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The 'Physical Anxiety Scale' I Turn to When I'm Anxious

Anxiety is curve-linear. That means that if you have too much, it’s bad, and if you have too little, it’s bad. Think of it like Goldilocks — you need to have it be just right.

If you have too little anxiety, you don’t prepare for the presentation you’re giving the next day at the office. You don’t make sure to look your best on your first date. You sleep in past your alarm. That’s too little anxiety.

Too much anxiety can look like a lot of things — being overly prepared, spending two hours picking out just the right earrings to go with the dress and being unable to sleep at all because you’re afraid you’ll sleep through the alarm. That’s awful, too.

But what do the physical effects of anxiety look like?

When people experience a panic attack, some think they’re having a heart attack. That’s a very clear physical indicator something is wrong. But usually, anxiety gives us other physical hints along the way most of us miss.

I work with my clients a lot on, “What does your two, three and four look like?” In other words, on a scale of one to 10, with one being totally chill and 10 being a full-blown panic attack, what observable things happen when your anxiety is only at a two, three or four?

Don’t worry, you’re not an insensitive oaf if you don’t know what it looks like. A lot of us are given the message throughout our lives to just “suck it up” or “push through it.” And so, we’ve learned to ignore our twos, threes and fours. The primary reason that’s a problem is that if you can start to pick up on the anxiety (or any emotion, really) when it’s at a level three or four, it’s much easier to reign yourself in and get back to being in a calm state of mind. Once you’ve hit a level seven or higher, it is much more difficult to get things under control.

So for me, I have anxiety. Always have. Just kinda the way I’m made. But I’m also a very rational person. So my thoughts are not a good giveaway as to when I’m feeling anxious. My body lets me know.

So when I’m feeling a level two, I might just be more alert. I’ll notice my eyebrows are raised more often, or my jaw might be a little tighter than normal.

Click it up to a three: the jaw is definitely tight. Then I realize my neck and shoulder are rather tight, too, and I’m probably not pulling them away from my ears as much as I should.

Level four: jaw is still tight and I probably slept through the night that way. Opening my mouth is now difficult. I probably wake up with a dull headache. I start to notice my heart is racing a little.

Once I get up to a level five, I start to be legitimately uncomfortable. I begin to lose the feelings in my pinky fingers. They go numb. My heart is definitely racing, but it doesn’t feel like I’m running from a tiger yet. I feel like all my senses are turned up a little. Behaviorally, I start to pick at my skin and nails.

Level six starts to introduce the gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms. I may feel nauseated or have a hard time eating at all.

Level seven starts to introduce the tightening of my neck and I can feel the blood rushing in my ears. My eyes get wide and breathing becomes more ragged.

Level eight, nine and 10 kind of blur together. But physical signs include feeling like I’ve been speared through the chest, developing canker sores on the inside of my mouth and on my tongue and my hair falling out. I’d jump out of my own skin if I could.

See, anxiety is run by the amygdala. It’s the part of your brain that keeps your ass alive when you’re being chased by something. It’s an older part of our brains, and it’s super important because it can keep us alive in scary situations. However, it sucks when it comes to understanding the differences between real and perceived threats. So when we become anxious, our amygdalae think they need to gear up to get ready to fight or take flight, even though we really need to keep our head cool to give this presentation to the board of directors. But our bodies go through all the physical changes necessary to keep us alive. The blood moves away from the extremities and into the torso to help keep the vital organs working (that’s why my pinkies go numb). My heart is racing in preparation to run. My body is just trying to do its job to keep me safe.

But I am safe. I’m just in a board meeting.

Unfortunately, I can’t operate my thinking part of my brain (the frontal lobe) and my amygdala at the same time. There’s not a good override for that. So, I have to tell my body to chill the f*ck out so I can get back to the thinking part of my brain and lessen the physical effects.

This is why therapists use grounding techniques, belly breathing and other biofeedback techniques. According to neurocardiologists, our brain gets a lot of messages about what it should be doing from our heart, which is why we use these techniques to help us calm down.

So the next time you’re starting to feel the physical effects of anxiety, even if they’re small, try to check in with your body and what it’s telling you. Is it telling you to gear up for a race from a tiger? If so, you may need to use your tools to help you get grounded again. This also should help lessen your physical effects from the anxiety.

Remember, anxiety can be a good thing, but the more in tune you are with how your anxiety physically manifests, the better chance you have of being able to control it before it gets away from you.

Getty image by Koldunov