What is Anxiety?

Like all emotions, Anxiety serves a function and is a bit like a messenger. It communicates something powerful for us to interpret or understand. Usually, it’s there to signal that we are in some form of danger or threat. Our bodies will therefore respond in a really powerful way, preparing us to run, fight or freeze. It does this by shutting major parts of our brain down, like the prefrontal cortex, as that’s where all our complex thinking and decision making happens. Of course, this is really helpful when we are in danger as the last thing we need is a whole heap of complex thoughts and ideas popping into our head. Instead¬†¬†we want a simple and quick plan to either get out, fight or freeze as this increases our chance of survival. It also triggers major shifts in our bodies, increasing our heart rate, shutting down our digestive system (because who wants to feel hungry when they are in serious threat), and pumping blood from our smaller muscle groups to the larger ones in preparation for action. In 2002, Time Magazine published a brilliant image to help us understand the anatomy of anxiety. Take a look:

The Anatomy of Anxiety, from Time Magazine, illustrated by Joe Lertola

The problem with this process is when our hardware is too sensitive and sets off false alarms. Sometimes, we can get so conditioned to think about threat and danger that our anxiety is being triggered even when we are safe. Its like a burglar alarm system that goes off with a breath of wind, a shadow, when a cat walks past or a faint noise. Of course, this can be debilitating, confusing and really frustrating. If we had a burglar alarm system at home that kept going off, triggering the police and ambulance to be dispatched, it would be 1. really tiring 2. really confusing 3. frustrating and 4. leaving you feel stressed and unsafe in your home. Its likely that your sleep would be effected and your eating patterns would be out of wack. This makes it almost impossible to feel relaxed and calm. Because of this, our perceptions of ourselves can be really effected (i.e. “I can’t cope,” “I’m a target,” “I’m vulnerable”). Our perceptions of others and the world can also become quite distorted (i.e. “people can’t be trusted,” “the world is unsafe,” “people must be avoided”).

Naturally, this extreme way of thinking and feeling can really shape our behaviour. When feeling like this, one would be forgiven it they started withdrawing from normal activities and avoiding/escaping from situations or people that made them feel unsafe. In the short-term these decisions can reduce our anxiety. However, this reinforces ideas that we can’t cope and are vulnerable – which of course sets our anxiety through the roof again. This process can amplify feelings of being stuck. Remember, when we are anxious, half of our brain is no longer functioning so coming up with alternatives and other plans can be extremely challenging.

So, what can you try if you or someone you love is suffering from anxiety:

  1. Acknowledge you are feeling anxious
  2. Start to map out your triggers, what happens in your body, and how you are coping currently (i.e. avoidance, escapism, aggression)
  3. Really work on your breathing – this is the only way to shift your body from being in a state of arousal or threat to being more relaxed. There are lots of different programs, apps and videos out there to teach you diaphragmatic breathing. And remember, practise practise practise – every day and every night.
  4. Be kind to yourself. This is no time to start judging yourself. Thoughts like “this feels horrible but I can cope,” or “I can do this one little step at a time” can help.
  5. Be realistic. Set a little plan and very gradually start exposing yourself to anxiety provoking situations that you have been avoiding. Remember to think positively (i.e. “it’s okay, I’m safe”) and use your breathing techniques to keep your bodily symptoms under control.
  6. Seek help. There is no need to do this all alone. Psychologist’s and counsellors are available to help you through and get you back on track.

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