Unpacking and Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety can be one of the most frustrating, exhausting, and intense combinations of feelings we experience as humans.

And even though an estimated 40 million adults in the United States suffer from anxiety, that doesn’t stop it from making us feel extremely lonely and isolated.

We’re here to reassure you that you’re not alone. Yes, it’s very uncomfortable to experience your heart racing, palms sweating, head spinning, or even a sick, upset stomach. But we all feel these symptoms from time to time - and it’s important to know, for your own sanity, the differences between the different kinds of anxiety.


Different Types of Anxiety Disorders

All anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feeling of exaggerated fear or worrying about a future threat. Below are diagnosable anxiety disorders:

  • Social anxiety - you fear other people are judging you or looking at you (usually negatively) in social settings
  • Generalized anxiety - you question, worry, and overanalyze almost everything day to day
  • Panic disorder - you experience panic attacks in certain situations and there is typically little to no warning or logical reasoning
  • Obsessive compulsive disorder - you repeat specific rituals or behaviors and find it difficult to stop
  • Separation anxiety - you are afraid of being apart from either a physical place like your home or a person, like a family member or romantic partner

How Often Are You Experiencing Anxiety?

When we compete in an athletic event, or give a speech in front of a lot of people, we feel our adrenal glands flare up because we’re nervous and anxious. This is general, occasional anxiety fueled by specific situations.

Chronic anxiety is when we have constant, unyielding fear or worry in most situations. This involves overthinking, overanalyzing, obsessing, ruminating, and even panicking about events that either happened or haven’t happened yet.

People who experience chronic anxiety are clinically diagnosed with anxiety disorder and may attend group therapy, individual therapy, take medication, meditate, or do a combination of all.  

Occasional anxiety is brought on by stress and participating in stressful situations or building unreal thoughts up in our head, whereas chronic anxiety is a condition that lasts for long periods of time, sometimes without any warning, any reason, or any patterns.

The Physical Effects of Anxiety

When we experience anxiety, our levels of stress hormones begin to spike, which increase our blood sugar levels and increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

These stress hormones are epinephrine and cortisol, and too much of these hormones can be very harmful to our health. When they are released into the bloodstream, they cause the liver to produce more glucose, activating our fight-or-flight response - which increases our blood pressure, cholesterol levels, and heart rate.

Because of these high levels of glucose production, our immune system is weakened, our energy levels are thrown out of whack, and our sleep is likely to be irregular and disrupted.


How the Brain Responds to Anxiety

The amygdala are two nuclei located within the brain’s limbic system that control our decisions and moods. They hold the reins on how we react to everything that happens to us. Think of the amygdala as our tiny emotional regulator.

Because the amygdala regulates all of our emotions, it is affected by forces like anxiousness, stress, and nervousness. The more often we undergo the feelings of anxiety and let ourselves get to an irrational state, the more the amygdala is thrown off its course. It becomes vulnerable to this constant up and down, and in a way, slowly unlearns how to regulate itself.

So, what is the long-term consequence of consistently letting ourselves sink into a state of anxiety?

The structure of the brain can actually be reshaped and reprogrammed by whatever feelings and experiences it’s subjected to repeatedly. The process is called neuroplasticity.

Now, we have even bigger problems. Our awareness is now entirely dependent on this reprogramming, and it can be difficult to reverse.


Meditation as a Form of Anxiety Therapy

As mentioned earlier, when we experience anxiety, our levels of stress hormones spike, which increases our heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen consumption. In order to counteract these physical effects of anxiety, many people have turned to meditation as a form of treatment.

Why?

Meditation has the opposite effect on the brain that anxiety does.

MRI scans in an array of studies have shown that the amygdala shrinks in response to meditation practice. This causes the prefrontal cortex to become thicker, increasing our awareness and reteaching us the negative thoughts that trigger our anxiety.

The more we practice meditation as anxiety therapy, the more mentally tough we can become. Over time, regular meditation can cause our brain to experience a set of physiological changes, leading to a “relaxation response.”

The mind recognizes a triggering, negative thought, and can find a workaround through meditation. A new mental pattern is born, and we can avoid falling into the trap of anxiety a little easier. It’s about breaking down the anxiety to its core and understanding how it operates.

We have the power to choose our thoughts.

We have the power to not listen to them or be affected by them.

We have the power to dismiss them.

We have the power to decide they aren’t real.

Meditation is frequently used in group therapy for anxiety. Many of Grouport’s licensed therapists encourage and teach meditation for anxiety therapy.


The Long-Term Rewards of Meditation Practice

Research shows that routine meditation for anxiety therapy reprograms our brain’s neural pathways and improves our ability to regulate emotions, which is what anxiety steals from us (if we let it!)

Everyone suffers from overthinking certain storylines about themselves and their lives.

Anxiety takes those storylines and runs with them - keeping us up late at night, making us second guess our choices, never giving us peace.

Meditation takes those storylines, sits with them, and lets them go. We are reminded that we don’t have to accept the negative thoughts we have about ourselves. Eventually, we learn that all of our thoughts can be chosen carefully, and to choose only the ones that serve us positively.

This is most commonly referred to as cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety. It is used widely in group therapy, especially at Grouport.  

During this anxiety therapy, we even develop the skills to check in with our physical body, as well as our mental body. A common practice in meditation is to do a full-body scan. This involves mentally thinking of each part of our body, inch by inch, and tuning into any sensations, temperature, calmness, and tingles.

Now, we are paying full attention to our five senses, teaching us to be mindful and hyper aware of our surroundings, while listening to our bodies.

People can choose to tap into this skill and perform a full-body scan whenever they are scared or unsure in their environment. It can even be used to heighten the pleasure of an enjoyable place - like a warm, white-sand beach on vacation. Truly taking in the moment and experiencing gratitude, both mentally and physically, for where you are leads to deep inner peace, higher self-awareness, and increased happiness.

November 30, 2021

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