Many patients ask me, “What is anxiety?”. They live it. They feel it. But what it actually is can’t always be articulated.

If you’re wondering the same thing, this post may help.

Our bodies are complex. The mind and the nervous system interact with the rest of us constantly, even when we are sleeping. Without a balanced nervous system, functioning is difficult.

So what keeps us in balance? Two parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic and the parasympathetic acting together. They sense our body and work together to keep things running smoothly. One is known as ‘the rest & digest’ system and the other as ‘the fight or flight’ system. But really you can’t separate them. They work together.

However, when we have an overly strong flight or fight response, we see the relationship between the two systems alter, and we end up with anxiety. And is that a bad thing? Many patients attribute anxiety as a ‘bad’ thing. I’d like to present a reframe.

All humans, and really animals, have anxiety. It’s our survival system. Without it, we’d be hurt regularly. The reason you don’t walk into a street with moving cars is because of the protective effects of anxiety. So how is it that this normal survival system can give us so much pain and suffering? Because it can get out of balance.

We need to re-balance the body systems to help reduce anxiety to levels that don’t interfere with our ability to function. When patients tell me they have anxiety, really they mean the fight or flight system is in overdrive. And it’s a very strong system. It’s not easy to modify. But it is possible. Sometimes medication helps. Sometimes therapy helps. But evidence shows both together are the best way to re-balance.

Therapy helps you change brain signals that trigger the fight and flight. Medications do the same thing. Both together make it all happen a bit faster and with less struggle. Learning simple techniques, like grounding techniques and meditative or deep breathing give your body the messages needed to calm the fight or flight system. By regularly looking for ways to be calm, like building in time for yoga, light stretching, walking or listening to music, you strengthen the rest & digest system. When you have a strong rest & digest system, it’s harder to become out of balance in the first place.

What is anxiety? It’s a complicated biological response built to keep us safe. When anxiety is out of control, it can interfere with how we move through life. Anxiety can be eased with known and available methods and treatments. Learn to understand your anxiety, and you can control it.

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