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On Anxiety

Gaining an understanding of the way our brains and bodies work can offer insight and empowerment. We can befriend our habitual thoughts, signs, and symptoms—routing them toward change.

OVERVIEW: WHAT IS ANXIETY?

Much of our understanding of mental health can be attributed to brain health—the parts of the brain and its various functions. Gaining a basic understanding of the way our brains and bodies work can offer insight and empowerment. By facing and returning to knowledge on how we work, we can integrate and apply these learnings to improve our quality of life.

Anxiety is characterized by excessive worry that is difficult to control, ruminating on the past, or avoiding things we fear might trigger us further. It can also induce physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, restlessness, difficulty concentrating, changes in sleep and appetite, and general bodily tension.  

It may be helpful to group anxiety in these forms: 

  • Physical or physiological
  • Cognitive or thinking
  • Felt or sensed

While there are unifying components to anxiety across individuals, it’s important to note the varying unique responses we might experience. One person’s experience of anxiety might present itself as an overactive mind and activity. Anxiety might create a kind of “stuckness” for the next person: frozen, unable to make a decision, weighing different options. This action or inaction might enable or prevent us from forming a string of words and sentences, building interpretation and meaning. It’s important to note that we might experience anxiety in a moment when it isn't needed. We write about this reality in our post on managing mental health and racism. 

The brain can be broken into parts that serve our thinking, reasoning, and emotional processing. Our brains face stimuli: information, memory, actions, sensations. The frontal lobe controls movement and language, helping to plan and problem solve. This part of the brain, alongside the prefrontal cortex, helps you decide when to follow an urge and act. We can regulate our moods and make good decisions. The amygdala—in charge of our brain’s fear response—activates in moments of perceived or real peak distress. We might freeze, limiting our ability to problem form words, plan, and think clearly. In another moment, our senses sharpen, cortisol pounds through bloodstreams, our muscles prime to fight or flight, and our temporal lobe directs emotion. The part of our brain in charge of reason slows and the amygdala drives fear. Anxiety accelerates and worries grow.  

NEXT STEPS: WORKING WITH ANXIETY

Skillful management of our anxiety includes befriending our brain’s tendencies and perceptions. In what ways does emotion and logic work together for good judgment? Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) includes the breakdown of certain states of mind: reasonable mind, emotion mind, and wise mind. We can take the rational and emotional parts of our experience to make an informed decision. DBT partially draws from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the gold-standard of mental health treatment. This evidence-based treatment is the focus of The Anti-Anxiety Notebook. It’s important to remember that anxiety is a felt human experience—with or without a clinical diagnosis. 

With the help of therapists, we created this tool to share evidence-based mental health education with as many people as possible, and share the benefits of journaling regularly to heal. Experts have tested many interventions for managing anxiety, and science reinforces the value of journaling in improving our brain health for processing and integrating life events and feelings. Through simple design and instruction—describe the situation, describe your thoughts, note the intensity, circle patterns, reflect—you can focus on the content and direction of your daily life. How does the process of writing feel? How do the words form on the page? What do you notice as you review a distressing thought? How do the Notes From a Therapist guide your thinking? Do you use the journal entries for words and visual art?

Learn more about how you can implement CBT-based journaling into a regular practice here

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