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  • Jed Murphree, LPC

Anxiety - that awful rush of dread.

Anxiety (the mood disorder) is unfortunately, a common condition with a range of symptoms that goes way beyond just being nervous or frightened from time to time. It's important to remember that some degree of nervousness and fear is normal and expected when navigating. Feeling skittish or apprehensive from time to time is not something diagnosable, neither is worry in small and limited doses.

The magic number with many mental health diagnoses is 6 months. If the symptoms have persisted over at least a 6 month period of time with little to no improvement - that's a big sign to seek help. Even if it's been less than 6 months, when worry and apprehension are frequent or constant and your work, relationships, and/or enjoyment in life begin to suffer, go ahead and seek help.

Neurologically, when the brain gets anxious and fearful, it releases a bunch of different chemicals, neurotransmitters, and it's worth knowing at least two of these. The first is cortisol - a stress hormone that helps control metabolism, assists in memory formation, and reduces inflammation for short periods of time. The second is norepinephrine - a neurotransmitter that primes the body for action by increasing heart rate and respiration. Remember though, too much cortisol (stress) results in a suppression of the immune system and leads to hypertension.

So when the mind (think of that as the "you") perceives a threat, the brain responds by activating its flight, fight, or freeze response, which is fueled by cortisol and norepinephrine among other things - that primes the body to either get very still to not draw attention, fight like your life depended on it, or get the hell away.

If our fear responses get "too turned on" too often, either due to trauma, or from the accumulation of life's stresses over a period of time, they you arrive at Anxiety with a capital A. And then just about everything seems to warrant a flight, fight, or freeze response when your "fear sensor" is even lightly brushed.

Adding to the misery is a strong tendency in our culture to push away, shove down, and suppress any and all emotions the we deem undesirable and unwanted. We try, sometimes futilely, to not feel the bad stuff. As far as being a short-gain tactic, it can be useful. Yet, as a long term strategy, it's definitely a mistake. Suppress does not mean removal of, it means to force down and out of the way. Suppressed feelings remain, they stick around, linger, and ferment. And just because that stuff is stored somewhere does not mean that the container won't leak. Suppression is really the same thing as running from the problem; simply another way to avoid looking at the issues or situations that create the challenges and difficulties.

Because so much of our thinking drives our emotions, and our emotions help frame and give context to our environment, the black and white view that anxiety produces creates its own negative emotional feedback loops. They often just repeat and build on themselves. Because of the growing intensity, the more times around the loop, the more and more threatening and frightening life becomes.

Regardless of where the anxiety arose or how it was created, it is a condition that responds to talk therapy and there are many techniques that improve coping skills to address anxious patterns of thoughts. In the beginning, it's very focused on managing anxiety in the moment - learning how to disengage or break the cycle doom and gloom thinking that is a hallmark of anxiety.

Tactic: The first thing to learn in response to anxiety as soon as it is noticed is to breath - take at least two long slow deep breaths.

In the moment is the time to apply the brakes, to slow down, and that's what the breathing does, it helps slow your physical responses down and thereby your thinking. It may take more than two deep breaths, it may take another two, and then another two, no matter how long, keep breathing until some sense of the equilibrium returns.

Our fear responses are meant to keep us safe, yet there needs to be a balance, because not everything is a threat. Because anxiety feels like a speeding up and is fear based, it skews perceptions negatively. So, a goal for dealing with anxiety is learning to identify the triggers as well as work to alter the responses. It is an active process that takes practice and a willingness to embrace a certain degree of discomfort. Developing the skills is also not a "one size fits all" procedure; and depending upon the individual personal history, can take longer for some.

Here are three common mental distortions (faults in thinking about oneself) worth considering in regards to anxiety:

1. Unfair Comparisons: We all play the comparison game from time to time, but some of those times we use the wrong measuring stick when comparing ourselves to others. That makes the comparison inaccurate, unfair, and moot. A snap judgement made due to anxious thinking about oneself is an outcome of a "failed comparison" - not measuring up. When you lose too often, your sense of self worth gets diminished. Couple that with # 3, you have a recipe for not only anxiety, but depression as well.

2. Rumination: Specifically, I'm talking about reliving past mistakes in search of where you are to blame. Bluntly put, there is no changing the past. It is the "ago", and it can be left there. Of equal importance is the learning from the mistake, and then moving beyond it. We all make mistakes, they teach us much. Some mistakes are bigger than others. Anxiety makes all mistakes feel much larger than they actually are, and when added to #1, you have another recipe for depression.

3. Negative self appraisal: This has to do with having a very loud inner critic that speaks up and offers a highly biased opinion about how you always fail, are less than, and never measure up. That kind of critic is toxic. The odd thing is, the places in our brains where this critical voice is believed to emerge neurologically, is the same place that inspirational thought, creative problem solving, daydreaming, and our sense of empathy originate. That's worth a blog post on its own. Suffice to say, if you combine all three of these, it's as if you have become your own worst enemy.

Disarming those weapons that anxiety can use against oneself may seem overwhelming at first glance, and at second glance, and after a long stare. Learning how to stop fighting with yourself is a process, and happens in its own time. Regardless, seeking help in the form of therapy can be a tremendously beneficial for learning the tools to help yourself. Often the fear of getting started is all that really stands in the way.

So, if you've been feeling what I've described here, consider reaching out and talk to a professional about what's going on. If even for just a short period of time, counseling can have a positive effect, and remember, mental health matters.

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