The Many Faces of Anxiety: accepting the roles of both reality and perception

Everyone has a certain level of anxiety, but it tends to manifest in different ways in relation to different people and different circumstances.

Brent Stevenson

Anxiety is a very powerful driving force seeded in your subconscious that helps create the filter that you see the world through.  Everyone has a certain level of anxiety, but it tends to manifest in different ways in relation to different people and different circumstances.  It is the mental construct that tends to guide the rules that you progressively make for yourself throughout life in order to calm your own worries.  Everyone is going to have a different set of worries based partly on their childhood experiences, their genetics, their history of trauma and their current living situation.

Worry can creep into all facets of your life whether you realize it or not.  It is an uncomfortable feeling that you will try to avoid if you can, but that process can very easily become a viscous cycle leading to more stress and discomfort for you and those around you.  I have found that the more anxious a person is, the more rigid their rules become for themselves and by extension, for those around them.  Creating rules, verbalized or not, is a means for a person to control their environment in order to calm their own worry and/or prevent the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety.  Perceived lack of control in any situation is a source of stress for many people and can create both mental and physical tension in a person’s body.

There is a difference between reality and perception, they are both important, but accepting that they are different is both challenging and vital for overly anxious people.  By reality I mean the objective truth in any given situation and by perception I mean one person’s subjective interpretation of that situation.  Everyone develops their own triggers and filters that will impact how they perceive a certain event or discussion; some people just have way more triggers than others which can make their perception of a situation deviate radically from the objective reality and/or the other person’s perception.  Malcolm Gladwell thoroughly breaks this idea down in his latest book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.

A person’s anxiety impacts the individual, his or her inner circle and strangers both independently and differently.  The individual feels the physical tension in his body and experiences the worry of a personally uncomfortable situation and reacts accordingly.  A person’s close family and friends are likely familiar with some of his triggers and anxieties and may react in a more compassionate and communicative way, or conversely may pull back and put up their own walls or reflexively snap back due to repeated exposure to his anxious behaviour.  Strangers have no context to relate to your anxieties, so it is important to try and be empathetic in your interactions and perceptions of others.  In other words, try to put yourself in the other person’s situation before you judge them or perceive that you are being judged by them.

Stress is a huge part of the persistent and recurrent pain that many people experience in their bodies and stress is directly correlated to a person’s level of anxiety in a given situation.  One person may find an encounter completely innocuous while another may find it very stressful even if the objective reality is quite mundane.  Anxious triggers based on a person’s prior experience can very easily sensitize him to certain situations, comments or activities effectively making him react way more than necessary.  A person’s reaction will be a combination of verbal, cognitive and physical, largely depending on their personality.  Some people exude anxious behaviour while others appear overtly confident, but trust me, most outwardly calm people hold a lot of tension in their bodies.  Anxiety and stress cause people to subconsciously tense different areas of their bodies including both their muscles and their organs.  We experience the world with our bodies not just our brains, so your persistent tensions, alignment issues and intestinal troubles can be closely linked with your emotional state.

As a physiotherapist, people come to see me for help with their physical bodies, but the education component of our sessions tends to help them see the ‘therapist’ part of my designation.  Mental and physical wellbeing are intimately tied to each other and the earlier a person recognizes that, the faster he tends to gain control of his physical symptoms.  Mark Manson wrote a great book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, that helps readers recognize their own patterns of behaviours and thought processes that are leading them into anxiety provoking and stressful situations.  Caring too much can be a problem as can thinking too much, Manson’s book helps people that are being pulled too far towards the obsessive-compulsive end of the spectrum start to a draw themselves back towards the sociopathic end (in a good way).  There is a happy medium to be found (i.e. giving just enough F*cks).

I literally have poked and prodded people’s bodies all day as my job for the past seventeen years and I have gotten to know some of my clients very well.  I have seen people through major traumas, work stress, pregnancy, parenthood, and the loss of loved ones.  I have seen the amount of change that I can help create in people’s bodies by means of IMS dry needling, manual therapy and education, but I have also seen how quickly repeated stress and anxiety can erase everything that I have done.  Physical therapy only works, if the therapist empowers the client to address their own thought processes and behaviours in conjunction with improving their movement patterns and posture.  Developing awareness and purposeful intention go a long well to helping people understand and control their own problems.

More interesting and helpful books:

Understanding the Messages of Your Body: How to Interpret Physical and Emotional Signals to Achieve Optimal Health

When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress

Anxious to Please: 7 Revolutionary Practices for the Chronically Nice

Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation

The Brain that Changes Itself: Personal Triumphs from the Frontiers of Brain Science

Why Things Hurt: Life Lessons from an Injury Prone Physical Therapist

I hope you have found this helpful, please feel free to leave a comment below and I will try my best to respond within a few days.

Brent Stevenson (@whythingshurt)

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