Overview of Anxiety

Anxiety means survival instincts on overdrive.

Anxiety occurs when you perceive any type of threat to your safety. It is biologically designed to protect you from harm. Your body takes over and prepares you to respond in the most appropriate way to promote your survival. Imagine that you are a cave person from many many years ago. You are going about your day and suddenly you hear a snap of a twig nearby. You immediately stop to pay attention to where the sound came from and assess what it might be. Maybe it is simply an acorn falling out of a tree. In this case you can go back to whatever you were doing. Your anxiety helps you to be alert and pay attention to your surroundings so you can decide what to do next. Now, what if you look up and instead see a saber tooth tiger. This is a frightening moment. You have little time to decide whether it is safest to freeze in your footsteps or hide behind a rock, and hope it is not hungry or perhaps that it is a windy day so it doesn’t sense your presence. Alternatively, you may decide to run as fast as you can and hope to find shelter or help before it catches you. You may also decide it is not likely the other options will work because you are trapped, or that it is more important to fight the tiger in order to protect your young, family, friends, or community. These three responses describe your fight/flight/freeze instincts that show up whenever there is real or perceived danger. If there is a true threat, the adrenaline makes you more alert, gives you strength in your arms and legs (for fighting or running), and gives you a little boost to help you regain safety. Pretty cool. If no real danger is present, the adrenaline that was released runs its way through your body and you calm back down in a short period of time.

Anxiety in Modern Society

Now think about our modern society, where threats look very different from the early days of our ancestors. You are likely not facing a life-threatening situation frequently, but your body is still paying attention to any signal of potential danger. Your intincts respond with fear if a threat is found, and adrenaline is released to help you prepare. The trick is, your logical brain recognizes that there is no threat to your life. You may dismiss anxious cues as unimportant or rediculous, or you may judge them as if there is something wrong with you for having these sensations in your body. You may act out your fear instead, responding to percieved threats by predicting or creating conflict so you can anticipate when to fight, by fleeing from relationships or awkward situations, or by shutting down and doing your best to ignore your body's cues to meet social needs by telling yourself to "be less needy or more independant." We are taught to suppress or ignore our instincts inadvertently through early messaging such as “suck it up,” or “don’t be a coward/cry baby.” In reality, your anxiety wants to help you! You just may not speak its language yet. You may indeed be facing true physical threats, in which case your instincts are protecting you as best they can. But more often, you are likely facing another type of threat that may be less obvious to identify but no less important for your survival.

Social connection and acceptance have been proven to promote a sense of safety and wellbeing. Feeling accepted and cared for in a family/friend group/community/workplace allows you to feel protected and safe. Being judged, cast out, isolated, or feel alone feels scary because it removes the protection that comes from the group. There are countless ways these types of social threats are present in human life, which often cause stress and anxiety.

Examples of modern stressors may include financial hardship, losing a job, end/loss of a relationship, learning to socialize, navigating the pressures of school, hormonal changes, identity development, strained relationships with friends or family, challenges within a romantic partnership, parenting, etc,.

Symptoms of Anxiety

  • Excessive and repetitive worry (rumination)
  • Difficulty controlling the worry
  • Restlessness (on edge)
  • Fatigue
  • Difficulty with concentration / focus (mind going blank)
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Difficulty engaging with important areas of functioning
  • Avoidance of feared situations (e.g. phobias, including social encounters)
  • Behavioral routines to regain a sense of safety
  • Flashbacks of traumatic experiences
  • Panic attacks (pounding heart, sweating, shakiness, shortness of breath, feelings of choking, chest pain, nausea, abdominal distress, chills/heat, numbness/tingling sensations, feelings of being detached from oneself, fear of going crazy, fear of dying)

How might symptoms look different for different age groups?

Symptoms may present more physiologically or behaviorally for younger age groups, as they are more likely to express their feelings non-verbally. These behaviors will vary on a continuum between withdrawal/silence and lashing out.

In your own experience, are you recognizing these symptoms within yourself or someone you care about? Reach out for support with navigating your anxiety today.

What to Expect in Therapy when addressing Anixety

Dr. Julie Griffin can help you by identifying what your personal experience of anxiety feels like, how it shows up in your life, and how to shift your responding to worries. Dr. Griffin also addresses learning to recognize symptoms along with their triggers, develop coping skills to regulate your body, understand how emotions influence behavior, process your experiences in a new way, reduce self-critical judgment, identify values, set healthy boundaries, engage in self-care and self-compassion, learn how your anxiety came to be by protecting you from past experiences, and make empowered decisions about pursuing meaningful goals.

Dr. Julie Griffin offers free phone consultations to help you determine if therapy with her might be a good fit for you.

Contact Dr. Julie Griffin

About Dr. Julie Griffin

Dr. Griffin uses an integrative psychodynamic approach to psychotherapy in order to help clients better understand themselves within their life context. She specializes in healing relationships, both through couples counseling and individual therapy.

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