Natalia Velásquez, M.S., Outreach Coordinator || Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS)
Anxiety is a physical, emotional, and psychological reaction to perceived threats, and many times the initial symptoms of anxiety can be characterized by what’s called the “fight-flight-or-freeze” response. The fight-flight-or-freeze response is one of the biological tools our bodies use to protect us from danger. When we feel threatened, the fight-flight-or-freeze response is automatically triggered and physiological changes prepare us to either confront, flee, or freeze in response to the threat.
These symptoms include increased heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, tensed muscles, shaking, sweating, dizziness/lightheadedness, nausea/“butterflies” in stomach, racing thoughts, and difficulty concentrating. Therefore, anxiety is helpful in small doses, as it provides us with information about difficulties that may be arising in our lives and can protect us from danger.
However, when anxiety becomes too severe and/or occurs too frequently, it can become debilitating and can lead to avoidance of the anxiety-provoking experience. Examples of avoidance include using alcohol/drugs to numb feelings, procrastinating on challenging tasks, and/or withdrawing in relationships.
Although avoiding “scary” things can provide a sense a relief in the short-term, avoidance in the long-term can make similar threats feel even scarier and can prevent us from living our lives in the most helpful way possible for our emotional wellbeing.
So, if anxiety is normal, and inevitable, how can we learn to notice our anxiety, allow it space in our lives, and continue living a valuable life?
A first step in alleviating anxiety is to initiate the opposing biological reaction to stress, anxiety, and fear-the relaxation response, which includes slower and deeper breathing, relaxed muscles, and a slower heart rate. When you notice feelings of anxiety, try taking several long deep breaths at the pace of 1-2-3-4-inhale, 1-2-3-4-exhale, repeat, while intentionally trying to breathe from your diaphragm, or your stomach area.
A second step is to check in with yourself regularly and notice if any thoughts, emotions, and behaviors arise throughout your day, including in anxiety-provoking experiences. Allow these thoughts/feelings to be present, while also using them as information that let you know “Hey, I am feeling anxious right now and that’s okay. What might help me feel better in this moment and moving forward?” There are many healthy coping strategies that can help you reduce anxiety!
Examples of coping strategies for anxiety:
- Relaxation exercises, such as progressive muscle relaxation. (Progressive Muscle Relaxation)
- Grounding exercises, such as the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. (Grounding Exercise)
- Challenging irrational thoughts, such as examining the evidence of your thoughts and gently challenging them in the moment. Ask yourself:
- Is my thought based on facts or feelings?
- How would my best friend see this situation?
- How likely is it that my fear will come true? And if it does, will it still matter in a week, month, or year from now?
- What’s most likely to happen?
- Imagery, such as imagining a calm environment. (Calming Guided Imagery)
Lastly, commit to living a life that is meaningful to you, by taking small steps to live by your values despite feelings of anxiety.
For example, although you might have some anxiety related to meeting new people, you might also really enjoy socializing and making connections with those who have grown close to you.
Therefore, challenge yourself to practice embracing the anxiety AND living your valued life, as these two experiences can coexist together. You might be pleasantly surprised by how taking deep breaths, noticing your anxiety, practicing healthy coping strategies, and making movement towards your values can actually help to reduce avoidance (which only increases anxiety) and alleviate the intensity of the anxiety.
Remember, anxiety is normal and will likely exist in many experiences. However, the way that we engage with and move through the anxiety is how we can enhance our emotional wellbeing.
If you find yourself in need of additional guidance during times of anxiety, please reach out for help! Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) is your student counseling center and we are here for you! CAPS provides a variety of mental health and wellness services to assist you and other students in successfully reaching personal, academic, and career goals. Please take a moment to visit our website: https://www.fit.edu/counseling-and-psychological-services/ to learn more information on how to request services and find resources for psychological health and well-being. Be the healthiest Florida Tech Panther you can be!