How I Became Friends With My Anxiety

by NAU senior Megan Leddy

  • Trigger warning

ANX·I·ETY

“Emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” — The American Psychological Association (APA)

Stress vs. Anxiety

Stress and anxiety are two terms often used interchangeably; however, there is a distinction that should be made. The sensations between the two are similar, but they tend to vary from the where the pressure comes from.

Stress is often connected to something tangible (i.e. heavy workload, upcoming test, etc.) and tends to go away after the situation is over.

Anxiety can be more ambiguous in nature — it’s not so easily identifiable to a cause and it can be persistent.

Understanding the difference between the two is key, especially for college students who are balancing multiple moving parts.

My anxiety hit its peak at the beginning of my sophomore spring semester. The ball had dropped a month earlier to welcome in the new year, 2021, and we were still in the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Quarantine was this weird pause for everyone, practically forcing the entire world to sit with this uncomfortable period of uncertainty and reflect on what we once deemed important.

I was 19 when the world went on lockdown, and even then I was still too emotionally young to acknowledge that my current daily habits weren’t sustainable. Until one day in January 2021 when it all crashed over me and my sense of reality was stripped away.

That panic attack I experienced was at a severity level I’d never felt before.

I’d go on to experience that again every night for two more weeks before I decided to suck up my pride and move back home, hoping the comfort of family and the town I grew up in would solve everything.

It helped to an extent, but I’d continue to have episodes like that consistently for months to follow.

It’s a scary and emotionally exhausting experience to have your body be in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode and not be able to recognize this new version of yourself that was too fearful to do things that weren’t familiar.

I knew anxiety, but I didn’t know her like this. Layers of what I believed to have been part of my identity were torn away, and I was determined to put myself back together.

Why Do We Get Anxious?

Colossal Cranium has a very cute, digestible, and informative YouTube video on the evolutionary components of anxiety.

Anxiety was originally developed as a way to protect our bodies from imminent danger.

A common analogy used is to imagine you were face-to-face with a bear — your body begins activating the fight-or-flight response by pumping extra blood into your veins to increase your focus, flood your body with adrenaline to give you the speed to run away, and even shut down other parts of your body that aren’t as important to getting you away.

In other words, my sympathetic nervous system (SNS) thought I was in danger, even though I wasn’t. My brain and body weren’t trying to hurt me, but instead trying to protect me from a danger that simply wasn’t present.

I began to view my anxiety as a younger version of myself, scared and searching for comfort.

You know that saying your thoughts are the house you live in?

I realized that I had more power over my experience than I initially believed to be true.

I’m not saying that it was easy, because that wasn’t the case at all. It was more that I was ready to put in the effort to listen to my body when that anxious feeling would arise. It was simply calling on me to look deeper.

The 7 Steps to Thrive State

Befriending your anxiety isn’t easy because it’s hard to be friends with someone(thing) that makes your life so difficult.

BUT! Once we understand that anxiety is our body’s response to danger, we can better understand that it isn’t trying to hurt us, but help us.

Training your body to recognize that you are safe isn’t easy, especially when your SNS has become accustomed to this new default state.

In my path to getting help, I stumbled upon a podcast episode with guest Dr. Kien Vuu who introduces what he calls “Thrive State.” This concept of his is rooted in a science meant to empower oneself to take back control of their health and overall well-being.

How do we achieve it? Dr. Kien Vuu lays out the following seven steps as a blueprint:

1. Sleep

This is a hard one especially for college students, but making sleep a priority is imperative for brain health.

Quality sleep is important to a number of brain functions, including how nerve cells communicate with each other and how your system functions.

2. Nutrition

Being mindful of nutrition was such a game-changer for my journey! They say you are what you eat, and I wasn’t as balanced as I should be.

Processed foods increase inflammation in your body, which can trigger spikes in blood pressure and the fight-or-flight response.

Be mindful about what you put in your body, and try to take care of your gut (your second brain).

3. Movement

Regular exercise has been shown to help ease depression and anxiety.

Not only is there something chemically happening to your brain when you exercise (cue feel-good endorphins), but it is an excellent way to shake off some of that anxiety adrenaline!

4. Stress and Emotional Mastery

If I had to pinpoint a mood booster that really helped me reframe my relationship with my anxiety, it would be meditation.

The practice of letting go and observing your thoughts is immensely helpful for anyone who is quick to identify with intrusive thoughts.

Once I stopped trying to run from those uncomfortable feelings in fear of not being able to handle such strong emotions, I was able to build up resilience and lessen my level of reactivity in those heightened moments.

5. Relationships

The people you surround yourself with can have an impact on your mood without even knowing it.

Take time to reflect on those closest to you, and ask if they are filling your cup or emptying it.

This doesn’t mean you never have to be in their presence again, but more so an indicator on who you should be more selective of your energy with.

6. Thoughts and Mindset

Gratitude has been shown to help rewire our brain to better manage negative emotions.

When anxiety is heightening everything that could go wrong, gratitude helps shift that.

And even if something does go terribly after trying something, you can practice gratitude towards yourself for trying anyway.

7. Sense of Purpose

This is the question of the hour for us college students! What is our purpose here?

Strong emotions like anxiety can often sway us away from our true selves as continuously ruminate and anticipate, but that doesn’t mean hope is lost.

The best part of these 7 steps is that they are all intertwined!

Let’s say its finals week, so getting 8 hours of sleep is off the table. But instead of giving up, you make sure that you still hit all the other areas, like meal-prepping healthy lunches or walking to class.

When we focus on the couple of things we can control, the others tend to fall into place. This can also serve as a great check-in for those moments when you’re not feeling good but don’t know what’s wrong or where to start.

Final Thoughts

Anxiety is a spectrum. Whether it’s a seasonal, situational or daily endeavor, anxiety is often trying to signal to you to look deeper on what can be improved upon. Once we realize we can control more than we thought, we are given back some power over the quality of our lives.

All good things come to an end, so be that reason to stay present. All bad things come to an end, so be that reason not to worry. We can do hard things.

— The Law of Impertinence

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