By Carissa Weber, MA, LPC, CSAC
If you paid attention to last week’s post, anxiety has a way of screwing with your ability to show up the way you want to. Even in my professional life, my anxiety has aided in multiple distractions, projects, and lack of boundaries that allows my darn amygdala to say “you’re never going to be good enough you imposter!”
In this post, I want us to focus a bit on something we have all experienced: anxious energy. Whether this energy throws you into an involuntary state of paralysis, or makes you a perfectionist that cannot relinquish control, anxiety brings a certain energy with it.
What is Anxious Energy?
First things first, what is anxious energy? To quote Psychology Today’s writer, Seth Meyers, “[nervous energy] is clinically known as having elevated or anxious mood. With elevated mood, the individual often feels hyperactive and is propelled to action; with anxious mood, the individual feels nervous, edgy, or uncomfortable.”
Boy oh boy, did Mr. Meyers get that right. Did any of you feel that definition like I did?
This anxious energy exists all thanks to our darn limbic system. You got it. Although is starts with our bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (or BNST for short), it is what that darn amygdala does with that information that creates this uncomfortable energy.
The BNST is responsible for helping that darn amygdala decide if the information the brain is giving us (specifically the sensory information the insula collects from our senses) is deserving of an anxiety response. If the BNST says “yes, this totally needs anxious energy,” that darn amygdala goes to work informing the rest of the brain what it needs to do to get you safe.
Do you know what that means? You got it! Epinephrine is getting released, coritsol is trickeling into your blood stream, your heart rate is climbing, and your thoughts are going to start racing (thank you BNST for telling the hypothalamus we suddenly need to start thinking about all our life stressors in a short time frame).
That leaves us feeling one of two ways: feeling like a caged tiger pacing around and trying to get everything done in one day, or in a fog so thick we can’t even see our toes let alone what we need to focus on.
How Anxious Energy impacts Amped-Up and Shut Down Anxiety?
Either of these feelings are a direct result of our prefrontal cortex using more energy to focus on dialy tasks than normal because that darn amygdala says you have to be prepared for anything and everything. For those that are amped-up anxious, your prefrontal cortex is tyring to fight through the anxiety. If you are a shut-down anxious person, your prefrontal cortex is trying to protect you and remove you from any extra stressors until the anxiety has passed.
Whether you have amped-up anxiety or shut-down anxiety, anxious energy can come across as:
- Increase in irritability
- Inability to focus on just one task
- Elevated feelings of anxiety
- Insomnia galore
- Spacing out more than usual
- Brain fog
- Feeling exhausted when doing everyday tasks
- Getting distracted easily
- Taking longer than normal to complete tasks you’re familiar with
Coping Skills Alert
Now that you understand where that anxious energy comes from, let’s figure out how to challenge that unbearable energy so you can get back to living your life.
There are so many things that you are able to do to help with this anxious energy, but I bet you don’t understand the “why” behind it. Let me go over some of these science-backed anxious energy tamers and how they change your anxious brain.
1. Mindful Breathing
First skill up is one I talked about in my post, Mindfulness: The Art of Becoming Calm, Cool, and Collected: Mindful breathing. When we engage in mindful breathing, we lower our heart rate and respirations. This increases the oxygen exchange in your blood, and lowers the production of cortisol and epinephrine.
To practice mindful breathing, follow these steps:
- Sit in a comfortable position
- Slowly inhale through your nose and into your diaphragm ( to make it simple, breathing so that your belly expands) for 6 seconds
- Hold that process in your belly for two seconds
- Slowly at exhale out of your mouth for eight seconds, or until you feel like you have no breath left
- Repeat this pattern of breathing for 3 to 5 minutes (or how long it takes for you to feel calm).
If you want evidence the deep breathing is working, take your heart rate before you start the deep breathing. After each minute of practicing the breathing, take your heart rate again. Your heart rate will go down!
2. Practice STOPP
Stopp is a powerful acronym that helps us regulate our emotions. Sometimes when we are stressed or anxious, we forget to check in with how we are doing. Using STOPP has been proven to:
- Shift from your darn amygdala being in charge to your prefrontal cortex
- Engages problem-solving skills by examining facts vs. acting impuslively based on emotions
- Releases the neurotransmitter GABA, which helps us calm down that anxious energy
To do a quick recap of my post, STOPP and Take Time for Emotional Regulation, STOPP stands for:
- S – Stop what you’re doing!
- T – Take a breath
- O – Observe what you are experiencing, both within you and outside of you
- P – Process the information and what choices are in your control and the outcomes of those choices
- P – Proceed with a decision that gives you the most relief with the least amount of negative consequences
Practicing STOPP multiple times a day (I tell my clients three times a day), will help keep your brain work the prefrontal cortex to challenge that darn amygdala. As it does this, you are setting your brain to release serotonin and dopamine for doing a good job.
3. Practice Self-Care
You got it. I’m going to preach it. Taking time each day to practice some of your self-care needs helps you brain rewire itself in a couple different ways:
- Meeting your basic physical needs increases the release of dopamine and releases the neurotransmitter, GABA, to relax your body
- Engaging in something you enjoy doing not only releases the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, it helps your hippocampus heal and improve your memory
- Spending 20 minutes a day with your favorite pet or talking to your favorite person also releases the neurotransmitter, oxytocin, as well as helps you release endorphins, which decreases the amount of physical and emotional pain you are experiencing
Self-care is such an important thing to practice ON A DAILY BASIS to not only develop a healthy routine, but to rewire your anxious brain. Remember, practicing self-care for a minimum of 20 minutes a day for 66 days allows it to become a habit.
4. Complete one task on your to-do list
This one may feel a bit weird, but you got to trust me on it. Our anxious energy can be triggered by having way too long of a to-do list. When that happens, our prefrontal cortex is trying to prioritize tasks while trying to figure out how to get them all done. Pick one thing on your list. Just one. Break that one thing on your list down into 3 realistic steps (can you say SMART goals?) and focus on that one thing. Even if you just take 15 to 20 minutes on that one task, you are gearing your brain up to shift from crisis coping to problem solving. This will help your brain release dopamine, serotonin, as well as build up some sort of tolerance to the anxious energy. This act will then be stored in your hippocampus and serve as a reminder that you can, indeed, survive this feeling. In the end, it makes your anxious energy feel less intense. How cool is that!
Talk about powerful tools! I want to thank you for letting me be part of your journey to help control your anxious energy. Remember, by practicing these skills, you are making them automatic actions! You can rewire your anxious brain to cope!
Handouts are created to help you remember the facts of each post and help you implement the coping skill into your life. This week’s handouts (that’s right, handouts!) go over mooring lines, how to track your mooring lines, and things you can do that keep you drifting away from your mental health. Enjoy!
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- Bell, T (2020). Brain Chemistry: The Importance of Self-Care. Retrieved from https://www.solutionpsychology.com.au/brain-chemistry-the-importance-of-self-care/
- Hull University Teaching Hospital (date unknown). STOPP. Retrieved from OHC_STOPP.pdf (hey.nhs.uk)
- Meyers, Seth (2019). 6 Tips to Channel “Nervous Energy” Effectively. Retrieved from 6 Tips to Channel “Nervous Energy” Effectively | Psychology Today
- Powell, Alvin (2018). When Science Meets Mindfulness. Retrieved from Harvard researchers study how mindfulness may change the brain in depressed patients – Harvard Gazette
- Villines, Zawn (2021). What to know about anxiety and brain fog. Retrieved from Anxiety and brain fog: Symptoms, causes, and treatment (medicalnewstoday.com)