What is anxiety?
Feelings of anxiety are natural in all of us and for the most part do not adversely affect us. However, there are many complex reasons why for some people they become unbearable and overwhelming. It’s helpful to start by understanding where anxiety comes from in simple terms, as it helps us to make some sense of why it happens.
If for example, I were to suggest to you that you experience visiting the dentist as a threat, you might wonder where the sense in that is.
On the surface that doesn’t appear to make much rational sense. However, our body and minds are primed for everyday survival, not for the modern world where most of our survival needs are already taken care of. Whilst our brains have adapted to higher reasoning so we are able to think about things rationally, our survival mechanisms remain the same.
Fear is the driving force for survival. If we feel fear, regardless of whether the reason makes any rational sense, our brain understands this as a threat and takes action instantly.
Historically, in order to survive any potential threats it was in our best interest to be at our strongest and most alert. For this reason our bodies are hardwired to react to fear and stress with a biological survival mechanism. This response is often described as the ‘fight or flight’ response.
The ‘Fight or Flight’ response
When you feel under threat, fear triggers the release of hormones, Adrenalin and Cortisol, your bodies natural survival mechanism. As these hormones course through your system there are several physical effects as a result (These are the most common effects):
- Your heartbeat increases instantly, pumping blood faster throughout your body
- Breathing increases, taking in more oxygen to allow you to react faster
- You begin to sweat in order to cool your body from the anticipated exertion
- Your brain becomes hyper alert and senses feel heightened
- You may experience an upset stomach or increased urgency to go to the toilet as your digestive system diverts energy elsewhere
In a situation where you are under threat these are all extremely useful adaptations for survival, they allow for an increased chance of survival by either running away or fighting. However, if you are for example, visiting the dentist, these physical effects are somewhat less helpful and much more concerning.
This fear is amplified if you do not understand what is happening, you may fear you are having a heart attack. The sheer terror of not understanding what is happening to you can create a vicious feedback loop which can cause a sudden panic attack.
If there is no rational physical threat and you have no need to physically run away or fight, the effects of adrenaline subside more slowly which can lead to further ill feelings, and you may go on feeling agitated for some time.
When it comes to feeling severe anxiety, it can be reassuring to now that what is happening to you is a natural if frightening response. If you experience crippling anxiety and do not understand why, it’s common to worry you are losing your mind or going crazy.
What can we do about Anxiety?
There is no magic bullet instant cure for anxiety, and whilst that might seem disheartening it doesn’t need to be. It does not mean we can’t do anything about it; neither should it mean you have no hope of dealing with anxiety. It is simply acceptance that anxiety is a natural response which has become overdeveloped and has started to ruin your quality of life.
If we were to eradicate anxiety entirely we would be eliminating part of what it is to be human. There are however actions we can take to lessen our anxiety. There are choices we can make and actions we can take to moderate and understand our experience of anxiety :
Alcohol is perhaps the most common coping mechanism for anxiety, especially so for social anxiety. The phrase ‘dutch courage’ comes from this form of coping with anxiety, by drinking alcohol we look to dull the feelings of anxiety and take the edge off the constant sense of worry or to gain some social confidence.
Alcohol is well known as a depressant but this term is often misunderstood. A depressant does not literally make you depressed, it ‘depresses’ or slows your nervous system, encouraging relaxation and a lack of inhibition. On the surface this sounds a great solution for someone who is not able to relax, so its easy to see why alcohol is used in this way. However, as with any depressant, or avoidant behaviour, if we become reliant on it, it can come at a high price.
Alongside the dangers of alcohol addiction and health risks, for someone who suffers with anxiety, self blame or shameful feelings, drinking to excess can lead to a spike in anxiety. We may for example do something impulsive whilst drunk which is against our values and leaves us full of self blame the next day. Coupled with the inevitable hangover which can dramatically increase anxiety and leave us dehydrated, agitated or nauseous, it can add fuel to the fire of the original issue.
We tend to forget that food is the building blocks of our bodies and therefore has a big impact upon how healthy we are and how we feel. We have a tendency to take food for granted and eat whatever is convenient. Being more mindful about food and eating more healthily can have an impact on our moods and energy levels.
