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Don't Let Anxiety Be Your Compass

Your brain and autonomic nervous system (ANS) work together as an important defense system, scanning your external environment, emotions, body, thoughts, and past memories to determine whether you are safe for connection or in danger and need protection. Sometimes this system misfires: It interprets the situation as "dangerous" when it really isn't at all. Most of the time, you walk throughout your daily life without noticing this system while it constantly assesses whether to mobilize you with energy, conserve energy, or maintain the status quo.

Normalize Nervousness

There are natural parts of life that bring on worry and nervousness, such as being stuck in traffic, late for an important meeting, about to give a presentation or headed into a difficult conversation. These are the times you are unsure of your success or how others will treat you, and you might notice your mind"trying" to help you by bringing up problems and identifying negatives; "What if...?"or "I will never be able to..." or "They always leave me out." You may feel nauseous, fidgety, heart pounding.

The defense system uses these signs as evidence of fear and danger. So it activates the Sympathetic Nervous System to get you to take action. Yet the situation doesn't really match the rapid thoughts, overthinking, and what happens in the body, like your heart racing, so ultimately you get confused and you interpret the thoughts, emotions, and body stuff as evidence that things will go badly for you. Your INTERPRETATION and RESPONSE to what is happening is actually the most important part here and a key aspect of therapy.

There are natural parts of life that signal the defense system, prompting you to instinctively ACT because if you had to think about it, you would not react fast enough: removing your hand from a closing door, shielding your face or head from a flying ball, jumping off the path when you see a snake... this is also the defense system at work for you. Notice how your interpretation and response in these situations doesn't lead to anxiety? When the situation appropriately signals activation of the Sympathetic Nervous System, it makes sense and you don't question it.

So how does anxiety fit into this defense system? Simply: the system is always doing surveillance of your internal and external environments and recording data. It is particularly oriented to any kind of fear (which it interprets as a sign of danger). So if you are uncertain about a future problem and you are worried about how it will go, anxiety will show up with early warning signals to help your find your way through it: thoughts, body sensations, and emotions start to emerge. You might have racing thoughts on your mind that you can't let go of. Sleeping or concentrating might be difficult, or feeling on edge. An upcoming situation or event will continue to replay in your mind. You try to come up with all the possible scenarios. Finally, you decide to avoid it. Voila! Relief. The anxiety compass worked!

The fear associated with this situation is recorded as is the relief from avoidance, and the next time you face a situation where you are unsure, nervous, apprehensive, or worried - anxiety will try to direct you to the path of avoidance again. You also start taking steps to create more certainty about the journey: planning far ahead, needing to know all the details, taking on too much responsibility to feel in control... these all create rigidity and you find yourself upset if things don't go the way you thought they would. You start missing out on regular parts of life that you previously enjoyed or feeling unable to cope with the many parts of life that naturally involve change and require you to be flexible. Now, you rely on anxiety to dictate your direction and path. Since it underestimates your skills to cope and overestimates "danger" you find yourself on the path of avoidance more often.

Anxiety doesn't have to be your compass. You actually . Just like emotions, anxiety's only power over you comes from how you interpret and respond to it. I know... hearing that shrill voice of fear, nervousness, and doubt can be If there's danger nearby, your built-in defense system wants you to take action. Yet, when anxiety is involved it all seems like it was blown out of context afterwards and you aren't sure why you keep travelling in that direction. Why can't you go in a different direction?

Anxiety doesn't have to be your compass. You have the ability to use your own compass. Just like emotions, anxiety's only power over you comes from how you interpret and respond to it. I know... hearing that shrill voice of fear, nervousness, and doubt can be very convincing. So, a large part of managing anxiety is learning to respond to it differently, whether it is showing up in your mind, feelings, or body. THEN, you will have more space to grab some courage, point yourself in the direction you want to go, and start figuring out what steps to take.

It's important to understand that you can change the way you think about worry and anxiousness. If you're ready to start feeling better and taking back control, start with getting more clear about how it is working in your life:

  1. Begin to take note of situations/events that bring up worry, nervousness and anxiousness.

  2. Record the thoughts you heard.

  3. Record the emotions you experienced and rate the intensity out of 100%

  4. Record the physical sensations you felt in your body.

  5. Record the steps you took to manage and cope.

You will notice patterns emerge the more you record situations. Look at the data you collected: In what situations can you see an opportunity to experiment with new responses to thoughts, emotions, or body? Pick an upcoming situation you know will be mild to moderate. Expect the worry and nervousness to activate you. Practice how you will respond differently. This is helpful for your brain and nervous system. Then step into the situation, prepared, practiced, with courage in hand. Record what happened using the steps above. Rinse and repeat. Over time, you will have data that shows you can trust your own compass to help you step into new situations, perform, do something new or feel unsure, and feel unsure/nervous/anxious, with the confidence that you can handle it.

~ Rolynda


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