Did you know there are TWO types of anxiety?
Updated: Feb 20, 2019
What is Anxiety?
On a purely physiological level, anxiety is the physical sensations and catastrophic thoughts brought on by heightened levels of cortisol in the brain. Usually these levels of cortisol are increased in the brain in response to an external trigger.
Something happens and you begin to feel your heart race, short and rapid breathing, sweaty palms, sinking feeling in stomach, shaking, nervousness, or other like symptoms. These symptoms are activated by a release of a chemical (cortisol) in your brain. Cortisol is natural and is designed to protect us during a dangerous situation. However, an over anxious brain produces cortisol in situations in which there is no present danger, but the situation presents similarities to past dangerous circumstances.
Two types of anxiety
There are two types of anxiety: fight/flight/freeze and dread.
Fight/flight/freeze is generally a reaction to something in the individual’s environment. The brain quickly releases a high dose of cortisol and the individual goes into survival mode. After the individual is safe, the level of cortisol drops back to a normal level. Fight/flight/freeze anxiety becomes unhealthy when the brain is triggered frequently due to being circumstantially (or a learned behavior) wired to be triggered by otherwise normal events, words, smells, sounds, etc.
Dread is caused when the cortisol levels in the brain never return back to a normal level, but a new normal is created which is higher than a healthy level. The individual consistently feels anxiety symptoms and may find themselves hyper-vigilant and rarely in a relaxed state. There is not a healthy version of dread as it is an abnormal, constant high level of cortisol. This cortisol level can affect an individual’s overall mental health and physical health.
How do I reduce my anxiety?
If you feel you are too often triggered, there are methods for rewiring the brain to feel safe in normal situations again. These methods may include keeping a thought diary. A thought diary is revisiting a situation which caused abnormal fight/flight/freeze response and utilize a process to consider and challenge your thoughts which led to the anxiety symptoms. You can look up “thought diary” and find many versions online.
Another method could be identifying certain triggers that caused fight/flight/freeze and intentionally exposing yourself to those triggers while utilizing tools such as structured breathing to minimize anxiety symptoms.
There are several other methods including reprocessing the origin of the trigger which should be done with an experienced clinician.
If you feel continual anxiety symptoms, there are methods for lowering the overall level of cortisol in the brain. These methods primarily center around feeling safe and trusting more.
Grounding is a method, which could help reduce dread. Grounding is the act of pulling yourself back into the present and away from considering all the “what could happens” and “what ifs.” This may look like an individual utilizing a structured breathing technique while intentionally and systematically becoming aware of what is around them. What do I hear, smell, see, touch, and taste. Anchoring themselves in the present can reduce the dread and fear caused by “waiting for the next shoe to drop.” During this process the individual intentionally recognizes in that moment in which they stand, they are safe. They are ok. They can breathe.
Mindfulness is another technique, which can be utilized to minimize dread. Defined simplistically, mindfulness is thinking about what you are thinking about, thinking about what you are feeling. Mindfulness challenges negative thoughts and reconsiders the appropriateness of negative feelings including the feeling of being unsafe. A mindful individual can recognize they are beginning to feel or are currently feeling anxious and can step back, consider their surroundings, identify their thoughts, identify their feelings, and determine a response to the situation as opposed to being subject to their normal reaction to the trigger with their thoughts and feelings freely flowing unchecked and unchallenged.
There are other methods for reducing dread such as rewiring the origin of the consistent need to feel in control or the consistent need to know what is going to happen or the consistent need to plan for any possible outcome – especially the negative outcomes. This should be done with an experienced clinician.
It is important to know what type of anxiety you are experiencing. Maybe it’s both. I have worked with many clients who never thought they would live without high anxiety only to find they could achieve peace of mind, relaxation, ability to trust, and the feeling of being safe. It is possible to lower your anxiety without medication. However, sometimes medications may be necessary. If you are tired of living hyper-vigilant or constantly triggered, rarely finding yourself in a relaxed state, reach out to a professional and get the help that could change your life.