This thing called Anxiety
January 16, 2023
This Thing Called Anxiety …
This thing called ‘Anxiety’ seems to be everywhere! If it gets a grip on you, it feels terrible.
Maybe you’re reading this because you are struggling with anxiety right now…
or someone you care about has symptoms – maybe someone in your family.
Anxiety can zap you! It can steal your energy and completely wear you out. It’s not just debilitating for the person who experiences it, but for everyone around them; it can lead to avoidance of particular situations and our lives become smaller and smaller.
So… because so many of us are feeling this way right now, I am writing this series to help us explore the subject – to unpick the causes and find ways to support ourselves. (These articles will be appearing on Mindsum every month for some time, so please look out for them).
Anxiety and Fear
It’s important to understand that these two are not the same…though you could think of them as close relatives.
Perhaps you could say they were half-brother and sister! They have similar characteristics but they definitely have different personalities.
Recognising them in their own right can be very helpful. Here are some similarities:
- They usually bring physical feelings – increased heart rate and breathing, tingling in limbs, hands, feet, flushed/pale skin, nausea, trembling.
- They have good intentions – they want to protect us.
- They bring feelings of dread – motivating us to do something.
- They cause us to feel activated, full of energy which needs to be discharged.
- Can be followed by exhaustion.
Here are some differences.
- Relates to a specific known threat.
- Requires immediate action.
- The body is empowered to escape.
- It subsides when the threat is over.
- Relates to a possible, vague, imagined danger.
- No urgent reaction. The threat is not an emergency.
- The mind gets very busy with repetitive thoughts. We feel overwhelmed.
- Waves on anxiety come and go.
Anxiety and Fear are not our enemies!
They’re not, but it can certainly feel that way.
Both make us feel extremely uncomfortable. Both have a purpose.
Fear wants to alert us to danger so we can escape. Anxiety wants to remind us of possible danger so we can be prepared. (We need a bit of stress to motivate us at times, for example, a deadline, like an exam or assignment. The threat would be that without action we would fail our course).
Here's how it works
- Our bodies and brains have a built-in survival system.
- Deep inside us is a kind of threat detector that never sleeps. It’s constantly on the lookout for danger.
- It works automatically, like our respiratory or digestive systems. (Imagine if we had to concentrate on making all those parts of us work instead of letting them just get on with it!).
- Once danger is spotted, the alarm system is triggered. Hormones including adrenalin and cortisol surge through our bodies preparing us to run away, fight or freeze. In essence, it is getting us ready to escape, fight off a predator, or shut down so that they lose interest.
- When there is an actual physical threat, older brother – FEAR gets to work. The body becomes strong and the surge of energy is used in order to escape. Then we can rest and recover.
- When the threat is imagined, younger sister – ANXIETY can kick in, releasing all the same hormones. Because they have no outlet, they hang around in our bodies and we experience lots of disturbing physiological symptoms. Our thoughts can go round and round triggering more hormonal surges!
- When we become over-anxious, we often focus on these sensations and worry about them even more; this traps us in a cycle which can produce even more intense reactions - even panic!
How Can We Make Friends with our Anxiety?
What!!! I hear you say…
Most of us just want to get rid of it. But anxiety is part of our nervous system. If we try and push it away, it’s going to bob up somewhere else.
Our nervous systems are there to look after us. We in turn need to find ways to respect and care for them.
We need to work with our anxiety rather than let it get out of control.
What we can do
Everyone needs a name, and so do parts of us, even feelings.
There is research to show that if you name a feeling it becomes less intense. Just say to yourself, ‘This is Anxiety’.
Can you imagine your anxiety as a younger version of you?
Can you think of reassuring words to say to that part of you - like ‘It’s ok’, ‘This will pass’?
What does it need? Find out what would give that part some comfort?
Would it help to go for a walk, sit with a weighted blanket, stroke the cat …?
For everyone this will be different but giving it some caring attention can be very soothing, enabling the wave of feeling and sensation to pass.
Our Anxiety belongs
When we imagine that something dreadful is likely to happen, our brains want us to DO SOMETHING!
It could be to revise for that exam. It could also be by worrying. Worrying is a behaviour – an action our brains can take. Our brains are trying to help, but this is where we can fall into ‘the trap’. Our worries turn into ‘catastrophes’ in our minds, even though at this actual moment we are not in any physical danger.
It can help to ‘thank our brains’ for trying to assist us.
Noticing what our minds are doing is a good first step.
Then we can start to challenge some of the stories we tell ourselves about how bad it is going to turn out.
* * * * * * *
Right at the moment there is so much horrible stuff happening in the world. It makes total sense that many of us are getting stuck in this vicious cycle. If you are reading this right now, you are probably safe, but you may be struggling with anxious thoughts and sensations.
I have felt like that too.
It’s not your fault, but there are lots more things you can learn to do, which will help.
Some of these will be covered in this series and I hope you will come back here to have a look.
©K L Aspden
Art work reproduced for this article with permission of the author.