Submitted by Allison Allen, Ph.D.
Chief Behavioral Health Officer
NorthLakes Community Clinic
May is designated as Mental Health Awareness Month, which marks a great time to focus on a mental health topic that impacts us all – anxiety. (Maybe because by May we can again stand to think about such things!)
Anxiety is very worth taking a look at. We all hate anxiety – it makes us tense, worried, and scared, it preoccupies us and it drains us of energy. We spend a lot of time strategizing to avoid it, and it shows up in such an amazing variety of ways! So, what is anxiety? It may seem obvious – anxiety is fear. Well, yes and no.
Yes, because anxiety is expressed in our minds and bodies just like fear, and when we feel it we feel afraid. No, because unlike fear, which is designed to signal us that we are in actual, physical danger and we need to do something, NOW, anxiety, even about very specific things, such as finances, public speaking, asking someone out on a date, does NOT signal an actual threat of bodily harm, and hence does not actually call for immediate evasive action, though because it feels exactly like fear we often respond as if it does.
Fear is like when your smoke alarm goes off. You jump, startled, and immediately feel a rush of adrenaline and your focus narrows. You start looking for the problem. Sure enough, you smell smoke. Oh no! The dryer has apparently caught fire, smoke is pouring out of it. You take action – you unplug it, call 911, make sure the kids are out of the house, and do all the things you need to in order to reestablish safety. This is fear in action, working perfectly. Anxiety is also like when your smoke alarm goes off. You have all the exact same reactions of being startled, filling with adrenaline, and getting hyper-focused on threat and danger. Except this time, it’s going off because it’s overly sensitive and you are using the toaster. No emergency. Deep sigh of relief, move on. Except that with anxiety, it is as if the alarm keeps going off, and we never do seem to figure out it’s just toast. We jump every time. We search for danger. We stop making toast. Even if we love toast! But then we make pancakes, and it goes off again. Soon, no pancakes either. So sad! These false alarms don’t feel false, and they can take over our lives. No wonder we hate anxiety and regularly self-medicate it with alcohol, drugs, food, and any other distractor we can lay our hands on. And then we feel anxiety about them, too…
Avoiding actual, physical danger is of course very adaptive. Avoiding imagined danger makes our world smaller and smaller, and paradoxically, the more we avoid our anxiety the bigger it actually gets. It’s a trap all of us fall into at some point. Maybe you can relate?
It can feel pretty hard to reverse anxiety ruling our day, because it means, step by small step doing the things that scare us. It feels backward, like running into a burning building. So, like a firefighter, we need a good reason before we are willing to do that. You might start by noticing what you are missing when anxiety is your guide, and why it matters to you. Then practice just noticing that scary though ___ is, it is not ACTUALLY, physically, dangerous to you even though your thoughts and your body are both screaming “Danger! Danger!” Take a deep breath, and do one small thing, until it feels doable. Then the next, and see how quickly you regain your confidence.
If you struggle with anxiety, we may be able to help. We offer Behavioral Health services in-person and remotely at a number of our locations. To learn more, visit nlccwi.org or call 888.834.4551 to schedule an appointment.
Allison Allen is Chief Behavioral Health Officer at NorthLakes Community Clinic.