Anxiety and threat
Anxiety is our natural response to fear. A long time ago, humans had to have a certain amount of anxiety to survive! Being faced with a rather large predator, we needed to feel fear and anxiety in order to run. Our mammalian brains would switch on the 'fight, flight, freeze' response, which set our hearts racing, blood rushing to our extremities, and turning off our rational thinking brain. All of this happens automatically when faced with a threat; we don’t think, we act in response to the threat. It’s not every day that we are faced with a threat like being eaten by a mammal, though the fight, flight, freeze response is still very much a part of our everyday lives. Now, we have more modern-day threats; worries about paying bills, work, and social pressures.
What happens when everyday worries become anxiety?
Or, you can't shake the constant anxiety that you feel, but have no idea why? It's almost as though the anxiety switch in your brain has been flicked to 'on' and you can't switch it back off. In many ways, that is exactly what has happened. The amygdala inside of our brains receives information and quickly determines whether we are under threat. The amygdala lays down codes for emotional memories and our hippocampus (the remembering and learning part of our brain) lays down codes for event memories.
For example, you have a presentation coming up and you are a little nervous, as you think that you aren’t really up to the job. You spend a restless night with your ruminating brain keeping you awake. The next day you stand in front of 30 people, all looking at you, and you suddenly have thoughts such as "I don’t know what I’m talking about, they all think I’m stupid, I’m beginning to sweat. Can they see me sweat? They will know that I don’t know what I’m talking about". Your heart starts to pound, your mind goes blank, and you feel shaky and sick. Your thoughts have gone into overdrive and your emotions range from fear to being unworthy. You just want to get away from all of the staring faces and so you rush off to the toilet, where you lock yourself in and proceed to tell yourself that you are never doing a presentation again.
If you ever have to do a presentation again your amygdala will instantly send off signals of threat. You will sweat, your heart will race, your stomach will clench, and your hippocampus will remember that this is how you felt the last time when staring out at 30 faces. The body remembers what happened the last time and is trying to protect us from the threat. Even the thought of doing a future presentation can get you sweating. The anxiety is simply trying to protect you from further embarrassment, sadness, and fear.
Feeling anxious means that you are telling yourself that you are in danger and something terrible will happen. Often, we will spend time avoiding what makes us anxious. Each time we avoid something it only makes trying again feel even harder. Our thoughts can create anxiety. "I'm going to do a terrible presentation. I'm sure to fail". This, in turn, affects how we feel physically in our bodies (tense, sick, shaky) as well as our emotions (sad, afraid, worthless). These thoughts and emotions then affect how we respond in our behaviours; we might decide to not turn up to do the presentation, or we might get so nervous that we postpone it until another day. Then our thoughts might be "how could you be so stupid? You needed to ace that presentation and you didn’t even turn up". This makes us feel worse, and the loop continues.
So, how do you break this loop and cope with anxiety? There are many ways that we can deal with anxiety. Anxiety looks different for everyone; aside from talking therapy and/or medication, there are ways that we can begin to help ourselves.
- Breathing exercises can help to calm us down when we begin to feel anxious. Breathing in for the count of four, holding for four, and breathing out for eight can begin to calm the body down. As we count, we are focusing on the breath and the count, which can help to get our thinking brains back online.
- Healthy eating and cutting down on alcohol and caffeine can be steps towards lessening anxious feelings, as coffee and alcohol serve to increase anxiety.
- Keeping a diary of thoughts and emotions can help us to work out which areas of our lives are causing the most worry and anxiety. Journaling can be cathartic too and can help to get our worries out onto paper.
- Mindfulness. Noticing the things around us from moment to moment can help us to get back in touch with our senses. Being in each moment takes practice, and starting with a few minutes a day can help to slow down the busy anxious thoughts.
- Grounding technique five, four, three, two, one. This technique can be a follow-on from breathing exercise to bring you into the present awareness.
- Name five things that we can see; "I see the blue sky, the colourful roses..."
- Four things that we can feel; "I feel the ground beneath my feet, the soft feel of my clothes on my skin…"
- Three sounds that we can hear; "I hear traffic, birds, children playing"
- Two things that we can smell; "I can smell coffee. I can smell the sea"
- One thing that we can taste; "I can taste coffee"
Working with a cognitive behavioural therapist can help you to examine your thoughts, feelings, and behaviours, and help you to understand where your worries come from. The therapist will teach you a variety of techniques that can help you to challenge what you are thinking and alter how you view those thoughts.
Understanding how to reframe your thoughts and perceptions will alter how you feel and how you behave. As well as these, the therapist can help teach you calming techniques amongst other strategies to help you to cope with anxiety, and eventually enable you to lead a more fulfilling life free from fear and anxiety.
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