Anxiety and the sabre-toothed tiger

Rewind time to when we lived life defending ourselves from predators and hunting for food. Picture the group seated around the fire, finishing their meal, feeling safe, connected, and secure. There is a rustle in the bushes, and everyone is alert, scanning the environment for threats.


Our systems are unchanged in their response to threat, all these years later. The rustle in the bushes may no longer be a sabre-toothed tiger but it could be a double decker bus, a boss, saying no to a loved one, or too many things to do. And our system reacts by scanning, sending adrenalin and cortisol, and mobilising the body for action.

Anxiety is a whole system response, with our body and mind reacting to the actual or perceived threat.

It is a device for ensuring your survival but, of course, a racing mind, sweaty palms and a churning tummy do not feel so great. So, why do we get stuck in anxiety and how do we turn off this survival device and go back to calmly sitting around the fire with our group?

Unfortunately, there are too many reasons to delve into here as to why we may get stuck with this feeling. But, a very simple explanation is either, we learnt to respond like this - because our environment felt scary, uncertain or we perceived the world in this way - or events have collided to create these feelings.

To go back to the analogy of hunter/gatherer, calming your body and your mind, to let both know that the rustle in the bushes is not a real threat, is one thing you can do. If you are facing issues which are unresolved, you can try to accept them (therapy can be a good tool here) or you can problem solve to find a solution. Rumination about the problem before or after the event will not change the outcome but learning to find peace will.

Tolerating the fear that we can begin to fear in itself (manifesting as anxiety) can help us to increase our tolerance of the feeling. Identifying strategies to help you switch off your threat response is vital so that you practice and become adept at responding to the feeling, with a way of regulating your body and mind. The calming or soothing allows your cognitive functioning to come back online and to reason, problem solve or take a step back and gain perspective.

Adapting your life to regulate and to learn ways of relaxing and pausing mental activity or thinking, so that you can just be, just experience the present moment, without the need to do or be anything are important. These also help you gain mastery over your responses. Meditation, exercise, creative activities or just being in nature are some that spring to mind. These also help you become less reactive and more considered in your responses.

You cannot choose what happened to you, you may not be able to choose your feelings or thoughts, but you can begin to empower yourself to choose your responses.

Therapy can support you to develop these coping skills and strategies. You can learn to notice the rustle in the bushes and identify threats or false alarms and modify your response accordingly. Therapy is a process which supports you to gain mastery over these skills, empowers you with clarity and understanding and helps you to improve your quality of life.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Nottingham, NG5
Written by Fiona Corbett, Accredited BACP and EMDR therapist and Clinical Supervisor
Nottingham, NG5

Fiona Corbett BACP and EMDR Association accredited therapist

I work in Nottingham with individuals. My training is in Humanistic counselling, Psychodynamic psychotherapy, and EMDR I also offer supervision. I work with a wide range of issues.

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