We live in one of the safest times in history. People live longer, medicine is improving, but despite all of this, we’re experiencing an epidemic of anxiety.
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We are surrounded by people, yet we are somehow less connected. Loneliness and isolation put us at risk for anxiety, which can be debilitating in itself or lead to other life-threatening health issues.
Dr. Russell Kennedy knows all about anxiety. Not only is he a neuroscientist and medical doctor, he also suffers from anxiety personally. His unique experience and perspective, grounded in a scientific understanding of how the brain works, are helpful to anyone struggling to cope with anxiety in their day to day lives.
Is Loneliness at the Root of Anxiety?
According to Dr. Kennedy, much of anxiety is connected to loneliness. We no longer do things together as community. People are doing less and less together, which means the Social Engagement System in our brain isn’t getting the kind of practice and stimulation it needs.
When we are children and we play with each other, we look at each other and we see each other’s faces to activate the Social Engagement System and learn to interact. Even as adults, we still need this practice, but we often have our faces in our phones. We don’t look at the faces of others, parents don’t look at their children’s faces. We are with others, yet we’re not.
The Social Engagement System helps us self-regulate. It’s what happens when two people are interacting. When we can look at someone’s face and get that connection, the nervous system can relax, and that’s when there’s a feeling of rest and safety.
No One Heals Alone
When we start feeling nervous or depressed, we start to withdraw, which is the opposite of what we need to do. We need that social interaction to feel safe, but if we are anxious and others begin to pick up on that, it can make them not want to be around us. Many of these things happen on a subconscious level.
No one heals alone, but we are so afraid of judgement that we often struggle to connect, especially when we have fallen into the negative feedback loop of anxiety, disconnection, and isolation.
Anxiety, and to some extent depression, are self-propagating in this way. As you withdraw more, you withdraw from the very thing you need the most to heal from anxiety, which is connection with other people.
Stress Physiology: What’s Happening in the Body?
Physiologically, when we are experiencing stress and anxiety, or that “fight or flight” response, cortisol and adrenaline are secreted through the adrenal glands above the kidneys, and the whole body prepares for a fight or to run.
If you are experiencing anxiety in an artificial fight or flight situation--meaning, not an actual situation of danger--that energy has to go somewhere if you don’t use it to flee or defend yourself.
Because of this, you will often sweat more, sometimes your gut will clench. You may also lose your appetite or feel nauseous. Your body shuts down any motility it deems unnecessary in the fight or flight situation.
The Negative Side Effects of Anxiety
If someone is having their stress response activated frequently, there are negative side effects that can manifest as a result. These include high blood pressure, heart disease, coronary artery disease, stroke, and even dementia from chronic cortisol use in the brain.
Aside from some of the more obvious health risks associated with anxiety, there are secondary risks as well. As already discussed previously, anxiety also often leads to withdrawal, isolation, and depression.
Depression has its own set of health risks, and being socially disconnected may also lead to inactivity, which is never healthy and can lead to obesity and greater risk of heart disease among other things.
Stepping Out of Anxiety by Getting Into the Body
So what can you do about anxiety? Depending on the state of your anxiety, you may need to seek out professional help. If you want to better understand your anxiety and reduce it in your daily life, Dr. Kennedy says it’s important to first realize that anxiety has a lot to do with the story you’re telling yourself.
“If there’s one thing I could tell people about anxiety, it’s to get out of story.” It’s really important to stop thinking and get into feeling. Find where the alarm is in your system, but avoid trying to label it, because your mind is going to try and find out what it is, and it will bring you back into story.
One way to get out of your head is to get into the body. Yoga, Tai Chi, QiGong, and dancing are great ways of synching the body and breath, centering yourself, and really feeling the body through movement.
Tips for Alleviating Anxiety in the Moment
Breathe all the way out. Breathe all the way in. Feel the body. Feel it in your chest, and really feel the inside of your body. Then breathe out. This will activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is the opposite of the “fight or flight response,” often referred to as “rest and digest.”
Ask yourself, “What does my right index finger feel like?” Notice how it feels. This is a very easy way to get into the body and physical sensation.
Go to the mirror and say: “I see you, I know you, I’m grateful for your challenges and your gifts, and I love you.” Do some journaling after if you have time.
Put your hand on your chest and feel where the anxiety is coming from. Usually it’s in your heart area, between your throat and chest. Wherever it is, find it in your body. Connect with that feeling. You don’t have to get too deep into it, just feel it. Say “I’ve got you.” Just the fact that you’re connecting to it will start easing it.