I woke up to my alarm for the 2nd time that morning feeling groggy. It was two hours earlier than I normally would wake on a Friday, and yet I was running late; whoever invented the snooze alarm is an evil genius. I hate running late, though it’s a situation I often find myself in. My mind began to focus on some solutions to my time problem: just have some cereal for breakfast, skip a shower, move faster, and eat faster…things like that. I sped into to the kitchen to make breakfast and discovered there was no coffee in the house. Who’s supposed to function in the wee hours of the morning without coffee? A friend needed a ride to an important appointment and I needed to make sure they got there on time. And with each misstep that morning I could feel the tension increasing in my traps, and the need to move faster. Unfortunately while operating at this pace I was making more mistakes, wasting valuable time. And then, I couldn’t find the keys. The tension was overwhelming. My mind started racing through worst-case scenarios. What if they missed their appointment because I hit the snooze, or couldn’t find my keys? That would be my fault, and would make me a terrible friend. And what would happen to them? The tension in my traps felt more intense and spread throughout my body, my jaw got tight. I felt like I couldn’t contain it. “Damnit” I shouted in frustration…Anxiety is a powerful force.
Fast forward to an hour later. I drove to my friend’s place and got to them on time. Traffic was light that morning and I dropped them off at their appointment with 20 minutes to spare. All of those catastrophe scenarios my mind generated suddenly seemed so silly in retrospect. I could breathe, my trapezius muscles could soften, I could finally relax and was on my way to getting myself a well-earned cup of coffee. In reflection it is pretty easy to see that my response to anxiety that morning was not very helpful except for causing me some distress.
Breaking down this situation: here’s how much anxiety I would like to have felt given the totality of the situation.
And here’s how much anxiety I experienced.
Ah the absurdity of being human.
That morning I was not very mindful. I disconnected from the present moment and allowed my mind to pull me into worries of the future, and ponder catastrophes yet to happen. It also pulled me towards the past with my critical mind, “if you only didn’t press that snooze button you wouldn’t be running late. Why didn’t you check to see if there was coffee yesterday?” My mind went to blaming. “If you weren’t making so many stupid decisions in the past, you wouldn’t be in this position now. If my friend didn’t need a ride, I wouldn’t be in this mess.” I also allowed my feelings to control me, reacting to the powerful hormones of anxiety by hurrying up, getting into flight mode.
We humans have a negativity bias. We naturally connect with experiences and thoughts that tell us that we are in danger more than ones that tell us we’re OK. Danger can mean many things: for our ancestors, that could’ve meant a large predator in the wilderness. In the modern era danger can be a car rolling through a stop sign, a fight with our partner, a work deadline, or running late for a meeting. Evolutionary psychologists call our propensity to be on guard for danger the false alarm effect. A great way to think about this process is like having an internal fire (danger) alarm. If a fire-alarm is extra sensitive and it goes off when it’s not supposed to it can be a nuisance at worst, but it doesn’t place your survival at risk. If a fire alarm isn’t sensitive enough and it fails to alert you to a fire, your survival is at stake. Thus it makes sense that we evolved to have a more sensitive alarm for danger instead of a dull one. When our alarms go off, regardless if the danger is due to a large jungle cat, fire, or running late, our fight-or-flight response activates increasing physical tension and narrowing the focus of our minds.
Complicating matters is the fact that the mind is a compelling story-teller. It tells us stories all throughout the day. Sometimes it daydreams ridiculous stories of possessing magical powers, or rehearses the big meeting coming up. Other times, it likes to catastrophize, magnify, minimize, judge and blame. It can weave tales of black and white about a rainbow. It told me I was a bad friend because I hit a snooze alarm, it told me that for sure my mistakes would cause my friend to miss court. In Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, we say that when our mind tells us a story, it changes our perception of reality, and we have fused with that thought. When you disconnect from that thought, it is called defusion.
That morning I fused with the story that “I am running late, I need to move faster.” And I reacted to that fusion with anxiety. Common physical symptoms of anxiety include increased heart rate, tension, gastrointestinal issues, tingling, numbness, sweating, clenching, panic and/or goosebumps. Typical psychological symptoms of anxiety include: racing thoughts, worry, catastrophic thinking, self-criticism, poor self-confidence, apprehension, problems with decision making, and/or fear. Some of the common behavioral reactions to anxiety include: avoidance through distraction, substances, staying away from reminders of the anxiety, suppressing thoughts, or substance use. Other reactions to anxiety include: rushing, pacing, nervous laughter, combativeness, or working extra hard to compensate for the feelings of anxiety.
In essence, our minds are prone to seeing the world in a more negative light, restricting our focus from seeing other perspectives, create stories that may enhance those negative perceptions. In response—to believe the stories your mind tells you—your body releases a series of hormones which make it more difficult to defuse from the story. Suddenly you get a vicious self-feeding cycle. That morning, I rushed through my morning routine due to anxiety, and as a result I made more errors, which led to an increase of the anxiety. I was so focused on the negative that I couldn’t see the blanket truth happening in the world around me.
So how do we manage our minds when they combine negativity bias and compelling stories? Well for starters, we can stop minding our minds. With mindfulness, meditation, yoga, or other mindbody practices we can learn to take the observer role, learn how to ground, notice that thoughts and feelings can be inaccurate, and they happen automatically. When we develop such skills we develop the power to choose which thoughts and feelings we want to engage with, and how we want to react to them. Mindfulness is an active practice that can be used throughout your lifespan. Mindfulness isn’t a cure-all that means we can achieve a state of being that removes us from human paradoxes and drama, but it helps a lot.
Other ways of managing mindbody reactions include taking active self-care to reduce our psychological vulnerability to unhelpful frames of mind. When our mindbodies are in peak health, they adapt to stressors with more flexibility, creativity, and ease. Peak health is often achieved by having good nutrition, regular exercise, sufficient sleep, feeling safe and secure, relaxation, managing stress, and satisfying our social, psychological, and physiological needs. When I gave my friend a ride that morning, I was sleep deprived and I also did not participate in exercise that week. Those factors made me more vulnerable to having an intense anxiety reaction compared to when I experience similar stressors of running late when I’m well rested and exercise regularly throughout the week.
Today, we explored some of the nature of anxiety. The human mindbody is sensitive towards danger signals, and responds by activating our fight-or-flight system. Additionally, the mind is a compelling storyteller and it can tell us tales of disaster, judgment, or catastrophe. And when we aren’t in peak health conditions, we’re more vulnerable to unhelpful frames of mind. Anxiety is experienced through physiological, psychological, and behavioral responses. Mindfulness activities, stress management, and self-care can help us manage our responses to our internal systems and give use more power to choose how we want to react to what is happening in the here and now. Thank you for taking the time to read this article dear reader. Until next time, farewell.