What do anxiety symptoms mean?
The physiological symptoms of anxiety are actually quite ubiquitous and somewhat vague.
What I mean by that is the symptoms we usually see in anxiety (racing heart, shaking, hyperventilation, feeling hot) can happen in many different situations and may not be particularly specific to that situation.
For example, physiologically we might feel the same after running two miles as we might thinking about our upcoming presentation. In both cases, we may be breathing hard, our heart is racing, and we may have a slight upset stomach.
You may also notice that certain emotions also have very similar physical responses. Emotions such as, excitement, fear, anxiety, anticipation, and surprise, may all have very similar physical responses.
So how do we make conclusions about how we feel or what symptoms mean when these sensations are so vague in nature? The answer is in how we interpret them.
Examples of interpretations and its effects on anxiety
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) models posit that our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, and behaviours are all interconnected and affect one another. Therefore, when we experience physical sensations associated with anxiety (e.g., heart-racing, rapid breathing), there is a specific thought/interpretation associated with it. This interpretation can lead to better or worse outcomes depending on the situation.
For example, let’s say two friends just walked up a few flights of stairs and begin noticing sensations of difficulty breathing, dizziness, and heart racing.
Friend A thinks to themselves “Oh man, that was a bit tough. I must be a little more out of shape than I think. I should catch my breath and feel better soon though.”
Friend B thinks: “What’s going on? I feel so dizzy – what if something is wrong? What if this is the start of a panic attack. I can’t handle that right now”.
As you may guess, the symptoms for Friend A are likely to pass with time because they interpreted the sensations as a result of feeling a little out of shape. They did not attribute any anxious thoughts to the physiological sensations.
On the other hand, Friend B has attributed a very scary thought to their symptoms: “I’m going to have a panic attack and I can’t handle it”. In this case, the interpretation may increase anxiety, which subsequently exacerbates the symptoms they are experiencing. This creates a self-fulfilling prophecy in which a full-blown panic attack could likely occur.
These types of interpretations can exist across anxiety disorders. For example, people with generalized anxiety disorder may interpret anxiety symptoms meaning that they are unsafe or there is danger present. People with social anxiety may interpret these symptoms as confirming their belief that other people are judging them harshly. In response to these interpretations, we may avoid situations which leads to short-term relief, but maintains our anxiety about the situation.
As you can see, how we interpret our anxiety symptoms can drastically alter how we feel and act.
There are a few different ways to reduce the impact of negative interpretations when we experience anxiety symptoms. A few are listed below:
1. Noticing thoughts and letting them go
Regular mindfulness practice helps with negative interpretations by recognizing that these thoughts are simply thoughts. Through mindfulness practice, we learn to acknowledge these interpretations but not give them power to affect us.
In the case of panic, we may simply acknowledge that we have some worries that these symptoms could lead to a panic attack. However, we do not accept these thoughts as the truth. This reduces the emotional turmoil we may feel from these anxious thoughts and reduces the risk of getting a panic attack.
2. Changing our interpretation of anxious feelings
A more active approach is to directly change our interpretation. For example, considering other possible causes of anxious symptoms.
For someone with social anxiety, they may think that their anxiety symptoms before a research meeting means that other people are judging them negatively or thinking poorly of them. However, it is also possible that the cause is anticipation for the event or excitement to showcase their research.
Similarly in panic disorder, symptoms of anxiety could be associated with other interpretations (e.g., exercise, nervousness, random heart-flutters), rather than being interpreted as a sign of a panic attack.
3. Recognizing that anxiety symptoms are normal (and helpful)
Anxiety symptoms are a normal and adaptive response to stressors. If we had no anxiety, then there may be many things we might forgo because we are not worried about it. We’d be less inclined to be very observant of our children in case they got into danger; we might not take an important exam or presentation as seriously; or we might be a lot less protective of our own lives.
Therefore, the sympathetic nervous system prepares us for potential dangers by putting us into a fight-or-flight response (e.g., which we commonly notice as symptoms of anxiety). Next time, it may be helpful to know that the anxiety symptoms you are feeling are a normal response to stress, and does not mean there is anything wrong with you.
4. Recognizing that anxiety symptoms are not permanent nor life-threatening
Along the same line, our anxiety response is not something that is permanent or dangerous to your well-being. Anxiety is a heightened state that cannot last forever and is not life-threatening (although it can feel like it, such as in the case of panic attacks).
Therefore, reminding yourself that anxiety will reduce over time and will not hurt you can be very important, especially in the case of panic disorder.
The way we interpret our anxiety symptoms can drastically impact the pathway that the anxiety takes. Therefore, it is important to recognize that the fight-or-flight response is simply a normal process and think about it in a way that helps, rather than hinders you. By doing so, we can take better control of how we feel and behave in different situations.
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