A few years ago a client presented concerns that his 8- year-old son, Brian (identifying information has been changed), began displaying signs of anxiety at bedtime. He would refuse to be left alone in his bedroom and struggled to fall and stay asleep, eventually struggling with tiredness throughout the school day. During the few hours leading up to bedtime he displayed evidence of extreme worry: ruminating about not being able to fall asleep, wide eyes, pacing, and constant seeking of reassurance. His usual soothing routines that were once effective were no longer working. Why was this happening? Because Brian was experiencing a human reaction to perceived danger.
Some aspects of anxiety can best be explained with the fight-or-flight response. Through our human ancestors, we have survived real threats by either fighting that which is trying to harm us, or running away from it. We have biologically inherited an automatic survival instinct. But over the course of time, and as our environments have changed, our brains have had a hard time deciphering between real and perceived danger.
The symptoms of anxiety are similar to how we react to danger, and invoke many of the interconnected systems in our bodies including the respiratory, digestive, cardiovascular, and nervous systems. That’s why people with anxiety experience symptoms like upset stomach, elevated heart rate, rapid breathing, inability to concentrate, sweating, and dilated pupils. But why do our bodies react to danger when in reality there is none?
For many of us, anxiety is triggered by memories of actual traumatic events. In Brian’s case, the onset of anxiety was preceded by a sleepover at a friend’s house. He forgot a favorite book and blanket that would usually sooth him to sleep. He spent the entire night wide awake in a place that was strange, and after his friend fell asleep, he felt completely alone. Although Brian was not physically harmed, he believed he was in danger for an entire night – this was a traumatic event for him. His memory of it triggered the fight-or-flight response and that created long term bedtime anxiety. Pretty soon his anxiety led to avoidance, like refusing sleepover invitations or camp outs, despite him having a strong desire to participate in these activities. Avoidance happens when we naturally want to avoid situations perceived as scary, uncomfortable or dangerous. But it becomes debilitating when it interferes with life’s responsibilities and pleasures.
In helping clients with anxiety, the first step is psychoeducational. Learning what is happening to our bodies and why it happens helps to understand real vs. perceived danger. Building awareness of what is actually occurring in our environment trains our minds to decipher when we need the fight-or-flight response, and when we don’t. During anxious moments, you can learn to ask yourself questions like “What do my senses tell me about my environment right now? Am I in any real danger or is this just perceived danger? Do I need my survival response or can I tell it to take a break? What are each of the systems in my body doing right now and how can I calm them down?”
Additional steps in therapy focus on learning skills to control the body, (like Progressive Muscle Relaxation), problem solving how to address real issues that are creating stress, developing awareness of inaccurate thinking patterns and how to correct them, and processing past traumatic events and placing fear where it belongs.
During a complimentary assessment with The Connected Owl, we will develop an individualized plan to successfully address your anxiety. Connect with our appointment button when you are ready. We’ll be here.
Photo by Léa Dubedout on Unsplash