10/23/2013 11:35 am ET Updated Dec 23, 2013

Beyond Anxiety

Most of us greatly dislike the feeling of anxiety, and many people turn to various addictions and pills to avoid this feeling. Yet, this feeling has important information for us. It tells us that something is wrong -- physically and/or emotionally.

Two Physical Causes of Anxiety

I used to wake up in the middle of the night, anxious, until I discovered these two causes of anxiety:

1. Dehydration

While dehydration is often not the major cause of anxiety, it can contribute to it. When you have not had enough water, muscles tighten and the adrenals may kick in, which results in feeling anxious. Drinking enough water is calming to the system and can help to reduce anxiety.

2. Food

Many people are very sensitive to sugar, processed carbs and caffeine. I'm one of those people. If I have one cup of coffee in the morning, I'm anxious all day and I won't sleep at night. Even if you are not as sensitive as I am to caffeine, if you have more than two cups of coffee, this could contribute to anxiety and insomnia.

The problem with sugar and other processed foods is that they are generally metabolized rapidly in the body, causing first a spike, then a drop, in blood sugar. When the blood sugar drops, the adrenals kick in to send glucose to the brain -- which cannot function without it. The adrenaline causes the feeling of anxiety, which may then lead you to want more carbs to "calm" your system -- creating a vicious circle and resulting in more anxiety.

An Emotional Cause of Anxiety

Anxiety is most often caused by our thoughts and actions toward ourselves. The primary cause of anxiety is self-abandonment, in my opinion.

Imagine a small child who has been abandoned by his or her parents. Of course, this child will feel very anxious and scared. This is what occurs on the inner level when we abandon our own feelings and avoid taking responsibility for our happiness and pain.

I've discovered four ways that people commonly abandon themselves:

1. Avoiding your feelings by staying focused in your head rather than being present in your body

Most of us, when we were little, learned to focus in our mind as a way to manage the pain of loneliness, heartbreak, grief and helplessness over others that we might have felt as children. As small children, we could not manage these big and very painful feelings, so we learned to disconnect from our body. This was a relatively effective, and sometimes life-saving strategy as a child, but now that we are grown up, it is a form of self-abandonment.

Being present and mindful means that we need to learn to lovingly and compassionately manage our painful feelings rather than avoid them. When you learn to have compassion for your feelings, then you can stay present in your body and learn about what your feelings are telling you. All feelings are informational, letting us know how we are treating ourselves and how others are treating us. Staying in your head rather than in your body cuts you off from vital information and can create the very anxiety you are trying to avoid.

2. Self-judgment

Most of us don't like it when others judge us, yet many of us often judge ourselves. Self-judgment is a common form of self-abandonment, which is guaranteed to create anxiety. The next time you are aware of feeling anxious, ask yourself what you just thought that created the anxiety. You might be surprised to discover how often you judge yourself and how much this contributes to your anxiety.

3. Turning to Addictions

When you avoid your feelings with addictions, not only do you create anxiety, you also miss an opportunity to learn something important. Just as a child will feel anxious if you consistently avoid his or her feelings with alcohol, drugs, food, TV and so on, you will feel anxious when you avoid your own feelings, rather than attending to them. Again, you may be creating the very anxiety you are trying to avoid, through addictive patterns and behaviors.

4. Making Others Responsible for Your Feelings

If you had a small child and you went door to door trying to get someone to take care of them, the child would feel rejected, abandoned, and anxious. Yet this is exactly what it feels like on the inner level when you avoid taking responsibility for your feelings and instead try to get someone else to take care of your sense of safety and worth.

The Messages of Anxiety

Anxiety is one way our inner guidance lets us know that we are off track in our thinking and behavior. Instead of avoiding your anxiety, why not open to learning about what your anxiety is telling you? By attending to your anxiety rather than avoiding it, you can learn about what you are doing physically and emotionally that may be causing your anxiety -- and then you can do something about it.

You CAN have a much more peaceful life if you learn from your anxiety rather than avoid it.

Join Dr. Margaret Paul for her 30-Day at-home Course: "Love Yourself: An Inner Bonding Experience to Heal Anxiety, Depression, Shame, Addictions and Relationships."

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