By Felicia Burchell B.Sc. O.T. Reg (NS,NB, PE), RCT, CCC
“Knowing I’m going to be driving in snow in ice, my heart rate will speed up. By the time I get into the car, my palms will be sweaty. I do not like people talking to me. I’m white knuckling the steering wheel. Don’t touch the radio. It takes a while to feel grounded, to feel like the car is connected to the ground.”
Anxiety. Oxford dictionary defines it as “the state of feeling nervous or worried that something bad is going to happen.” Does this sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. We have all experienced stress or anxiety in various situations like before a test or a presentation, after losing a job or breaking up with a partner. Some people experience a generalized feeling of anxiety seemingly unrelated to any specific event. According to Statistics Canada, anxiety is the most prevalent mental health struggle that Canadians face– and since COVID-19 1 in 4 have reported experiencing high levels of anxiety. Much higher than when I started working as a counselling therapist.
In talking to countless clients over the years, I’ve seen that there are a number of different ways that anxiety can be experienced. Some people describe not being able to slow down their thoughts or racing heart. Others describe feeling nervous, restless, or tense and others talk about their inability to stop worrying. Sweaty palms, stomach problems, or feeling hot or flushed are not uncommon. Regardless of how anxiety is described or what triggers it, the commonality is a sense of discomfort.
As a counselling therapist, I believe it’s important to have a general sense of how anxiety affects our bodies and particularly our nervous system. Our nervous system is made up of two branches, sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic branch is responsible for “fight or flight” and is responsible for safety and survival. That is, when we are in danger or our mind believes we are in danger, it is our sympathetic branch that gears the body up to flee the scene or to stay and fight. On the other hand, when our parasympathetic nervous system is in charge, we feel calm and relaxed, that “rest and digest” feeling kicks in. When we’re feeling anxious, our body mistakes that anxiety for danger and goes into fight or flight mode – even if it doesn’t have to.
When this happens, some of the things we may feel are irritability, anger, fear, panic and frustration. Identifying the warning signs that we are experiencing anxiety is a skill we can learn. Anxiety can also be felt in the body in many different ways. Some people describe feeling their anxiety as tightness in the neck or shoulders or jaw, feeling warm, tightness in the chest, racing heart, feeling of nausea to name a few.
In order to help my clients cope with their anxiety, it is important to begin a process where they can feel a sense of empowerment. We work by learning to activate the parasympathetic nervous system. Being grounded and calm is the goal. There are many tools a person can learn to manage anxiety including a breathing practise, mindfulness, emotional regulation skills and changing the way we think and behave. For many with anxiety, negativity can also be a contributing factor. Being able to identify thoughts, challenging them and looking at whether that mode of thinking is helpful is the first step.
Anxiety affects so many Canadians, but there is a lot we can do to learn to mange it. There are online programs, books, support groups and therapy to name a few. Therapy can help you learn more about your anxiety, what triggers it and skills to change thinking and behaviour, learning grounding exercises, how to regulate emotions and mindfulness. By learning to mange our anxiety, we don’t have to believe everything we think.
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According to the Centre for Mental Health and Addiction, Nova Scotia, “more that 80% of Canadian adults experience levels of excessive stress in their daily lives.” Also more than 25% of adults report feeling moderate to severe anxiety. According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) anxiety has been at its highest level since COVID-19, particularly with women and front-line works.
About Felicia Burchell: Felicia graduated from Dalhousie University with a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy in 1989 and from Acadia University with a Master of Education (Counselling) in 2005. She is a member of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists, the College of Occupational Therapists of Nova Scotia, the Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association and the Nova Scotia College of Counselling Therapists. Currently a member and Secretary, of the Board of Directors of the Nova Scotia College of Counselling Therapists.