“Our task must be to free ourselves… by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” ~ Albert Einstein
Is anxiety always pathological? I think not.
As someone with a previous history of panic attacks that seemed to arise out of nowhere, I can say that I am very familiar with the experience of an anxiety that is persistent and disruptive to everyday living, and an anxiety that can be difficult to trace to a specific origin.
But I think automatically labeling all anxiety as pathological is unhelpful for a myriad of reasons.
Most notably, anxiety is your body trying to send a message. So maybe we should start by trying to decipher what it’s saying instead of placing a generic disease label on top of it. Just an idea.
Anxiety of this kind can have all sorts of unseen physiological triggers, such as hormonal disruptions — thyroid, progesterone, cortisol, and DHEA just to name a few — and gut imbalances — including leaky gut, food sensitivity, and candida overgrowth.
There are also the psychological origins associated with chronic anxiety, which can get patterned into your nervous system from a very young age. There is even evidence that the psychological and physiological state your mother was in during her pregnancy can impact your nervous and endocrine systems long after birth.
Because as a fetus, you’re basically swimming in the soup (Mmmmm…soup) of your mom’s hormones and neurotransmitters, getting information about what to expect once you’re born and how to establish a nervous system set point in preparation for the world outside.
What? I know. Pretty neat, right?
But also: If your mom was in a state of heightened stress or anxiety while pregnant, the unborn version of you might just get the message that life outside the womb is dangerous and unpredictable and full of ever-present threats.
I’m pretty certain that’s a big part of why I developed anxiety so young and why I now can’t actually recall a time in my life during which anxiety didn’t play some sort of role.
And this is not to place blame or say that my anxiety at this stage of my life is somehow my mother’s responsibility given the reality within which she was living during her pregnancy with me.
Nope. Not this even a little bit.
Because hey! I’m just lucky my mom wanted to carry me inside her body at all. And I’m lucky that she bravely charged through a super challenging emotional landscape for several months while I sat on top of her bladder and punched her in the ribs and made it difficult for her to take a normal breath without discomfort. (Sorry mom!)
And I’m thankful to my mom for walking a less-than-ideal path, with one baby already in tow, when she was still sort of a baby herself, in order to push my giant head out of her relatively tiny body and give me a life in the first place.
Speaking of . . . Let’s all take a moment and thank our moms for being badasses, shall we?
. . .
So, yeah, this might be one reason why some of us have some anxiety in our lives — specifically, those of us for whom anxiety has been a longstanding presence. And there are countless other reasons why anxiety might show up later in life proclaiming: Hello! Let’s hang out. I’m here to be your friend(ish).
Which is ultimately what I think anxiety is trying to do. Be helpful. Protect you. Let you know something isn’t quite right and needs adjusting. Warn you of danger. Keep you safe.
It’s just goes off the rails sometimes, you know? Misinterprets the severity of your circumstances and overreacts, using panic as a method of getting your attention when a tap on the shoulder might just do the trick instead.
Or would it? Because sometimes it takes a louder noise and a more disruptive disruption. And if there’s a situation — external or internal — that needs addressing and you push it off and push it off and try to ignore it for months or years, anxiety might just show up and raise the panic alarm, certain there is no other way to convince you to pay attention.
This has absolutely been true in my life. Throughout my 20s, my anxiety level slowly crept up until I started graduate school and began to have panic attacks multiple times a week during the second year. It was not fun, you guys. But it was ultimately a message from my body that something needed to be dealt with and I wasn’t dealing with it.
This included a serious hormonal imbalance that needing addressing, as well as some unprocessed emotional shit I’d been tossing aside for years.
In this way, anxiety showed up to tell me, Hey you. Get your ass into therapy. And also: Have some bloodwork done. Your hormones are effed up.
And so I did both of these things. Which helped to quell the panic attacks and turn the dial down on my anxiety, bringing it back into a more manageable range the majority of the time.
For me, anxiety is still a reality I deal with on a fairly regular basis. My sympathetic (i.e. fight or flight) nervous system is still more easily triggered, perhaps, than most people, but the panic attacks have become very infrequent. I still continue in therapy to work through some of the old emotional stuff that might be contributing to the perpetuation of anxiety in my life, and my hormonal picture is much healthier than it once was — something I attribute to the right doctors, the right food, a few specific supplements, regular exercise, consistent acupuncture, some strategic social decluttering, and (finally!) prioritizing the hell out of my sleep.
My ultimate goal is to recondition my nervous system to find safety in parasympathetic (i.e. rest and digest) mode — which it is able to do on a much more consistent basis these days. (Yay!)
It’s a journey, you guys. And it isn’t a straight line up towards anxiety-free living. But it is possible to move in that direction. The path is windy and undulating and fucking frustrating sometimes, but it’s there. I promise you.
So, if you’re reading this and you identify with anything I’ve said here or if you’re someone who’s facing anxiety right now in your life on a daily basis, please know that you are not alone. And please know that it can absolutely get better.
Take a look at this great article by Dr. Jolene Brighten on her website about how functional medicine might be able to help, and then consider visiting a naturopathic or functional medicine doctor to discuss some of what she presents in her overview. There is likely an underlying physiological imbalance playing a role in your anxiety.
Also: Consider therapy. Seriously. I was so resistant to this idea in my own life, but I can tell you it has been an essential part of my process the past several years. I highly recommend somatic or body-centered therapy, if possible. You might have to try a couple of therapists before you find someone with whom you feel comfortable and safe. I know I did. Keep looking! It’s worth the effort to find someone with whom you can establish a real, trusted connection.
And, finally, find ways to put your body into parasympathetic mode as often as possible.
This is the relaxed, calm nervous system state that enables you to feel safe, stimulates digestive processes, slows your heart rate, drops your blood pressure, and brings your body back into a state of equilibrium.
How can you accomplish this? Meditation is one way. Yoga is another. Breathing exercises are also helpful for many folks. Exercise is essential.
And, yes, acupuncture is great for this as well. Really great. (Contact me here to learn more.)
Anxiety sucks, you guys. Believe me, I know.
But it can get better. I’m living proof of this, and helping others navigate through this less-than-awesome experience is a big reason I do what I do.
Because I don’t want anyone to feel ashamed or embarrassed or alone with their anxiety. And I want to stop automatically pathologizing anxiety in every case and instead recognize that an anxious response is often warranted and that our bodies respond in this way — sometimes before we’re old enough to respond to our environment consciously — in an attempt to keep us safe.
Thanking my body for its (possibly misguided at times) efforts to protect me has helped me find peace even amidst the anxiety when it does arise.
Maybe reframing your experience in this way will provide you with some comfort, too.
Plus, I have to believe there was an evolutionary benefit to being an anxious person. After all, we’d be the ones to identify a threat first (lion! tiger! bear!) and be rewarded for saving the tribe, right? Maybe?
Here’s to not traveling this road alone, to asking for help, and to finding some compassion for ourselves in the process.