Anxiety – The Canary in a Coal Mine

What if I told you that anxiety can sometimes be good for you?  That’s right.  That horrible, gut-churning feeling and runaway train of a mind can be the proverbial canary in a coal mine.  It can warn you of toxicity entering in to your life before it affects you on a more profound level. I have had a few brushes of anxiety in my lifetime.  It has taken me a few times to recognize it for what it is.

When the little bird first began to show signs of struggle, I was so out of touch and unaware of my mind-body connection that I didn’t recognize it as anxiety. I had just moved to Houston, my first really big city, and I couldn’t figure out why my heart was beating so quickly at night when I lay down to sleep. I would gulp for air and try to quell it, wondering if I had a heart condition. I went to a few doctors picked out of a phone book with these strange, unkempt offices and dismissive staff which served to amplify the beat of my already stressed heart. They hooked me up to various EKG machines, listened to my heart and asked me questions. After two or three dead-ends, one doctor finally suggested it must be anxiety. I was completely confused and taken aback. I was somewhat offended to think that someone was implying that I couldn’t handle life. And what’s more, I kept telling myself that I had absolutely nothing to feel anxious about. My life was just fine.

As I adjusted to my new job and surroundings, the anxiety slowly began to fade and then reared its head again as my marriage was failing. Once again, I didn’t recognize it for what it was and visited a few doctors about my unknown condition that was causing shortness of breath, heart palpitations, nausea, TMJ, weight loss, shaking, insomnia, nervousness, and exhaustion. It would get worse when I was anticipating an event that I wasn’t interested in attending or spending time with people that didn’t act in line with my values.

Both times that I have been diagnosed and treated, I thought of it as a handicap, a failure of mental health. But what I have come to recognize about anxiety is that it serves a purpose. If we can learn to recognize it in our own bodies, we can begin a dialog about why it is occurring. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as financial problems, relationship issues, over-scheduled days, health scares, or a dreaded upcoming event. Depending on a person’s personality or previous experiences, the dreaded upcoming event could be public speaking, or even just a situation they don’t want to experience. Other times the anxiety may be a low-level and undetermined or unrecognized reason such as fear of criminals and inability to communicate, etc. in a new or big city.  Sometimes it’s as simple as anticipation of being around stress-inducing people.

You might notice that all of these things are perceived threats; a mind with thoughts on loops playing out hundreds of different potential scenarios about what could happen. That is distinctive from fear, which occurs when a threat has actually presented itself. That is when we decide to fight or flight. Anxiety is more like considering whether we would fight or run if any one of these scenarios were to occur.  Anxiety goes hand in hand with uncertainty.

Regardless of the fact that it’s not a true present fear, anxiety is trying to tell you something. It paid for our ancestors to be vigilant when they felt that something wasn’t right…a bad feeling of certain peoples, ominous weather signs, or new places, even if the actual threat hadn’t yet emerged. I have learned that anxiety is warning me about past negative experiences. I feel anxiety as something approaches that I have had a bad experience with before. That feeling remains in my body and is warning me to be observant. In essence, acknowledging my anxiety is protecting myself and spurring me in to action.

Learn to recognize how anxiety manifests itself in your body.  Does your belly begin to turn?  Does your heart beat fast?  Do you try to cover up these uncomfortable feelings by numbing yourself with anything from food to alcohol to pills to shopping?  Once you become aware of this general feeling of anxiety, I really encourage you to try and write out why you are experiencing it. By the end of two to three pages of writing in a journal or even on the back of a napkin, I bet you figure out what is causing it. Sometimes I find that it really helps to have a good sweat and breathe deeply before beginning to journal.  Yoga/meditation and/or a hard cardio workout can help clear your mind and get your breath back on track.

Then ask yourself if the source of the anxiety is truly a threat from which you need to protect yourself. If so, avoid it or take care to put safety measures in place if at all possible. That may be as little as avoiding someone who makes you feel shitty, or as gigantic as leaving your job that has no security or doesn’t support you or your values.  Sometimes just recognizing the source of the anxiety helps you deal with the feelings it induces in you.  Sometimes it can’t be changed, in which case it’s best to practice letting it be until the scenario actually does appear as a threat.

Try not to ignore the canary’s chirp.  Try and translate what it is telling you.


  1. christi November 4, 2012 at 2:22 pm · Reply

    Great perspective, true insight. Thanks for sharing! -christi

    • Emily November 7, 2012 at 9:18 pm · Reply

      I really appreciate the comment, Christi. Thanks for being there for me as I figured some of this out! xoxo

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