With one in seven Australians experiencing anxiety, former sufferer David McLaughlin explains how comparing the symptoms to the winter lurgy can support recovery.
A racing heart, scary thoughts, brain fog, insomnia, trembling hands, pins and needles, panic attacks… these are just some of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, which around five million Australians have experienced at some point in their lives.
Anxiety is the most common mental illness in our country — and across the world — and it can be severely debilitating. It certainly was for me. When I had Generalised Anxiety Disorder a few years ago, it led me to unemployment, despair and even to the emergency ward.
I’m happy to say that I’ve made a full recovery, but at first it was a real struggle to come to terms with my symptoms. Instead, I kept wanting to fight them and make them go away — and that’s not a helpful attitude at all.
“Much of the power of anxiety comes from the constant struggle to fight it and make it stop; that’s how it can exert so much control over your life,” clinical psychologist Dr Catherine Pittman explains in her book on the subject.
If you’ve sought help for anxiety from a professional, then you’ve likely been told that practicing acceptance of your anxiety and its symptoms can greatly help with recovery. In fact, two of the most common non-medicinal treatment options for anxiety — mindfulness meditation, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) — are based on the notion of acceptance.
Anxiety sufferers often resist this concept. I mean, how are we supposed to accept symptoms that can make our lives almost unbearable on a daily basis? And by accepting, aren’t we giving up and letting anxiety win the fight?
That’s where the power of the flu analogy comes in. It’s a concept I write about in my book, I Am Anxiety, and it’s incredibly helpful in getting the idea of acceptance to stick, making recovery more likely.
Accepting the unacceptable
This may at first seem like a far-fetched comparison. As anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety will know, anxiety and flu are two very different things. But as far analogies go, it’s an effective one based on what the two have in common — the fact that they are both illnesses (one mental and one physical), with their own unique set of symptoms. And it’s the different way we deal with these symptoms that makes recovery from one illness incredibly difficult and recovery from the other relatively easy.
Here’s how the analogy works — if I have the flu, while I may not like it, I accept that I have it. I understand it’s a respiratory illness and that I’ll experience a particular set of symptoms. I accept it and give my body the rest it needs to recover.
On the flip side, when I experience anxiety, I resist it with every fibre of my being and do whatever I can to avoid it and anything that may exacerbate it.
I’m terrified of my anxiety symptoms, but the runny nose and aching joints I get with the flu don’t worry me in the least. I don’t spend every waking minute trying to get rid of the flu, nor am I consumed with thoughts about why I have it and why I feel so bad.
Acceptance doesn’t mean we have to like how we feel, but we can allow ourselves to be OK with it. And this is what gives us power over anxiety.
As Dr Pittman explains: “As strange as it may seem, by giving up attempts to control anxiety, you can actually be more in control of your brain.”
Get to know your anxious brain
Having a basic understanding of what anxiety does to our brain is another tool that can help us practise acceptance and lead us to recovery.
Exposure to our body’s stress hormones — cortisol and adrenaline — can cause changes to our brain. These stress hormones cause the amygdala (the part of the brain that controls our bodies’ fight-or-flight response) to get better at doing its job. Since its job is to get our body ready to deal with danger, we basically get better at being anxious. Our fight-or-flight response remains switched on, which triggers symptoms like a racing heart or difficulty sleeping.
“As you go about your day, the amygdala is vigilant for anything that may indicate potential harm,” Pittman says. “While the goal of protection is good, the amygdala can overreact, creating a fear response in situations that aren’t really dangerous.”
Eventually, these changes in the brain can make symptoms of anxiety become a full-blown disorder, such as Generalised Anxiety, social anxiety or panic disorder.
This knowledge allows us to re-frame the way we relate to our symptoms, because it makes it easier to accept that we are suffering from an illness (as opposed to losing our minds). It becomes clear that our amygdala isn’t working the way it should and it therefore also becomes clear that the path to recovery involves taming the high-performing amygdala through acceptance.
How to practice acceptance
It can often be overwhelming to try and accept every symptom anxiety throws at us collectively, so applying acceptance at an individual-symptom level can also be a powerful recovery tool. Here’s how it can work with some of the most common anxiety symptoms...
INSOMNIA: It’s one of the most debilitating anxiety symptoms and, ironically, it’s often our fear of not being able to get to sleep that keeps us awake. Going to bed for a few nights in a row and accepting that we probably won’t sleep much isn’t going to suddenly take our insomnia away. But knowing what’s going on — that a hyperactive amygdala is making excessive cortisol run through our body, causing our heart to race — can help create a bit of space between insomnia as a symptom and our intense fear of that symptom. Recovery begins within this space.
TREMBLING HANDS: Anxiety sufferers often go to great lengths to hide this symptom — avoiding certain people and situations — to avoid embarrassment. But knowing that jitteriness is simply a result of having too much cortisol and adrenaline in our systems, and that it’s perfectly normal, is the first step towards taking the fear away. You wouldn’t be embarrassed if you were sniffling; having trembling hands is no different.
RACING MIND: This symptom isn’t visible to others, but it can make sufferers feel like we’re losing out minds. However, knowing that the constant onslaught of cortisol has affected our brain, creating a relentless stream of thoughts, helps us let our brain do what it wants to, and stops the cycle of worrying. This gradually tells our amygdala that we aren’t afraid of our busy mind — or any of our other symptoms — and allows recovery to take place.
Full recovery from anxiety illness is possible and slowly learning to accept what seems unacceptable, and allowing our illness to run its course without fear, is a crucial step.
Mindfulness: a vaccine for anxiety?
If a vaccine is our best protection from getting the flu, then mindful meditation may be the mental equivalent in protecting our brains from anxiety.
THE SCIENCE. Studies show that regular mindfulness practice can reduce the size of the amygdala, and a smaller amygdala means less anxiety. In fact, research from Harvard University neuroscientist Sara Lazar in 2015 showed that an amygdala can shrink from mindfulness in as little as eight weeks, and that this correlated with study participants feeling less stressed.
THE BENEFITS. Mindful meditation lets us use the natural neuroplasticity of our brain in a positive way. It’s a practical exercise that lets us train our mind to be more present which means less resistance to anxious thoughts and feelings (i.e. acceptance) and more focus on living our life.
HOW TO START. First of all, ignore the voice that says I can’t meditate. Everyone can. It’s skill we learn slowly so it takes practice. Secondly, start with short sessions of around five minutes, then as you feel comfortable, increase to 10 or 20 minutes. There are many apps that provide high-quality guided mindful meditations, but two great ones to check out are Headspace and Smiling Mind, which are both free.
Find out more at www.iamanxiety.com.au