What is Anxiety?
Feeling anxious from time to time is perfectly normal. There may even be occasions when anxiety can be useful, alerting us to danger as part of our body’s natural warning system. Although the way we respond to anxiety can differ from person to person depending on the cause, anxiety is generally recognised as something that feels unpleasant. Similar feelings to anxiety can be encountered in our daily experience of stress. Events at home or work can increase our stress levels but usually subside after we have sat the exam, given the presentation or attended the interview etc. The difference with anxiety is that the symptoms it produces can continue to persist even when we can’t identify what’s causing it.
The thoughts and feelings associated with anxiety can often be deeply distressing and even frightening. A person suffering with anxiety may imagine that something bad is going to happen or that they will be overwhelmed by terrible events from which they will never recover. Sometimes an individual may feel like they are losing their grip on reality and even believe they are going mad. These catastrophic beliefs can often be so strong that they prevent the sufferer from confronting their fears. This makes the problem worse in the long-run as it prevents us from taking opportunities to find out that we might have coped with our much anxiety better than we had expected. In this way, anxiety can build up negative beliefs about our ability to deal with pretty much anything that feels even remotely threatening. Being anxious can be absolutely unbearable and have a negative impact on almost every aspect of our lives - even making everyday situations such as going to the shops or meeting someone for the first time feel overwhelming. Difficulties like these can be confusing and upsetting and add to our worries especially if we have previously felt confident in managing these kinds of daily challenges.
Where does Anxiety come from?
Understanding more about our anxiety is a vital first step in helping us to cope with it and prevent it from getting in the way of enjoying life. To begin with, it’s important to recognise that anxiety is a completely normal response and has as much to do with our development as human beings as it does about the meaning we give to our individual experiences. If we imagine the world our stone-age ancestors lived in, we would probably see that they faced some very real threats and everyday life would have been an almost constant battle for survival as they defended themselves from attack by wild animals or other tribes. To cope with these life-threatening situations the body developed an alarm system that was designed to be triggered whenever danger was present. This system would make our senses hyper-alert and send signals to our body to pump adrenaline into the bloodstream increasing the heart rate and raising the oxygen levels in our muscles preparing us to fight, run away or “play dead”. This warning system is still with us today and is commonly known as the “fight, flight or freeze” response.
Why do we still get Anxious?
Although we are now less likely to confront the kinds of threats that our ancestors encountered our anxiety mechanism continues to kick-in producing the same uncomfortable sensations of hyper-arousal. The difference today is that instead of being used to avoid real and immediate danger our warning system often becomes activated wrongly and inappropriately during routine, everyday situations which nevertheless seem threatening. These anxious responses can occur in any normal person who has been exposed to increasing levels of stress. Work-related stress is an example of how events in our lives can build up to become an anxiety disorder and many sufferers may not even be aware that this has been happening. It’s worth noting that the nervous, jittery, “butterflies” feeling we get in our stomach when we are anxious is largely caused by our adrenaline response. Doing calming, breathing exercises can be a useful form of first-aid for these physical responses and can quickly help to reduce our immediate levels of anxiety. There are many other things we can do to help manage anxiety - yoga, exercise, reading, listening to music or spending time with friends or family are just some examples.
Living with anxiety
There are several different types of anxiety but they all have similarities and tend to focus on intense thoughts about our present or future safety or that of our loved ones. These thoughts might go like this: "Something bad is going to happen soon or sometime in the future and when it does I won't be able to cope and I'll never recover". At the heart of anxiety lies the belief that we are in some kind of danger or imminent threat and this can often be associated with our perceptions about health or illness or how well we think we perform in social situations. It can cause us to ruminate about contamination or on our personal security or the challenges we experience in our relationships. For some people, anxiety is like living in the shadow of a mental and physical bully that dominates your thoughts and feelings with constant threats and fear. Some people are able to clearly identify the root cause of their anxiety and this can be based on an actual experience such as a trauma - for example, witnessing a road traffic accident or being the victim of an assault. Alternatively, it may be due to a significant life event such as suffering a bereavement, divorce or from undergoing surgery. Whilst the list of possible threats fuelling anxiety may be endless, for some people the feelings can be made even more distressing because they might not actually be able to identify a tangible threat and in these instances anxiety can often seem to have come out of nowhere. If we imagine trying to explain to a loved one about a threat that feels intensely real but which we can't easily put into words we can begin to get a sense of the isolation that is often felt by someone struggling with anxiety symptoms. When an individual cannot identify the source of their anxiety they may feel trapped in an awful state which seems like having a fear of fear.