I’m an anxious person. I’ve been living with anxiety for years. It’s… no picnic, to say the least. My anxiety stems from my brain fixating on the worst-case scenario when I’m in triggering situations, a series of events I gained over time from personal experiences, some influence of genetics, and, you know, living in the world and hearing the news.
These could be things like flying (we’re gonna crash or get hijacked by terrorists!), public speaking (I’m gonna choke and panic in front of all of these people!), inhabiting any type of closed space (I’m going to die here!) — the list is near endless. I know that statistically, none of these things are going to happen. But that’s the thing, my brain doesn’t care about logic or statistics once it’s gone into “anxiety mode”.
Anxiety is your body’s response to a threat when that threat isn’t really there. What you feel is the fight, flight or freeze response which is your survival instincts kicking in. Your body is amping itself up: raising your heart rate, pumping blood to your muscles, dilating your pupils, all in order to get you ready to deal with the threat.
When there is an actual threat — for some reason the textbook example is always “if a lion shows up” — this all makes perfect sense. But when there is no lion, it makes these sensations feel inappropriate or nonsensical. This leads to a feeling of fearing that disproportionate reaction, figuring you’re either 1. Losing your mind or 2. Going to die.
Since my anxiety manifested fully when I was in my 20s, it’s always had very physical triggers. The slightest “abnormal” physical sensation can set me off thinking that something is wrong, that I’m sick, or dying. When I’m in closed spaces and can’t leave (like airplanes, elevators, or any time I get locked in somewhere), the scariest thing that pops into my head is “I’m going to have a medical emergency and I can’t get out”.
And of course, the anxious response is also physical.
When I feel anxiety coming on, it always manifests in extremely rapid heart rate, feeling like I can’t breathe or like my throat is constricted, and sometimes my legs shake. This is all very scary. And of course, it triggers a cycle – I’m actually feeling like a medical emergency is happening and this is exactly what I’m so scared of.
This has led to my anxiety being about getting anxiety, which I know a lot of anxious people share.
I’ve always struggled with being angry at my mind and my body for not realizing there isn’t anything to be afraid of. I used to also feel very envious of “normal” people who aren’t reacting as strongly as me to the fact we’re now on an airplane. Since I sought approval and recognition, it used to be very important for me to explain to others how bad the physical sensations are, how real they are, so that they will tell me it’s okay to feel how I feel, that it’s “normal”.
It takes a lot of work to accept anxiety and after years of coping with it, I still struggle with what I want to be able to do: face my anxiety with equanimity. Not run away from it, not try and avoid it, but instead, when anxiety comes, tell myself “fine, here’s anxiety, this thing is happening to me now”. I want to let the wave of it wash over me, subside and then go away – because it always eventually goes away, I know from all of my previous experiences.
And still, it is very difficult and I’m not always successful. I still get scared of my irrational reactions, I still get mad at myself, I still feel lost when it comes to this thing that is happening for no reason, not even really happening at all, and that others can’t feel. It’s constant work not to let my anxiety control the way I live – but I’ve made great progress.
Biofeedback has always intrigued me, as someone who’s so focused on the physical aspects of anxiety. What I love about biofeedback is the way that it gives room and a ‘voice’ to your body without judgment. You experience a tangible manifestation of what you’re going through, and you can see it and say “here it is, this is how I feel”. You don’t need to find a reason or rationale as to why this is going on in your body, you just need to be aware of it and then you can begin to learn how to guide it. This happens not by telling yourself “there is literally no reason I should be feeling like this right now”, but by saying “I accept that this is how I feel. Now let’s try to change it”.
The way biofeedback works are by recognizing the mind and body connection. We accept that our thoughts affect how our body feels in a way that can be measured. We also accept the power of those physical sensations. We listen directly to the body and physical reactions to become aware of our stress, manage it, and lower it. The psychological triggers may still be there, but our body’s resilience becomes better. We can learn not to be swept up in the wave of anxiety.
Coming to terms with the way my brain is wired and accepting that my anxiety will sometimes pop up is an ongoing journey. I believe that the journey begins with naming, understanding, appreciating, and allowing space for the physical sensations that anxiety causes. Creating awareness of what’s going on right now, without trying to analyze or explain it is the answer. Biofeedback is a great tool to practice that.