at a dinner party with some people you know and others you don’t know. Your emotional response is that you feel vulnerable, fear you may be rejected and are self-conscious. Your behavioural response is that as soon as you arrive you start thinking of an escape route – an excuse to leave early. Your physical response may include: clammy hands, sweating, stomach upset, lack of appetite, dry mouth and/or nausea (before, during and after the event).

The freeze response: This response is used as a way of not drawing attention to yourself in a threatening situation and to buy you a moment to decide what to do. In the animal kingdom, a prey may instinctively freeze by faking its death so that the predator will either not notice it or will pause instead of attack. This gives the prey an opportunity to decide whether to remain that way and let the danger pass or to make an escape. In our everyday life, you may experience this response in a consciously unintentional way that actually has an intentional purpose. Freeze reactions may include blanking out, feeling numb, or clamming up. For example: Your partner criticizes something you did. Your emotional response is that you feel embarrassed, rejected, unappreciated and small. Your behavioural response is that you blank out, emotionally disengage and stop talking to your partner for the next hour. Your physical response may be numbness or no overall sensation in the body.

 

How does anxiety affect a person’s life?

  • People with anxiety may find that the quality of their life suffers in relationships, school and work performance, and social activities.
  • People with anxiety may experience irritability, short-temperedness, angry outbursts, problems with concentration, changes in sleeping patterns, increase or decrease in appetite, and changes in bowel habits, among many other things.
  • People with anxiety may have many fears which include: the fear of losing control, being judged or being humiliated.
  • People with anxiety may avoid social activities, certain people and intimacy.
  • People with anxiety may use recreational substances and/or alcohol in an attempt to relieve their symptoms.

 

The difference between stress and anxiety

Although symptoms of stress and anxiety can overlap somewhat, there are notable differences:

  • When a person feels stressed there is often an identifiable stressor. When a person feels anxiety the trigger may or may not be readily apparent or may remain unknown.
  • When an individual feels stressed, once the stressor is removed or resolved, the stress dissolves. With anxiety, if the trigger is known and it is removed, the feeling of anxiety persists and takes longer to resolve.
  • When a person feels stressed, the feeling of being overwhelmed or emotionally compromised usually corresponds in equal measure to the situation. When a person feels anxiety, the proportion of emotional distress is often out of proportion with the actual event or situation.
  • Stress is triggered by present-moment responsibilities and situations. Anxiety may not correspond with present-moment events or external situations and may rather be triggered by a feeling of fear that has no identifiable cause in the present moment.
  • Stress is a response to when aspects of life become unbalanced and we respond emotionally to this. Examples include: getting a new job, caring for ailing loved ones, or managing childcare and daycare responsibilities. Our primary feeling may be one of feeling overwhelmed. A restoration of more balance often resolves the stress. Anxiety is a feeling of doom that has little to do with life balance and more to do with internal responses to real or imagined threats to one’s internal being. Our primary feeling is fear that may be precipitated by underlying feelings of rejection, shame and guilt. Since these feelings are difficult to resolve and may take focused and dedicated work to overcome, this may be why anxiety can persist long after an identifiable trigger is removed.

 

How I can help

Choosing to embark on a counselling program is a courageous step in managing anxiety. The methods I use in helping people manage anxiety recognize the mind-body connection and have been shown to help people with anxiety.

My approach to helping with anxiety incorporates:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy, mindfulness practice and the principles of positive psychology into a counselling plan that fits you as an individual, your situation and your needs.
  • Somatic approaches to recognizing anxiety in your body and using breathing and relaxation exercises to calm your system down.
  • A belief that healing comes from not only learning how to manage anxiety on a daily basis but also from looking at what lies beneath the feelings that are causing your emotional turmoil. At a pace that is comfortable for you, I will guide you into a process of compassionate inquiry that will allow you the opportunity to reflect and become curious about the origins of the anxiety that you are experiencing.
  • An opportunity for you to develop an awareness and acceptance of all aspects of yourself – including the forgotten, overlooked and difficult parts.