Looking at Anxiety

This week is Mental Health Week, something important to me. As someone who has worked hard to become mentally healthy, and now teaches ways to be healthier to others, I wanted to write a little about anxiety. 

Last week, I played the violin for an event at my synagogue. Those of you who know me, know I’m more of a viola player when it comes to performance. Although I teach the violin to a wide range of players, I don’t play it regularly on stage. A violin is smaller, so there’s less solidity to the instrument, and it’s smaller, so requires more finger precision.  I wasn’t playing my usual fare of classical music, but accompanying, and extemporising over different melodies.

My comfort zone is reading music, and interpreting notes on the page. I was definitely not in my comfort zone. In my non-Feldenkrais infused life, I would have found it too stressful to perform like this.  I wouldn’t have enjoyed the experience, even if my playing were fine. Pre-Feldenkrais me suffered from stage anxiety. Something that arrived in my teens, and left 20 long years later.

In the times I used to have it, going on stage and playing was difficult. My hands didn’t usually shake, but I used to play out of tune, as my ears stopped passing the messages to my brain correctly. (I used to think I was the only person this happened to, until I discovered this is a quite normal symptom of anxiety.)

I’d go to the toilet, even though I didn’t physically need to. I’d sweat nervously, and feel embarrassed about that. I’d tense in my arms and shoulders, which stopped me shifting smoothly.  I couldn’t breathe properly. At the same time, I couldn’t hold back the litany of negative thoughts. My mind spiralling into fearful thoughts, thoughts of inadequacy, of shame, of failing, of being found out as a fraud. All whilst trying to play the viola, and perform with my colleagues on stage. Under the weight of my anxiety, it had become a Herculean task.

Anxiety is of course a normal emotion that we all feel at times. It’s an emotion of fear or worry about what might happen. 

How does it affect you?

We all experience anxiety in different ways. Being anxious is a natural response to stressful situations. But when it interferes with your life, or performance, or you feel out of control, it’s time to find new ways of coping.

What are the physical effects of anxiety?

Anxiety can affect your body in many ways. Some of the more common effects include:

• Increased heart rate: When you’re anxious, your heart rate increases. This sends more oxygen-rich blood to your muscles, preparing them for flight. This can cause you to feel palpitations or an irregular heartbeat. In a panic attack, you can feel like you are having a heart attack.

• Increased blood pressure: Anxiety can cause your blood pressure to increase. Again, in preparation for the ‘fight, flight,freeze’ response.

• Sweating: You may start to sweat when you’re anxious as your system tries to cool itself down. This can be especially noticeable if you’re experiencing a panic attack.

• Feelings of breathlessness: It may feel like you can’t catch your breath when you’re anxious. This is due to the increased heart rate, as well as the way that anxiety changes your breathing pattern.

Other possible symptoms include:

• Tenseness, or tightness in your chest.

• Dizziness, faintness,

• Feeling sick, or uncomfortable in your belly

• A need to urinate

• Feeling detached from yourself.

• Tunnel vision, an inability to hear others well

If you suffer with anxiety, even reading  about the symptoms might feel uncomfortable. So take a moment to breathe, and relax before continuing.

Anxiety is not just a physical condition, but psycho-somatic – of mind and body. Which doesn’t mean you’re crazy, but normal.

Everything we do is psycho-somatic, of mind and body. Just as every movement we make is neuro-muscular- of mind and musculature. We don’t have a separate mind and body- we’re one organism, it’s just popular culture hasn’t caught up with the science yet.

“We have a collective delusion that humans are simple machines. We’re not a simple machine. We’re an organism.”  A.G.Lalkhen author of ‘Pain’.

Anxiety creates both mental and physical symptoms. The physical symptoms alone can be scary. One triggers the other, the brain ramping up towards action. If we can’t stop the spiral, the amygdala takes over and hijacks our thinking brain. What we know as the Flight, Fight, Freeze, Response.

If we have to walk on stage and perform, we can’t fight or run. It’s the Freeze response that kicks in. But of course it doesn’t feel safe, it feels awful. The negative physical effects are there to force us to action, to keep us alive and safe. To make us do something. 

The problems of Anxiety

For some of us, anxiety doesn’t leave after the nerve racking event. There’s a level of anxiety in the background all the time, which can make life difficult, or even disabling.

Perhaps you put limiting, protective behaviours in place to make you feel safer, staying at home being the most severe of these. Which is at the same time life-shrinking. Limiting your world to an uncomfortable degree in a different way. It’s a solution, but not a fulfilling one.

It’s useful to know that anxiety amplifies physical pain. So any pain you have feels even bigger, or overwhelming. I’ll write more about that another time.

When family, friends, and doctors can’t see anything physical wrong with you, it’s easy to feel isolated, and mis-understood.

Part 2: Solutions to help Anxiety, will come in the next installment…

If you’re interested in how Feldenkrais could help you, either in individual sessions, or group classes. please get in touch. 

News:

• Regular classes continue on Thursday evenings, and Monday mornings.

• Sunday evening is changing to be a class for Musicians (you’re welcome to come if you’re not a musician, but it will be geared towards this group)

• I will be running in-person bi-monthly 2-3 hour workshops in central London from June. Please get in touch if you’re interested in these – I will need a minimum attendance to run them


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