Anxiety is experienced by everyone, in different forms and at varying magnitudes. But what does anxiety really mean and how can we effectively address that internal, somewhat stifling, sensation? These are the questions we sought to answer in our instagram live with Ashana Badlani, a licensed Mental Health Counselor in New York City practicing Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, with an MA and an Ed.M. in Psychological Counseling from Columbia University. This article summarizes our conversation and answers these fundamental questions.
In order to understand anxiety, we must recognize that it is an umbrella term that encompasses worry and stress. In theory, we all know what worry and stress mean, but there are simple and important biological differences between how our bodies react to one versus the other. Worry is a cognitive response to an unpleasant or uncertain situation. It’s the internal voice in our heads that replay and rewind negative thoughts. Stress, on the other hand, is a more physical reaction to the environment around you. When you see a threat in your environment, your cortisol and adrenaline levels go up to help you deal with the threat. This change creates bodily responses such sweating, chest tightening, rapid heart beating, and shaking.
Anxiety, simply put, is a combination of stress and worry leading to negative cognitive and bodily reactions. Moreover, while we may worry about an upcoming exam or be stressed about the untamed tiger in front of us, anxiety is an emotion that arises to a perceived threat. Let’s use the untamed tiger as an example to help make sense of this distinction. Say you’re scheduled to go on a tiger safari. The day before the safari you watch a National Geographic episode about ravenous tigers. That NatGeo episode instills so much anxiety within you that you refuse to go on the safari, even though there is no precedent for unruly tigers. Your fear about what may happen is anxiety.
Now, let’s be very clear, this approach to anxiety is rather generalized and does not account for the different types of anxiety disorders that exist. Panic disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, to name a few, are variations of how anxiety can express itself in any one individual. The way anxiety expresses itself may be different for each person, which is why kindness and empathy are so important and judgment can be so detrimental. People’s emotions are on a spectrum, and they may not exhibit their symptoms constantly, helping ensure they do not define themselves by a singular diagnosis.
Living our lives based on a diagnosis is problematic because it boxes us. But, we should acknowledge when a diagnosis is prevalent enough that it becomes an integral aspect of our life that needs active monitoring. If anxiety causes insomnia or oversleeping, an inability to eat or a tendency to overeat, or simply inhibits you from performing your daily activities, then it may be worth seeking professional help to handle these signs.
Anxiety is experienced differently by everybody, and we should acknowledge that we probably feel worried, stressed, or anxious at least once a day. In such moments, some people spiral by allowing their negative thoughts to consume them. Others may attempt to avoid their thoughts altogether by overloading themselves with work. However, the most effective way to tackle anxiety is to actually sit with one’s thoughts and breathe through the restlessness to reach a stage of acceptance.
Of course, reaching a stage of acceptance is easier said than done, primarily because it isn’t always easy to understand what triggers our anxiety. Some people may be more genetically predisposed to feeling anxious, but more often than not there is an external trigger that causes anxiety. Realizing what that trigger is, whether social media or an extra long to-do list, and reframing it in a more optimistic light can help handle the anxiety. Practicing mindfulness and switching to a growth mindset or a changing your perspective about a situation may help you build the agency required to mitigate the growing feelings of angst.
Reeling back our expectations and perceptions is effective because, evolutionarily, we are trained to go to the worst case scenario, as a way of self-preservation. However, we no longer live in a world where survival mechanisms need to be part of our daily routine. We are not foragers anymore, and need to tame ourselves from constantly being on edge about situations.
Social media, for instance, is blamed for increasing youth anxiety. It does bring to light negative aspects about our society and culture, but it is not the sole culprit for the spike in anxiety levels. That, unfortunately, is our approach to social media. We tend to see a post about someone’s lifestyle, and within a matter of seconds move from A to Z about how our lifestyle does not live up to theirs. We take for granted that social media is heavily curated content and lack the discipline to stop ourselves from spiraling down a slew of depressing thoughts. Simply put, if we develop the self-awareness required to acknowledge when we are doing this and bring ourselves back to the present moment, we have the ability to break these associations and reduce our anxiety, even when we are not absolutely happy with our circumstances.
And while anxiety is constantly evolving, it reveals how resilient we are as a species. At the start of COVID-19, anxiety levels were considerably higher than they are today. People are adaptable and have adjusted to living through a pandemic by changing their routines to fit what is a new normal. This does not mean that everyone is adjusting to it the same way or at the same rate. It is also why therapy is so impactful.
Therapy is good for self-awareness and not needed only when you have something seriously going on in your life. It helps people heal by realizing the cause of their pain, talking through it, and growing from it. Therapy empowers you and assists self actualization by giving you the agency to understand yourself better. It is unfortunately and unnecessarily stigmatized against, but there is nothing shameful about it.
Finally, as promised, below are two easy ways of dealing with anxiety. The first is a grounding technique which will help you stay in the present moment. While the latter is a calming technique that should be practiced regularly through the day.
Technique #1: 5-4-3-2-1
o 5 things you can see
o 4 things you can touch (and actually touch them)
o 3 things you can hear
o 2 things you can smell
o 1 thing you can taste
Technique #2: 4-7-8
o Breathe in through your nose for four seconds
o Hold your breath for 7 seconds
o Breathe out through your mouth for 8 seconds
Maybe after reading this you will convince yourself you’re not someone in need of therapy, that you aren’t anxious, or that this still sounds like bogus. If that’s how you feel or think, we encourage you to at least try one of these two techniques we’ve mentioned because we hope it will make you realize the value behind mindfulness and self awareness. Achieving either is not easy, requires discipline, and sometimes, even therapy. Our goal is to help you understand the meaning behind anxiety, in general. It’s specific application to you is something we hope you will take the initiative to figure out because, at the end of the day, you will gain the most from it.
Reach out to Ashana: