I am always just a little anxious. From noises, to crowds, to everyday worries, it feels nonstop. Fortunately, it’s something I’ve been aware of for quite a while and have been able to keep it under control. Or so I thought. A recent encounter made me question how well I was controlling my anxiety and led me to a book entitled, Almost Anxious by Luana Marques, PhD. This is what I learned…
The other day I accompanied my husband for a routine doctor’s visit. The medical facility was pretty empty and relatively quiet and since we were not there for me (or anything substantial) my anxiety levels were fairly low while in the waiting room. It wasn’t until we walked in and the doctor began speaking to me in Spanish that my anxiety skyrocketed. My mind drew a blank and I mumbled a quiet “mas o menos” when asked if I spoke Spanish. She quickly switched to English but the damage was done. I was now in fight or flight mode and doing everything I could not to turn and walkout. I immediately went to my rehearsed comments as to the reasons for my poor Spanish and wisely refrained from telling the doctor that I had no plans to return when she told me she would only speak to me in Spanish the next time she saw me so that I could “learn”.
Hours later when my anger subsided, I realized that my anxiety over interacting with Spanish speakers had probably gotten a little out of hand. I was perceiving her unwillingness to speak English upon my return as a threat and it made me angry. The thing is, I never told her I was uncomfortable speaking Spanish or that it gave me anxiety. I gave her the impression that I just got comfortable and stopped trying. Which is not true, I tried, many times, but I found out that I am just not good with languages. That’s when the Spanish speaking anxiety began. I became increasingly uncomfortable with attempting Spanish in public and just stopped practicing.
In her book, Dr. Marques describes anxiety as being on a spectrum. Some anxiety is beneficial. When anxiety and arousal are moderate and performance is high, you are in the “zone” and it can give you an edge when competing in sports, delivering a business proposal or taking a test. As you move along that spectrum and your anxiety doesn’t shut off when you’re out of danger or begins appearing at inappropriate times then it can affect your life negatively. If it has not reached the level of a diagnosable anxiety disorder but still interferes with your life, she calls it “Almost Anxiety”. Studies have shown that this sub-threshold anxiety can lead to other health risks as well as low life satisfaction so it’s important to recognize it and learn tools to help find better balance.
There are a number of quizzes in the book to help you find your location on the anxiety spectrum as well as determine the specific subtype (or types) of almost anxiety you possess. Not surprisingly, I tested just shy of the anxiety disorder threshold. What did surprise me was which subtypes of anxiety I scored highest in. She describes three subtypes of almost anxiety, worry, physical and social. Worry is all about over thinking, not being able to control the thoughts and concerns running through your head. Social is, of course, all about the social interactions of life. Physical is the reaction to the sensations you feel in different situations. Sensations that may make you feel you’re on the verge of a panic attack.
As someone who makes a living off the physiology of the body, I was quite surprised that I scored highest for physical anxiety. I discovered that a lot of my anxiety comes from the dislike or fear over my body’s reaction to different stressful situations. I don’t like the increased heart rate I get from being in a crowd, or the edgy feeling I get from loud noises, or the knot in my stomach sitting at the doctor’s office. I have learned to minimize these feelings with breathing techniques, using ear plugs or just walking away. Which brings me to my next discovery.
Come to find out, what I thought were healthy ways to reduce my anxiety, are actually just different forms of avoidance. Avoiding these sensations keeps me from learning that they are not harmful. They are false alarms. Sound familiar? As we have discussed previously, your body can send false pain alarms when it believes there is a perceived threat. Same thing with anxiety. The anxiety you may get while standing on the edge of a cliff is reasonable due to the potential for a fall but that same anxiety when looking out of a high rise window is a false alarm. There is no threat of falling but your body sends the same sensations as it would if there was a threat. When we avoid these sensations, it becomes more and more difficult for the body to learn to differentiate between real and false alarms.
The physical sensations that my shame brings on when attempting Spanish in public makes it even more difficult to perform. The increased heart rate, knot in my stomach and racing thoughts makes it hard to focus and concentrate on what I am hearing and form the proper response which makes me want to turn tail and run. Instead of giving into the feelings of the false alarm, I need to learn to stick with the conversation and teach my body that there is no threat from my broken Spanish. What’s the worse that could happen? I’ve already told a nun she needed to change the batteries in her TENS unit when they were “mierda”. Which, honestly, wasn’t wrong.
*mierda = sh*t