I typically think of anxiety and depression as being on opposite ends of a spectrum; on one end, there’s depression, which is exemplified by the image of being unable to get off the couch- that life is hopeless, pointless, and shitty, and there’s nothing that one can do about it. On the other end is anxiety- being unable to sit still, feeling an incessant need to control life, and ultimately having a physical fear response that is too big for the event that triggered it. Interestingly enough, anxiety and depression often go hand-in-hand.
Anxiety is thus a fear-based affliction. Our bodies have a fight-or-flight response when we sense danger; back when we were cavepeople, danger was a lion about to eat us. Today, danger is our boss needing to meet with us or a loved one dying. Loss in particular triggers a fight-or-flight response because our environment as we knew it is completely changed. Avigail Abarbanel has a whole article about how our brains find a change in our environment as being an imminent threat to our security, and thus respond to it in fear. Thus, although no lion is about to maul us, a big loss will still release a ton of cortisol and adrenaline into our bodies.
When we don’t deal with our emotions, the cortisol and adrenaline have no way of being released. They sit suppressed in our bodies, manifesting themselves in other ways, both mentally and physically. We might notice that our breathing is more shallow or our heart is pounding; we might notice our thoughts racing or that we wake up in a panic thinking about everything that we have to do that day. We might notice that, all of a sudden, we feel kind of funny while having lunch with friends; that we feel disconnected from the scene or even from reality. We worry that we’re going crazy. Yet we fear being alone or having free time- it makes us feel antsy or panicked. All of these aspects might manifest themselves into a full-blown panic attack.
A lot of people are told to deal with anxiety and panic attacks by using deep breathing or other relaxation techniques and mantras such as “I am safe.” These are important- however, they only treat the symptoms of anxiety. Deep breathing treats the symptom of shallow breathing. “I am safe” treats the fear of going crazy or suffocating or having a heart attack or needing to go to the hospital. A lot of people recommend yoga for dealing with anxiety; I, in fact, am currently doing training to be a yoga teacher and can attest to this. However, my one beef with yoga is that I feel it can be somewhat emotion-denying. The vibe that I sometimes get when reading my yoga texts is that “thoughts, emotions, and the mind are bad. You must conquer the mind.” Conquer the mind? How violent! Not properly allowing yourself to feel your emotions is really unhealthy and is what fuels anxiety.
Thus, my own personal mantra whenever I’m feeling anxious is, instead, “What is the root problem?” If I’m driving on the freeway and all of a sudden I start to feel weird and my breathing becomes shallow, I ask myself why. I don’t try to force myself to calm down or berate myself for feeling anxious over a task as simple as driving that billions of people do every single day. I ask myself what’s really upsetting me. When the answer is, “My dad died and my boyfriend, who helped me to deal with my dad’s death, broke up with me, so now I’m feeling pretty abandoned and like two huge aspects of my life are missing. It’s a tough reality to adjust to,” that calms me down. It calms me down because I realize that those are huge and legitimate reasons to be feeling my ultimate, underlying feeling- which is sadness. Then I allow myself to feel sad, and sadness is not a scary feeling like anxiety is. Then I feel better once I let it out. Anxiety is a feeling that masks an underlying feeling. Recognizing and allowing oneself to feel the underlying feeling and thus release it will release anxiety.