Underlying Reasons You Might Be Anxious (Part 1)
Updated: May 22
It's your old, dear friend....Anxiety!
I love to make you feel nervous, worried, panicked, angry, sad, and out of sorts. My favorite thing is to watch your palms clench and sweat drip around your temples. Oh, we spend wonderful quality time together in your bedroom, just ruminating on all that is going wrong or could go wrong. I tell you it's MUCH better to plan and control all the things and to NEVER let a ball drop, otherwise your world will end. I scare you into thinking people won't like you or think you are a bad mom if they see you like this. Therefore, we must pretend all is well and that you got it all covered. Lastly, make sure to smile and hide what you really think and feel so you don't get in trouble.
If so, you have a relationship with anxiety that is controlling you.
Before we go into the what may be underlying anxiety, it is important to make one distinction. Stress and anxiety are different beasts. Stress is a normal, and sometimes healthy, human response; but it can feel like anxiety when it is happening. It helps us to know when we need to change something in our environment to eliminate threat or shift our perception to something more adaptable.
Stress is helpful in small and acute doses, such as during change and transition; or when we experience something whereby we need to be on alert, such as crossing the street with kids during a busy time of day. Once these factors are no longer present because we have removed them or naturally moved on, the stress response should dissipate and we feel "normal" again. Stress is a buildup of chemical energy in our nervous system.
When we find a way to move that energy through and out, we tend to feel better! It is a primitive response and thank sweet goodness we have it, otherwise the layers of stress would compound and create both internal and external issues.
But what happens when our brain and body don't get the message all is well? We experience prolonged stress that turns into anxiety. When anxiety is persistent and occurs in situations that are not actually threatening, but feel like they are, it can pull you away from the enjoyment of life by experiencing the multitude of symptoms described at the beginning of this article.
Parenting and just being an adult itself is fraught with stress. The short term daily responsibilities and tension, plus the long term unknowns of how our kids will turn out, if we are doing the right thing (ever), and/or what impact is the world having on your kiddo(s), is enough to make anyone feel like they are losing it. However, if you are experiencing anxiety consistently and don't feel like you can just "shake it off," there are a few reasons as to why that might be the case.
Why is this important?
Because knowing the underlying causes of your anxiety might help you determine your course of action for recovery. In part 2 of this article, I will talk about how to heal and work to overcome these underlying reasons for anxiety.
People pleasing is a response to social fears. It is a way to show up in the world as a version of yourself you think other people want without much regard for how you really think and feel. The motivation is to keep the peace and make people like you and/or think a certain way about you. It is a protective mechanism to preserve or create connection because you fear it won't be there if you only show up as you are. People pleasing is like the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae, it looks pretty and decorative and takes your eye away from the seemingly boring vanilla ice cream. But guess what tastes better? It is DEFINTELY NOT the cherry.
When you people please, you disengage from essential parts of yourself that make you, you. Your identity becomes unstable and how you feel about yourself becomes confusing. Not having a good grip on who you think you are is anxiety provoking. Not only does people pleasing disengage you from your authentic feelings, it also pulls you away from your personal values.
People pleasing is another way to say "hiding from others." Hiding is a response to fear and shame. In order to counter balance the primal shut down response to shame, we need to embrace vulnerability and the risk that being your true self poses. The risk is often not as big as we think it is. Sure, a relationship could dissolve or we might not get what we want; AND we could also create an opportunity to take off whatever armor we carry and feel light and FREE!
Ah perfectionism....my personal toxic friend. I used to think perfectionism was all about appearance and aesthetic. It certainly can manifest that way, and it can also show up in how one internally generates drive, ambition, and relationships. Perfectionism is a way to control uncertainty. What a person is uncertain about is unique to each individual, which is why perfectionism is difficult to pinpoint. Additionally, perfectionism is a way to guard against shame and doubt. Interestingly, it is common to feel shame and embarrassment when you don't meet the perfection standard, which is impossible anyway.
An internal paradox sparks anxiety like gas to a flame. You can't win in a paradox because both behaviors cause pain. Our brain and body typically don't like pain; whether it's physical or emotional pain doesn't matter, the brain just reads your experience as pain. Thus, you go into a fight, flight, or freeze response. You may experience irritability, shame, guilt, or avoidance. Since these are all states of emotional pain, your body responds with anxiety to energize you to"get away from pain." The energy comes from adrenaline, which your body secretes large amounts when under stress. If the stress is prolonged and has turned into anxiety, you are likely experiencing an increase in cortisol, which inflames the body and keeps you restless and feeling uneasy.
Perfectionism has a dual purpose for those affected. It both tries to move you away from pain by protecting you against it, AND it also causes pain by holding you at an impossible standard.
As I said......PARADOX!
Fear of the Unknown
"I will follow you....into the UNKNOWWN!....into the UNKNOWWWWN!.....into the UNKNOOOOOOWWWWWWWWNN!" Oh Elsa, you really know how to sum up 2020, don't you? Frozen references aside, let's be real, 2020 gave us a whole new understanding of "the unknown." Never have we had such a concentrated dose of needing to change, pivot, reorient, reorganize, be okay with plans changing, suffer through MANY WTF moments, and give more grace to ourselves for not knowing what to do next.
The thing is, 2020 has not been the only life experience one has had in their lifetime that ignites the fear of the unknown. Most of us have had some scary thing happen in response to not preparing adequately. Since you probably don't want that scary thing to happen again, you might compensate by overthinking and over-planning. This could look like fantasizing about different scenarios, catastrophizing the end result to scare you into paralysis, procrastination (over-planning and under-action), and trying to control everything around you. Doing all this eventually makes you feel anxious because of fear, feeling helpless, or feeling powerless.
The unknown is inevitable and we cannot prepare for everything. We try, but fail, because we cannot predict the future. This can make us feel vulnerable (not in the way described above), fragile, and helpless. In the next article, I am going to talk about the potent antidote to these feelings so you can feel more resilient and confident about going into the unknown.
Trauma is one of the most over-looked and understated reasons why people have anxiety. Unless you are visiting with a mental health professional, you may only attribute anxiety to the stresses of daily life. However, if a person has persistent anxiety and it is associated with certain triggers, it may be trauma related.
A trauma occurs anytime a situation or event overwhelms a person's ability to cope, make choices, or feel autonomy in their body/mind. Sometimes, this is a one-time occurrence (car accident, natural disaster, or assault). Other times there is more frequency to the event and may have more complex factors (abuse, emotional manipulation, or inappropriate power differentials).
If a person does not have the resources or ability for whatever reason to process the trauma they experienced and heal, the trauma gets stored in the mind and body and has lasting impacts. For example, if a person experiences sexual abuse as a child, they might experience high anxiety about leaving their child with another caregiver. If a person was in a serious car accident, they may experience anxiety when they drive near the site of the accident.
If this is even hitting on an intuitive level and you believe you may need healing from unprocessed trauma, please seek out help from a licensed therapist to guide you through the process of untangling, grieving, and healing unprocessed trauma.
Information is more easily digested in small, bite sized pieces. Over the next couple weeks, see how this information resonates and metabolizes for you. Track the triggers for your anxiety symptoms and write them down. Notice any patterns or themes and see if they relate to any of the reasons above.
In two weeks (or so), I will publish another bite size article that will help you process and build skills around managing and improving anxiety based on these underlying reasons.