Managing your intake of sugar can help with your energy levels which naturally can have a knock on effect on moods, it can also help you to feel less jittery. It’s also important to understand that a food intolerance can lead to you feeling unwell, which in turn can heighten or exacerbate feelings of anxiety.
Caffeine can increase our alertness and reduce tiredness, however if you are already in a state of hypersensitivity, it is likely to increase your anxiety and make you feel more agitated. By being aware of your caffeine intake you are helping to moderate the elements that you do have some control over.
Alongside all the health benefits that we all know come with exercise, regular exercise can also help you in managing the agitated feelings and adrenaline associated with anxiety. It is also worth mentioning that this does not mean you have to do some gut busting extreme exercise. For example simply going for a walk is good for you and without distractions such as mp3 players or phones, can help you become more mindful of your feelings.
Avoiding Avoidance :
If you are prone to severe bouts of anxiety it’s only natural that you have likely created your own ways of coping when anxiety strikes. Whether you avoid doing something because there is a risk it will bring on anxiety, or you have your own rituals that help you cope when it happens. At times we need to do this just for our own peace of mind and to get by, but if we become reliant on these rituals we may be reinforcing the feelings.
The natural reaction in the face of fear is to avoid it, when we do this we feel more comfortable in the short-term. However, when we react to fear in this way, we are unintentionally feeding fear and allowing it to grow within us. What may start as unease in a group of people, might lead to a fear of socialising and ultimately a fear of leaving the house if the fear remains unchallenged. Looking at it this way it is easy to see how over time anxiety can become like an invisible prison cell where the bars are slowly closing in.
The first and most important thing to know is that anxiety and panic attacks will not physically harm you. This is very hard to believe in the midst of a panic attack but it is true. Your body is simply over reacting to stress. If you are able to accept that there is no threat and that the panic will pass, you are allowing your body to deal with the process naturally. The panic will rise and then slowly dissipate if you are able to be mindful of your feelings, control your breathing with slower deeper breaths and hang in there.
If your fear grows, the panic will likely increase along with associated symptoms. As someone who struggled with anxiety and panic attacks for several years, I know this both professionally and from personal experience and I do appreciate just how incredibly difficult it can be to let go of that fear.
The most important thing you can do is to realise you are in no immediate physical danger, embrace your vulnerability and tentatively try to let go. If you have experienced some form of trauma, a physically or emotionally abusive relationship, or you struggle with being vulnerable and accepting help, your fear may feel unbreakable but in seeking support you can take action to break in down.
Cultivating courage and embracing vulnerability :
Letting go of fear is not often something we can do over night and we shouldn’t expect ourselves to completely let go. Fear exists for a reason, we just need to find a way to live with it and differentiate between real dangers and the dangers in our minds. Embracing our fears requires courage, not the kind of courage we see glorified in films and books, but the kind we all possess but may not realise it.
This is the quiet kind of courage to continue everyday in spite of your troubles and challenges. The courage required to leave your house when you’re frightened of the outside world, the courage to take on a new challenge fearing you aren’t up to it, or the courage to speak to trust someone when you’re fearful of judgement.
Often we need someone to light the embers of our courage, to believe in us without restraint, reinforcing our gains and supporting us when we slip back. We need to know that we are allowed to slip and trip and still feel validated in our attempts, so that we can be brave enough to try again. This is where the support of a trusted friend or support network can help.
Alternatively working with a counsellor can really help you to understand what is happening for you and the feelings behind your anxiety; whilst supporting you without judgement in reasserting yourself and taking control over your life. Imagine a safe place in which you can hold your fears up to the light and examine them, no matter how unacceptable they may feel, whilst you gather the courage to venture out and test your fears.
Progress is about self compassion, knowing when to allow yourself to relax and take time out for yourself and when to push and challenge your feelings, testings your fears. Be proud of small victories, they may look small but I know that they can feel giant. Those same small gains will reinforce your confidence and add up quicker than you can imagine.
I encourage you to seek out support, whatever that might be for you, with the right support, you can move forwards, learn to manage your fears, free yourself and embrace the future you deserve.
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