Did storm Uri leave us with more anxiety? And what is anxiety, actually?
I’ve been reflecting on the word “anxiety” lately. I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that we use that word so often in day-to-day conversation that two people could be using the same term but referring to different things.
Since stress levels were already heightened due to the world pandemic we’re still in, I think it is worth exploring this important emotion. According to the Center for Disease Control, “symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder increased considerably in the United States during April-June of 2020, compared with the same period in 2019.” Collective trauma events like the COVID-19 pandemic—with all its implications for countries’ economies and healthcare systems, businesses, schools and families—as well as last week’s storm with its ensuing water and power shutdown while we were experiencing weather that we are not accustomed to in Texas, can make us feel like we have diminished control over our own lives. This can in turn trigger anxiety.
Anxiety is highly contagious
Leaders and people in positions of power are not exempt from experiencing these emotions. And the thing about anxiety is that it is a highly contagious emotion, so part of the traumatic nature of these events is precisely the amount of collective uncertainty there is and what that does to our nervous systems.
So, while COVID-19 and Storm Uri have not impacted everyone in the same ways, what we all have in common is that big disruptions to our lives—especially when they’re not self-initiated—can be very stressful.
Anxiety, like any other emotion, is neither good nor bad
Anxiety, like any other emotion, is neither good nor bad. It is certainly true that in general people are more comfortable experiencing and expressing certain emotions more than others. It is probably more vulnerable for us to show others we feel anxious than to show we feel excited or happy, for example. Still, that does not mean emotions like anxiety are inherently negative or that they should be avoided or repressed. All emotions have the purpose of providing us with information about ourselves, our relationships and our environments. The intensity and frequency with which we experience emotions can also tell us a lot about our mental health, just like aches and pains tell us about our physical health.
For example, anger usually signals that something happening around us is unfair to us or that our boundaries were crossed. Sadness tells us about loss and the need to feel the grief associated with it in order to readjust. Guilt usually indicates that we have regrets about our behaviors or choices. Shame can suggest issues with our self-worth. Fear, the core emotion that anxiety derives from, tells us that something is unsafe or dangerous.
What is anxiety?
The American Psychological Association defines anxiety as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” Anxiety disorders can be accompanied by reoccurring thoughts or concerns that are intrusive, avoidance of situations that make the person worry, as well as possible physical symptoms like accelerated heartbeat, sweating, trembling and dizziness.
Sometimes, though, we might feel fear and/or anxiety about situations that are imagined or anticipated rather than real, or about events that are in our past or future, rather than our present. This can especially be the case for people who have a history of trauma or abuse. So, sifting through what is helpful anxiety and counterproductive anxiety is important.
Sifting through what is helpful anxiety and counterproductive anxiety is important
But how do we go about honoring and listening to our anxiety and what it has to tell us, while at the same time not feeding ruminations, worries and physical symptoms that may impair our functioning and make life unnecessarily difficult?
- Reflect on how you view anxiety. Did you grow up in environments where displaying uncomfortable emotions was frowned upon? Did the people you grew up around place a high value on looking like “you have it together”? Views regarding anxiety as a mental health struggle can range from complete denial (e.g., “it’s all in your head, just don’t think/worry about it”) to holding anxiety as one’s identity (e.g., “I have always been an anxious person, it’s just who I am”). How we relate to anxiety is super important because ignoring, resisting, or judging it can be really counterproductive. Not to mention that if we are caregivers or parents to little ones, judging our own anxiety harshly will teach children to do the same.
- Practice mindfulness and grounding skills. Connecting with your body and learning to listen to it is key to recognizing emotions and feelings coming up before they escalate and lead to unwanted actions/words, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and interpersonal conflict—all of which could in turn result in even more anxiety. Mindfulness and mind-body connection can be practiced through meditation, deep breathing, yoga, gardening, being in nature, playing with animals and other types of intentional activities.
- Develop a kind self-talk and work on trusting yourself more; if you struggle with anxiety or any other mental health issue, it doesn’t mean that you are weak or that you’re not trying hard enough. It probably just means that you’ve been through a lot in life. Anxiety tends to result in self-deprecating thoughts, so we just don’t need to add more self-criticism to the equation. Create loving mantras or phrases that you tell yourself and your inner child repeatedly when the anxious voice in your head starts talking. Remember how many stressful things you’ve overcome already.
- Identify safe and validating people in your life that you can share and process anxious feelings with; practice healthy boundaries and check on each other regularly to prevent emotional overloading and compassion fatigue.
- Seek trauma-based therapy to explore root causes of anxiety and begin releasing possible trauma stuck in the body.
Elena Petre, LMSW