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MICHAEL SHARP, MD, PA
184 Lystra Estates Drive
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
Telephone: 919-945-0300
www.michaelsharpmd.com

Running Away

By Michael Sharp, MD

Is there an epidemic of anxiety?

Michael Sharp, MD

In our practice we see people with many body symptoms. They come to us primarily for help with their fatigue, mind fog, bloating, muscle or joint pains, or perhaps their thyroid—often when the blood tests indicate that their Synthroid is at a good dosage but their symptoms are not improved.

In the health history form that all new patients complete before they are seen for the first time we ask many questions about many aspects of their health. This not only gives us a good base upon which to build a hypothesis about what is wrong, but also guides our team in applying the pillars of health.
These five pillars are: 1) joy and happiness, 2) healthy nutrition, 3) exercise, 4) restorative sleep, and 5) stress resilience.

In nearly all of our intake forms we find that associated with the primary body complaints are issues of anxiety and poor sleep. These two seem to go together almost always. Even the person who reports eight hours of sleep a night frequently, on deeper questioning, realizes that they wake feeling unrested.

Of course all of the five pillars are intimately related one to another. The neglect of any one of them has a detrimental effect on the others. But our experience with our patients suggests that more often than not, at the core or root of the illness, lies a difficulty of coping with stress.

Anxiety Rooted in Early Life

And almost always, the greater the degree of anxiety, the more often we find a history of insecurities in early life. I have referenced the ACEs studies in past columns. These are studies that have revealed the powerful negative influences on adult lives of “ACEs”—adverse childhood experiences. These ACES may take the form of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; physical or emotional neglect; household violence, substance abuse, or mental illness; parental separation or divorce; or incarceration of a family member.

The more ACEs a child experiences, the worse their health is as an adult. We are beginning to understand why.

Either as children or adults, when we find ourselves frightened, we have a biological reaction that is not voluntary—it is automatic and is called the fight-or-flight reaction. We are programmed to deal with a perceived threat by either attacking it or escaping. This is an immensely powerful drive. More often than not, children who are in danger are unable to do either, and so the reaction is stifled. And yet the drive to fight or flight is alive and activating all of the body’s systems to carry out the reaction. The “aware” mind is left distraught, hyper-alert, in pain and usually frozen. If the fear is too great the mind will often dissociate and break away into some remote unconscious place.

Under these conditions, most children try to disappear. They escape or run away emotionally in any way they can: Daydreams, books, fantasy lives, substances if they are available—any place but the present. The energy of the flight-or-flight reaction that has been blocked by an inability to respond effectively in the moment of the fright often comes out later as anger—or submission; as an attraction to violence of their own or to a vulnerability to being taken advantage of.

There are a number of therapy options emerging to help traumatized people with these repressed emotions, including  EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique,) EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and Somatic Experiencing. All of them have in common the goal to help the person re-experience the original fright in a careful and safe way and allow the body to find a solution, in the present, where peace and comfort can be experienced.

As we work with patients around their anxieties, we observe the nearly universal drive to escape from the negative feelings. This is understandable. And yet, independent of the technique that might be used or available therapeutically, we’ve found usefulness in helping the patient recognize their anxiety as a feeling and not the whole story of who they are. Sometimes verbally identifying and describing it as a feeling to an attentive listener deconstructs it, and reminds the body that it is safe in the moment, and that staying with the feeling can be bearable. This can reduce the anxiety in sometimes substantial degrees.

There are, of course, other ways to help people with their anxieties but this simple one is frequently very helpful. Try it on yourself and be with it. You are exactly where you are supposed to be!

To your Health.