I got an overwhelming response, to an impromptu video I recently shared on Facebook.
Anxiety is a common and sometimes crippling condition. But I’m surprised by the number of clients who don’t consciously realise they’re anxious, until I ask them one question.
Take a look at the video (or jump down to the transcript) – and see if you’re doing this as well.
Today I want to talk about something that keeps coming up a lot in practice with my clients.
I’ve been a naturopath for almost thirty years, and I’m seeing a lot more of it – subacute anxiety.
It’s just a symptom of stress. Let’s not pathologise it. Anxiety is just a way our body tells us that we’re stressed.
How subacute anxiety can manifest in people who don’t even know they’re anxious
A typical scenario is, when we’re acutely anxious we have that survival response. There’s more blood and nerve flow to the heart, lungs, brain and muscles – and we just want to get the heck out of there. It’s a real “beam me up Scottie” moment. You know that feeling!
But when we’ve lived for weeks, months and often years in a state of subacute anxiety, it means our autonomic nervous system is still in survival mode – but it’s not so acute that we’re constantly having palpitations or brain fog or freeze.
Recently I was talking with a client I’ve worked with for over ten years. I hadn’t seen her for a while and caught up with what’s going on. It was really apparent that she’d had at least nine years of constant survival stress. We’re not talking about work being a bit busy or juggling at home, we’re talking life and death stuff. So, when I asked her if she felt anxious, (I was surprised when) she said she didn’t.
This is the question I ask people who have chronic stress and don’t think they’re anxious.
“Do you ever have a sense of foreboding that something bad is going to happen to you or your family, or somewhere in the world?”
For me, I park my anxiety on thinking New Zealand will have another big earthquake and the people I love are going to be in danger.
A sense of foreboding or catastrophising
You know the scenario? I’ve got a headache, but it’s not just a headache because I’m dehydrated, obviously I’ve got a brain tumour! That’s the logical solution!
When I put this to my client she had a light bulb moment and said, “I catastrophise all the time.”
One of two things may be happening when we’re chronically, or sub-acutely, anxious but not aware of it.
Something may happen to trigger us a little bit, our stress becomes more acute and we start catastrophising.
But quite often we catastrophise when we’re not noticeably acutely stressed. My theory is that our autonomic nervous system sees us relax and says, “Heck! You need to remain hypervigilant to survive. This is all about survival. Wake up”. So we’ll wake ourselves out of this relaxed happy state by giving our anxiety something to latch onto.
I love what Brene´ Brown, the wonderful shame researcher, tells us. She says, our brain needs to make a story to make sense of everything. Even in the absence of data it will make up a story.
So the faulty story we may tell ourselves is that something bad is going to happen, therefor whammo – we’re anxious again.
We’re consciously anxious again.
I want you to go away and over the next week, think about whether you catastrophise or have a sense of foreboding. When that happens, say to yourself – “no matter what I believe I’m feeling, I have background stress”.
Slow your breath down, try the STOP technique. Basically, use your senses to bring yourself back to this moment, instead of being in your head going over everything that can go wrong.
Coming to your senses
Right now I’m smelling the jasmine on my desk, looking at what’s going on outside my window or the water jug on my desk. I can ask myself, “is this really happening?” And if it is, if there is an earthquake in New Zealand – what amazing Superwoman abilities do I have to stop it? I don’t!
It’s really uncomfortable feeling out of control of our world – anxiety reminds us that we don’t feel safe.
How I work with anxiety is I try not to pathologise it. I try to help my clients understand that this is a physiological symptom of stress. I teach people how their body works, so they can understand and feel more in control of what is going on. Why am I having palpitations? I know I’m not having a heart attack, this is a symptom of stress. It’s just a little bit of a panic attack.
Of course anxiety can be really crippling and depending on the degree of anxiety, you may need medication. But when your anxiety is subacute we can work with some fantastic nervous system herbs, nutrients and lots of lifestyle techniques so you can be more aware of what’s going on.
Have a think if you catastrophise and have a sense of foreboding. If you do, you’re welcome to get in touch and we can work together to make it better.