Last weekend I was in my backyard reading when a thought occurred to me; “Where is my anxiety?” I quickly became concerned that I had forgotten something important that should be causing me worry. Then, I searched for all possible stressors before I took a few grounding breaths and recentered. I realized that after years of functioning through daily life with excessive anxiety present, I am still in the process of teaching my body and brain to be content in stillness.
Anxiety & The Nervous System
Anxiety is a sign that we are moving into sympathetic activation, often referred to as hyperarousal or fight/flight response. The opposite is being in a ventral vagal state. We feel comfortable in stillness with ourselves and in connection with others. In turn, we are not trying to anticipate what we should say next in a conversation, nor are we rattling off a to-do list in our head. We are present in the moment. The image below gives a simple illustration of what it feels like to be in each autonomic state:
Early Life Experiences & Anxiety
Our early life experiences and environment shape the way our autonomic nervous system functions. We create patterns of responding to stress based on our life experiences and the humans around us. Many children grow up in an environment they are not taught to cope with stress. Worse yet – they are constantly overwhelmed with stress. Their caregiver may be preoccupied with their own stressors (whether it is abuse, finances, mental illness, etc) and therefore unable to attune and care for the child. Without the presence of a calm adult, even small stressors can create emotional overwhelm and send the child into an anxious state. When these experiences are repeated, it trains the child’s nervous system to be on guard at all times. When the child becomes an adult and has more control over their life circumstances, this pattern of anxiety remains.
Training the Brain & Body Towards Calm
Training your brain and body toward calm starts with building awareness. Consider the following questions to help you better understand your personal patterns:
- When you are anxious – how does your body feel?
- What triggers your anxiety?
- How do you know you are in a state of calm?
- What helps you get back to calmness when you’ve left it?
Once you establish awareness, you can commit to pulling yourself back from hyperarousal through intentional grounding and calming techniques (Patrice recently posted a few here). If you are able to engage in this practice consistently, you will create a new pattern. This can be disheartening at first, this video outlines a man’s journey to rewire his own ingrained behavioral pattern and his initial frustrations.
A great way to jumpstart a new pattern is to engage in mind/body therapeutic techniques. In my work with clients, I use brainspotting and mindfulness to help clients understand the subconscious drivers that support patterns of chronic hyperarousal. Once the subconscious becomes conscious, we can release the patterns that are no longer serving us and create new, sustainable patterns that allow for an increase in personal and social connection.
Kaitlin Cary-King, APSW