by Dr. Denee Jordan, PSY.D
Enter the holiday season without anything holding you back; the process may not be easy, but it is simple.
When it comes to really changing the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings we have been rehearsing for years, the work required can be significant. Think of all the energy you have used up suffering from your fear. What would happen if you put as much energy into practicing new behaviors? Anxiety is natural; debilitating anxiety is not. In fact, basic anxiety is necessary. It is our chemical preparation for potential danger. I like to think of it as awareness moving from the ‘front’ of the brain (location of rational, reasonable thinking), to the ‘back’ of the brain (location of basic survival). When we lived in the wild, a rapid shift from intellect to ‘fight, flee, or freeze’, was absolutely necessary; however in modern society, it can create a myriad of problems.
When looking at anxiety disorders it is very important to see how the stimulus-reaction cycle becomes progressively worse. The more anxious we feel, the more we lose our ability to use our human intellect and the more prepared we become to protect ourselves from life-threatening danger. A person becomes afraid of fear itself and begins to live at a progressively more intensive, baseline state of anxiety. Without intentionally breaking the cycle, the baseline anxiety goes up even further. Eventually a person completely loses faith in his/her ability to respond in healthy, manageable ways to general stress and/or the trigger. S/he tries to control the perceived danger (germs, crowded places, etc.) and this leads to avoidant behavior, obsessive thinking, withdrawal and shame.
People with anxiety disorders often have a significant level of anxiety that they acquired in childhood. Remember, anxiety is a natural response to perceived danger, but perceived danger as a child can be significantly more intense than that of an adult. Nearly every person I have worked with who has OCD or other anxiety disorders has a history of baseline nervousness. Recognition of baseline anxiety levels becomes an important part of recovery.
I ask my clients to use a rating scale for their anxiety levels 1 through 5:
1- Without bothersome anxiety
2- Noticeable anxiety- Able to function in usual activities
3- Anxiety is prevalent- Interfering with ability to engage in usual activities
4- Anxiety is extremely uncomfortable – Not able to function in usual activities; fear of having a Panic Attack
5- Panic Attack- Physical symptoms (rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, etc.)
Use of the scale aids in containing the anxiety and helps you view your feelings more objectively; acting as a reference point multiple times a day. You begin to recognize more subtle fluctuations in feelings and practice prescribed skills to regulate them. You then begin to build back self-trust and see that you are capable of experiencing different levels of day-to-day anxiety. It is essential that the person sees that it is a loss of faith in their own ability to respond accordingly to people, places and situations that is the problem. They are afraid of their responses, not of the actual trigger. We wire the two things together in the brain when they are actually separate.
Recovery is very simple, but usually not easy. It involves a series of individualized physical and mental exercises to re-teach the brain how to respond to different levels of anxiety. The exercises are monitored and supported daily. The more a person practices his/her recovery, the more progress will be made. The goal is to restore a person’s ability to recognize and regulate his/her feelings in an effective, loving way. Human beings function better when we remain in (or return to) the ‘front’ of our brains where we are able to calmly, rationally, deal with our lives. We are amazing creatures with amazing brains. We have anxiety attacks as a perfectly natural reaction to our perception of intense danger and our drive to survive. We can learn to respond differently as a natural part of our need to trust ourselves, feel safe, and evolve.
Anxiety can be crippling, but with compassion and commitment, it is entirely possible to regain a very natural response to life. It’s simply a matter of realizing that you had the key to recovery within you all along and trusting that you will always have the strength to overcome.
Dr. Denee Jordan, PSY.D is the Director of Mental Health Services with the LA County Department of Mental Health; in practice over 26 years. www.drdenee.com