Elevated heart rate, shallow breathing, racing mind, and tingling energy through my body. Is this an anxiety attack…..or am I just excited? It’s been noted that the difference between anxiety and excitement relies on the filter we apply. This could not be more true for me. Even the exact same thing can result in an anxiety attack or a really fun time, simply depending on what mind frame I’m in. It’s frustrating when I notice these sensations – most often for me associated with anxiety- when I’m simply looking forward to something. Since anxiety in my history has caused me such grief, I jump to apply the “anxiety filter” on what I’m experiencing, even when it’s just a good thing. Because I associate those feelings and body sensations with panic attacks they quickly get labeled as “bad” and I start reacting to the potential threat of panic, instead of noticing what else those sensations might be about.
Thankfully all the awareness and knowledge I’ve gained over the last few years has taught me that those anxious feelings don’t have to be something to be feared (even when it’s about being afraid) and that I can observe them and use tools and strategies that will help lessen the discomfort and allow me to continue on my normal life. So there’s the fact that the anxiety response isn’t as horrifying as it used to be, and certainly not something that stops me in my tracks. That alone you’d think would help lessen the automatic judgment my brain makes on all of those body sensations – but for this time is not on my side (relatively) and I know I need to be patient as I’m competing with neural pathways that have a long solid history. I have also been able to bring awareness to the similarities of anxious feelings and excitement, which has opened up a new curiosity and provided me this chance to re-wire my brain’s default.
And my fuck do I want to get in there with pliers and just rewire the crap out of it. Because, although I know what I know, it’s still very frustrating to have my mind screaming at me “Something is WRONG!!” when I’m simply getting pumped for something I’ve been looking forward to. In a dream world I’d love it if my default was “I must be excited!” even when I’m afraid- but I’ll be more than happy to settle with it not ruining my happy times.
The similarity between anxiety and excitement is really no surprise when you think about it. “You need to calm down!” being a typical thought we’d have about a child who’s trying to jump into our arms with a passing siren or when they’re bouncing off the walls on their birthday.
The Zones of Regulation identify both of these states, nervous and excited, as part of the yellow zone.
“The Yellow Zone is also used to describe a heightened state of alertness and elevated emotions; however, one has some control when they are in the Yellow Zone. A person may be experiencing stress, frustration, anxiety, excitement, silliness, the wiggles, or nervousness when in the Yellow Zone.”
What we can learn here is that we are heightened in this zone, no matter if the reason that triggered it is joy or fear. I think the similarity is often overlooked as we are quick to separate them into “good” and “bad”. I mean, I’ve already done it a few times in this post alone. And that comes down to how I want to feel. How I think I should feel. It’s like I believe that if it’s something that makes me happy and that I feel joy towards, then I should only have and experience good feelings along with that. However, it just doesn’t work that way; energy is energy and sometimes it just feels uncomfortable to be so energized.
But again, it can come back to our filter. If we choose to see this energy and elevation and increase body sensations in a positive light, then we will experience it as fun and exciting. If we take those sensations and see them in a negative light, then we will experience it as distressing.
The key here being that in order to choose a filter, we must observe the sensations non-judgmentally and bring awareness to our choice and what we want to do with the information we noticed. I’ve been able to apply this in a number of situations – especially those that are both terrifying and exciting – as I find it easier to be aware and mindful in situations where I anticipate my anxiety trying to take over. Because I know it’s going to come up, I am able to proactively change my filter and stay in observer stance while those sensations come up.
What seems to be most challenging for me is when I’m not anticipating it – i.e. the times I get excited about events/people/opportunities. I just don’t put them on the same level as those things I find distressing. And unfortunately for me, this is where my downfall is. Because, as those sensations come up and I get all deep into yellow zone without my awareness on par – my brain gets to choose its favourite filter (my neural expressway to panic-ville), and I’m sent into red zone wondering what I’m panicking about.
Perhaps if I viewed all the exciting things in my life as times to be just as alert as I am for the things that provoke panic, I’d be more able to choose a filter in the moment, instead of playing clean up crew to my already panicking mind. Even if I could do this a few times, and experience these sensations in a new light, it may help me to be curious when they show up – and avoid the instant dread.
Part of me is resistant to this plan; and I think that’s the judgment reaction. I don’t want to have to plan for the times that are “supposed to be fun”. And on top of that, I still view those sensations as “bad” because they are still very distressing to me and my brain. I don’t want to accept that they are part of good times too. However, I know the only way to truly change this is to drop the judgment, be open and curious, and compassionately self-soothe the fuck out of myself until they don’t feel so terrifying…and maybe, perhaps, even exciting. 😉