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I am a doctor of medicine and a neuroscientist.
I study anxiety; it’s my life’s work. (I also have anxiety.)
So, I work to understand and treat anxiety—to improve my life and the lives of others.
Here are 10 things most people (including doctors and therapists) don’t know about anxiety:
1. Anxiety originates from your repetitive thoughts and convinces you that those thoughts will save you.
But the truth is your thoughts only make you more anxious! Compulsive, anxious thoughts began as a way of (over) protecting you as a child, warning you about everything that could go wrong. This has the illusion of helping you but just keeps you trapped in your head. The biggest lie of anxiety is that your thoughts will keep you protected. The opposite is far more likely; your thoughts will talk you into more anxiety and make you feel less safe.
2. Anxiety is painless.
That’s right; anxiety is only thoughts of the mind. The pain you associate with anxiety is a state of alarm in your body. Read on, and I’ll explain.
3. Anxiety in the mind is different from alarm in the body.
There is an energy that we, worriers, carry in our bodies. I call that energy alarm. It is the residue of unresolved trauma we carry sequestered in our bodies, typically from childhood (it can also come from PTSD as adults). This is the source of the pain we call anxiety.
Most psychiatrists and psychologists do not make this specific (and critical) distinction between anxious thoughts of the mind and alarm in the body. And in missing this difference, they miss a critical path to understanding and treatment. My understanding of anxiety makes this key distinction between the anxious thinking of the mind and the alarm feeling in the body.
I don’t blame most therapists, as I only saw this distinction myself while on a therapeutic journey with LSD five years ago. Once I separated anxiety of the mind from the alarm in the body, I finally began to see a way to heal from decades of chronic worry.
4. Anxiety is only anxious thoughts; they have no power to hurt you until you believe them.
If I tell a patient she is pregnant, she may become extremely anxious. But if I tell a male he is pregnant, there will be no anxiety because there is no belief. No belief in the mind, no alarm in the body, no pain.
5. Anxiety is blamed for the discomfort you feel, but what actually hurts is the state of alarm in your body.
Think to yourself, “I have a headache.” Is that thought painful? No, because it is only a thought. Even the thought, “I might have cancer,” is only a thought. If you simply see it as words strung together by the mind, it can’t hurt you.
Anxious thoughts can only hurt you if you believe them, and then again, that belief only creates pain by aggravating the alarm in the body.
6. Anxiety in classical thinking is thought to be a “state of mind,” but in reality, it is a “state of body.”
Therefore the best way to treat it is by using the body. You can’t beat anxious thoughts with more thinking. I like to say, “You can’t beat thoughts on their own turf.” Get out of your mind as soon as you can!
7. So, “anxiety” is a combination of anxious and fearful projections of the mind and a state of alarm in the body.
Those scary projections, when believed, then activate the alarm in the body. When the body’s alarm is activated, this fearful physiological state creates more worries in the mind because the mind is a compulsive, meaning-making machine.
When it senses the uncomfortable activation of alarm (from old unresolved trauma) in the body, it creates equally uncomfortable thoughts in the mind to “make sense” of the painful feeling. A feedback loop is created: anxious psychological thoughts of the mind fuel the physiological alarm in the body. And the physiological alarm in the body fuels the anxious psychological thoughts of the mind. I call this the “Anxiety-Alarm Cycle.”
8. “Anxiety” is out-of-control thinking.
And since you can’t beat thinking with more thoughts, logically, anxiety can only be treated by going into the alarm in your body. You are calming the only part of the cycle you can control. When you are “anxious” (actually, you should really call it “alarmed”), finding sensation in your body is the only way to break the Anxiety-Alarm Cycle and the only way to get you out of your head.
9. Anxiety and anxious thoughts are always about the future.
(Even if it is just five minutes from now.) So, bringing yourself into the present buffers you from these future-based assumptions. Focusing on your breath, rubbing your fingertips together, touching your hand on your face or chest, or smelling an essential oil will bring you into the present moment.
When you make the intention to connect with your body, you are perfectly able to sense exactly how you feel at this exact moment. But you have no idea how you will feel at this exact time tomorrow; you can only feel in the now. When you feel alarmed, make the intention to focus intently on sensation.
As a result, the energy that was focused on powering the hamster wheel of destructive thinking in your mind is now repurposed and redirected into focusing on constructive feeling in your body. As a result, less energy remains to power the scary projections of the future, and more energy goes to the feeling of present moment sensation in the now. It’s a win-win.
10. Anxiety is healed by learning to create a safe place in your body and disciplining yourself to go there when you are “anxious”—consistently.
Instead of being seduced into more thinking—which just traps you in loops of endless thought—train yourself to move from rumination to sensation. When you catch yourself in obsessive thoughts or worries, make a conscious intention to move into the feeling of your body with breath, touch, smell—anything else that brings you into sensation and out of explanation.
When you learn to change your focus from your hyperactive and hypervigilant mind and focus intently on the sensation in your body, you do three critical things:
>> You starve the thoughts for energy (as your attention is now on sensation and not rumination).
>> You teach your system to create a safe place in your body.
>> You bring yourself into the present moment. And because all anxious thoughts are future-based, you further distance yourself from their seductive powers by grounding yourself in the present moment sensation.
I’ll write more about healing the unresolved trauma energy of alarm in the coming weeks. For now, just know that your anxious thoughts are like Sirens on the shore who bring only pain and death to the sailors who follow them.
Change your course from thinking to feeling.
When you feel alarmed, make a firm intention to direct yourself away from the thoughts of the mind and toward the only true path of safety: the present moment sensation in your body.