Anxiety - a normal response to feeling vulnerable
Understanding anxiety can help to decrease the effect it has on our lives.
Anxiety is a natural physiological response to feeling vulnerable.
Our bodies respond to feeling vulnerable by getting ready to flee or fight. Extreme anxiety may be felt as an increase in heart rate; in effect getting ready to run, or cold clammy hands when our blood is being diverted away from our hands and feet to the muscles in our legs. This response has existed for thousands of years. Throughout our evolution, these behaviours are in our genetic make-up and are what kept our ancestors alive all the way back to our reptilian descendants.
Our ‘reptilian’ brain can still override our ‘new brain’s’ ability to be calm and logical, in animalistic terms we do not have time to make a ‘risk assessment’ when our fear (vulnerability) response is triggered.
Importantly, it is actually highly unlikely that our lives are ever in the amount of danger that warrants our body’s response. This strong reaction to anxiety has arisen because our thoughts can create the same response in our body as does a real threat, the threat our reptilian brain would have acted on.
So why is the bodies response to threats so strong and disabling?
As we have evolved we have increased our brain size, the ‘new brain’ whilst keeping aspects of our predecessors’ brains that were useful to our survival. These are the neural networks that have the potential to save our life, and they can override the part of the brain that would do the ‘risk assessment’ (we don’t have time if we are being chased by a predator).
If these neural networks continue to be stimulated, by thoughts they can get very sensitive to the slightest hint of worry. If you have anxiety now you might have noticed how it has got worse over time.
Some people are more susceptible to this deeply inbred response to vulnerability than others. This can be due to many factors but commonly those who spend less time engaging with friends, doing hobbies, enjoying ‘me time’ and who are lost in negative thinking patterns are more likely to get stress and anxiety. People who perhaps spend less time noticing what is going on in the present and more time focusing on the past or future.
Anxiety often happens when I am making plans, or reflecting on events.
Thinking and planning is necessary, to understand why things have happened, so we don’t repeat mistakes. However, our thoughts can shift from planning for what we can control, to planning for what we imagine (most typically planning about something that has not yet happened, or a conversation we might be worried about). Unfortunately, this planning about something that has not happened creates emotions about something that isn’t real.
We are often quite determined to plan for what we can imagine. Being able to let go of this type of thinking, and accept that this is not helpful, maybe the hardest thing to do when trying to overcome anxiety.
If anxiety is a natural response how can I stop it then?
Anxiety will not stop overnight. If you are an anxious person you will have developed some neural pathways that create anxious feelings, that are easily triggered by thoughts. The overall aim of any self-help or counselling is to change how easily these pathways are triggered.
Some approaches focus on the anxiety itself and desensitises you to it. This is especially useful with phobias such as a fear of spiders.
Some will enable you to understand the cause of the anxiety and learn that it is perhaps not as real now as you fear. This is useful for anxiety that might have sourced in childhood, for example experiencing violence and anger, or bullying as a child.
Other approaches will help you be more aware of how you respond to your thoughts, and teach you not to pay so much attention to them, so you become better equipped at changing thinking patterns when they are about something that is imaginary. Useful for many types of anxiety, for example worrying about what people think of you, or generalised anxiety.
You might find your anxiety is appropriate in that it has been brought on by a change in circumstances, and a therapist will help you approach your situation in a different way so the anxiety is minimised, for example fear of suffering due to chronic illness, recent bereavement or redundancy.
You might find a therapist that will use a variety of approaches to fit your needs, or you might need to choose your therapist depending on what you believe about how best to treat your anxiety. If you have suffered from anxiety for a number of years, the change might be more gradual than if it is a recent thing.
Be kind to yourself, anxiety is there for a reason.
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About Emma Dunn
Emma Dunn is a psychotherapist in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, and works with issues of anxiety, self-esteem and depression. She is a qualified dietitian. She is qualified as a Mindfulness instructor.