By: Katrina Swenson & Cary Hamilton
Everyone feels anxious sometimes. vagus nerve(think the engine of a car)
Events like big tests, giving a presentation in front of the class, or a big game (among other things) can all create temporary feelings of anxiety. This kind of anxiety is completely normal, and even useful sometimes! Simply stated, anxiety is our brain’s response to a real or perceived threat, and is part of our body’s attempt to keep us safe.
We feel anxiety in our bodies, it isn’t all in your head.
When we feel anxious, we feel changes in our body, such as an increased heart rate, sweating, feeling hot or cold, changes in our breathing, stomach aches or indigestion, and more. This is because when we perceive a threat, our brain activates our threat-response system, otherwise known as the sympathetic nervous system.
The brain activates this response through the vagus nerve(think the engine of a car), which goes from our brain to all our major organ systems! The sympathetic nervous system(the gas pedal) prepares our body to fight or flee the threat by speeding up our body processes, and it’s all systems go! When the threat has passed, the vagus nerve activates the parasympathetic nervous system(the brake pedal), which returns all our systems back to standard operating mode.
Anxiety becomes a problem when the state of worry or fear lasts longer than expected, is more intense than expected, and gets in the way of your daily functioning. This could look like being unable to sleep because anxious thoughts keep replaying in your head, doing poorly in school because worry gets in your way of concentrating, not hanging out with friends because you fear you will embarrass yourself, etcetera. This level of anxiety can happen when our brain is in a constant state of arousal, due to an anxiety disorder, events such as a global pandemic, history of trauma, or other causes.
It can also happen as a completely normal response to ongoing abnormal events.
A meme appeared this year that said, “Welcome to 2020. If you do not already have an anxiety disorder, one will be assigned to you!” It will come as no surprise that in a year where the hits keep coming, people of all ages are feeling more anxious than usual.
Anxiety is a totally normal response to the totally abnormal ongoing stress of a global pandemic, economic instability, social unrest, political strife, social distancing, and remote learning. While anxiety may be a normal response in this context, that does not mean the anxiety is comfortable or untreatable.
Regardless of the source, when worry gets in your way, it’s time to take action!
There are many empowering things you can do to help yourself when you feel distressed. Taking deep breaths impacts the vagus nerve and helps activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Using grounding skills that soothe your senses can also help decrease the sympathetic nervous response. Exercise can also help. In fact, studies show that exercise can have hours worth of benefit for anxiety! And don’t forget that sleep is the cornerstone of our mental health. Being mindful of sleep hygiene and getting appropriate amounts of sleep when you can is hugely supportive of your mental health. Good nutrition doesn’t hurt, either.
If you are struggling with these areas, or you need help with managing anxiety, reaching out to others can be helpful. Talking with a friend or trusted adult can help, and don’t forget that a trained therapist can help you maximize your anxiety-management skills. Reaching out for help is an important part of self-care.
If you are wanting to seek out help you can find resources by doing a Google search for: Licensed Mental Health Counselor + "city name," PsychologyToday, GoodTherapy, or call the number on the back of your insurance card to start. Seeking out help is a brave and courageous act that you can do for yourself.