What is anxiety, anyway?

flames burn like anxiety

I took a course on Anxiety recently and I’ve really dug into learning as much as I can about it in recent years.

We all have anxiety in one form or another. When I go out in life – in traffic, in grocery stores, on social media – it’s clearly growing as a problem. Everyone’s got anxiety, yet no one seems to know how to deal with it.

It’s everywhere you look and there are resources upon resources about how to deal with anxiety. But most of the information out there only adds to the confusion on how to heal from it.

Anxiety is just this thing that we all know exists, and most of us live with it, but no one really knows how to do anything about it.

I find most people have a misunderstanding as to what anxiety actually is and where it comes from. Which makes it nearly impossible to deal with it effectively, let alone heal it.

And so it ends up being treated like a disease – something that should be medicated away. But the problem with that is it’s not an illness that we catch, like COVID or the flu.

It takes considerable effort to deal with and truly face anxiety – to kick it into shape. And let’s be real, most people just want to wish it away or take a magic chill pill instead of facing what’s underneath it all. Denial is a powerful mask.

I’m not a therapist or psychiatrist. I’m not a medical doctor. My experience lies only in that – my own experience. I have studied the emotional and physiological aspects of anxiety, as well as dealt with my own, and supported my family, friends, and women I’ve led through their own struggles with anxiety.

And in that experience, I’ve gained a curiosity about uncovering the truth about something that has grown to be an epidemic that causes a lot of pain for a lot of people.

Anxiety is something that touches all aspects of life and there’s not one umbrella of science, spirituality, or social study that it falls under and that’s part of why it’s so hard to nail down.

I do know that anxiety is going to remain until you make a personal conviction to work on it and go to battle with it. And for many people, that is far too much work and is far too scary to take on.

My hope is that if anxiety is a problem for you, or someone you love, that digging under the surface just a little can help to shift some ideas you may have about what anxiety is and how you can start to understand what it’s trying to tell you just a little more.

At its basic core, anxiety is just that – an indication that your body is trying to tell you something. Usually it’s an alert to a perceived need for safety.

Our brains are funny – we have old, animal parts that are very basic and serve primarily to keep us alive and safe. This works in conjunction with our central nervous system, so that when we perceive a threat, our brain can essentially go offline and our body will instinctually make the moves necessary to get us out of danger. 

This is how animals of the wild survive. They have a fight or flight instinct that allows them to not have to think about what to do next – they just react.

We’re wired with that too, but the problem for us as humans is that often, we are alerted to something our lizard brain thinks is dangerous, but actually isn’t. We have a more advanced, regulatory part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that is supposed to be able to sort out when something isn’t dangerous, but what has happened for most of us, is that we haven’t received the education to our prefrontal cortex, to be able to discern what is an actual threat and what is not.

Anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strength.

—Charles Spurgeon

That is all due to experiences we had as a child that caused us to believe we were unlovable or unworthy. We became permanently frozen as children inside our central nervous systems and the external “threats” we face today trigger us to feel like we are in danger because we believe we are unloved, unworthy, likely to be abandoned, or rejected – just like we were as a child.

That’s when anxiety comes out – when we encounter situations that remind us of a time in childhood when we felt unsafe, and we haven’t done the work to grow up the regulating part of our brain that will allow our nervous system to calm itself.

So, to start working on anxiety, we have to get curious. Anxiety can work as a mask, as a way to get us to seek safety while hiding the thing underneath that we’re truly scared of.

Think of it like a bubble. And if you really force yourself to stop and sit and notice the sensations in your body, you’ll notice it feels like a bubble that wants to move up and out of your body. There’s usually some deeper feeling underneath it that will rise to the surface once you can let the anxiety out.

Something I notice in the language people use when trying to help someone with anxiety, is the idea of letting it pass. I don’t think that’s the right mental imagery at all. It’s not something that we need to endure until it simply goes into remission or returns down to the dark, dingy basement of our souls.

No, it’s an alert to something that lives deep inside us that has to bubble up and out in order for us to get resolution and healing. If you experience anxiety, ask yourself, what is it that this anxiety is trying to alert me of? What does this remind me of that makes me feel unsafe? And what is the deeper message or fear underneath that is trying to bubble up and be exposed?

When you ask yourself these questions and really seek the truth in your answers, you’ll feel it in your body. The bubble rises to the surface and pops. Then it is gone.

It is so freeing to visualize this and know that whatever that exact instance of anxiety was about, it is gone. You may experience anxiety again, and it may be from the same root cause, but the more you do these exercises, the less of a hold it has on you and eventually can be replaced with confidence and the feeling of self love.

That’s the work we need to do for our minds, but anxiety is a trickier beast than that. We also have to do the work for our bodies.

All of those childhood experiences we talked about get stored in our bodies as trauma. You might be thinking, I didn’t experience any trauma in childhood, but you’re wrong. We all do. Sometimes it’s not capital T trauma, like the death of a parent, witnessing a traumatic event, or battling starvation, abuse or abandonment, but we all have lower case t trauma. Those are the instances when we were vulnerable as children needing love and reassurance and someone who cared for us wasn’t able to provide that love, resulting in us feeling rejected or abandoned.

Those instances built up over time – and were passed down to us as energy from previous generations – and the tension they created in our bodies became trapped. If we don’t deal with those tensions, they can lead to disease and illness – especially autoimmune diseases, and mental health disorders, among others.

Dr. Peter Levine spent over 50 years researching and developing the practice of Somatic Experiencing, which recognizes the build up of stored negative experiences in our lives and how by tuning into those sensations in our bodies, we can allow them to move out of us and heal.

This practice is key in working with anxiety, because it shows up primarily as a physical experience. Anxiety is one of the biggest and loudest indicators we have of this stored trauma and it is a large cry from our bodies asking us to let it out.

In fact, one of the coolest things about somatic work is that you don’t always need to know exactly what is causing your anxiety or what you experienced as a child to be able to move it through your body. You can heal past trauma through sensation only without having to relive painful memories cognitively.

Anxiety is something that can consume you if you don’t take the time and effort to work on it. Medication is rarely the answer because that doesn’t get at the core of what is causing the anxiety. Medication tries to calm the nervous system through artificial means, but what it doesn’t do is allow the underlying issue to bubble up and be let out of your body. In many ways, it traps it even further.

Not everything that weighs you down is yours to carry.

—Anonymous

Unresolved anxiety bleeds from you and infects others. In order to grow collectively as a society and stop some of the pain and destruction we see all over as a result of unhealed trauma and anxiety, we have to be willing to face our fears and do the work on ourselves to address what’s really going on.

We can either try to live with something that is rooted inside of us by putting on a mask and stuffing the symptoms down, or we can open up and expose what’s building up, wanting to come out.

It’s not easy work. It’s painful, but you have to find the conviction within yourself to stop living with the pain and to seek a better life because healing is possible. You just have to know where to find it. Don’t give up. Seek, explore, educate yourself, and build a community of people around you that are supportive in your journey to unlock it.

Anxiety is a beast that we have to put on our armor and battle head on. I believe every woman has it in her to do it. And through our own healing, we can help heal others. I’ve seen it take place in my own life, and I’m nowhere near done. It’s a lifelong journey, but the rewards are great.

What does that fight look like for you? Where are you scared, skeptical, and unwilling to do the work? The faster you can expose those places that hold you back from beginning or continuing the journey to healing, the faster you will catapult to self acceptance, and the anxiety will melt away. 

I’m here with you on your journey. Love and healing to you.

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Kelly Garrett

Kelly Garrett

I'm a wife, mom to 4 kids, writer, and entrepreneur. I write about the journey of discovering yourself, learning how to love yourself, and to find your elusive self-care routine.

9 Comments

  1. Kristin on November 7, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Kelly,

    I respectfully disagree with your perspective on medication for anxiety.

    My personal experience has been the exact opposite of your statement: “Medication tries to calm the nervous system through artificial means, but what it doesn’t do is allow the underlying issue to bubble up and be let out of your body. In many ways, it traps it even further.”

    For 60 years, I tried everything I knew to try harder, to do the painful work, etc. to heal. And I have healed from much past trauma, thanks be to God!

    Yet, when I got to the place I couldn’t process what to do next, even when I knew it didn’t matter whether I cleaned the toilets or vacuumed first, I talked (OK, cried) to my general physician. He explained that my serotonin was low, causing anxiety. It was a chemical imbalance in my body.

    If my body doesn’t make enough insulin, I may be able to control diabetes with a diet. If not, I will need to supplement with more insulin to think clearly and survive.

    In the same way, for 40-plus years I tried to manage and heal from anxiety and depression through numerous valid methods. Yet, my body doesn’t make enough serotonin, so supplementing it helps me to think clearly and survive.

    Medication has balanced my serotonin levels and I now feel like a completely new woman. In hindsight, I can see that I have had anxiety at least since high school, probably earlier. I regret that I didn’t try to see if meds would help me when doctors suggested them at age 26 and then again at age 44.

    Medication has allowed me to focus better, enjoy life better, laugh more, love myself better which then allows me to love others better, and learn to embrace who God created me to be. This newfound healing has allowed me to be able to write and illustrate children’s books. Thanks be to God!

    My husband has multiple tools in his toolbox. He selects a tool depending on the situation that needs attention. Sometimes he returns and tries a different tool.

    I think our large “healing journey toolbox” includes medication AND the many other “tools” you mentioned such as our growing understanding of the brain and ways to process trauma.

    • Kelly Garrett on November 8, 2022 at 2:11 pm

      Thanks for your vulnerability and sharing your story, Kristin. There is recent evidence and acknowledgement from pharmaceutical companies that the “chemical imbalance” theory was never proven and there isn’t sufficient research to back it up. Pharma created the entire marketing campaign and it became a widely accepted “truth” that in fact, can’t be measured in live human tissue. I’m not saying depression and anxiety don’t exist, but we don’t know the cause, nor do we know exactly what is happening in our brains on a chemical level. We DO know how we can address our thoughts, and how trauma energy is trapped on a cellular level in our bodies – and so, we can move that energy through our bodies somatically.

      I don’t judge anyone who uses medication because I am not walking in their shoes. I do, however, advocate for doing your own extensive research, and my experience has been that medication has caused more damage than is worth, and I walk with others who have had the same experience.

      Ultimately, I’m most interested in seeking the truth in all aspects of life – and that applies to learning what motivates pharmaceutical companies to keep people on drugs that haven’t actually been proven to do anything of benefit in the long term, as well as the absolute truth of what thoughts and feelings are clouding my brain – because our feelings often try to hijack our thoughts. And more often than not, those thoughts and feelings are lies and stories my brain has been telling to try to keep me safe from a perceived threat that may or may not be real.

      And what has been far more effective for me and most people that have been on a similar journey as me is attacking the false narratives with truth, love, compassion, somatic work, and taking care of my body in the most natural ways possible. For me, medication will never be one of those tools.

      We’re all in the same fight – to seek truth and live the best life we can. And all we can do is share our experiences with one another, be open to hearing new truths, discern God’s voice, commit to not bury our heads in the sand, and move forward with peace in knowing we’re doing the best we can with the information we have.

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