Anxiety - filling in the gaps
Anxiety is a very normal part of life. We often get anxious about upcoming events, our health, our relationships, or anything that includes an element of the unknown. We become anxious because we are unsure how it's going to be at that family gathering at the weekend. We are fearful that we are suffering from an undiagnosed health condition. Maybe we worry about what our partner, close friends, or relatives may be thinking and yet not saying.
"Filling in the gaps"
In many ways, our anxiety can be said to be filling in the gaps left by the unknown, and throughout time this has been crucial for our survival as a species. For us to be here at all suggests that our ancestors treated the unknown with caution. Is there a bear in that dark cave? Are these unusual berries safe to eat? Are these strangers a threat or are they new allies? Questions such as these appear to be informed by a useful, healthy sense of anxiety.
Sometimes, of course, our anxiety can become problematic rather than helpful. We may find that it gets in the way of our engagement with life: we stop making plans to do things; we put things off and make excuses to our friends and family; maybe we rarely even leave the house. Our anxiety may start to cause us to feel threatened in situations where there is little or no threat, such as going shopping or socialising with friends and family. Maybe we stop doing the things we enjoy, and the things we need to do keep piling up. All of this can increase our sense of isolation and hopelessness, feeding back into our anxiety and increasing its intensity.
Anxiety can make itself known in many different ways, and even when it does not stop us from doing the things that we want or need to do, it can make our lives unpleasant and even exhausting. Anxiety can affect our digestion, cause headaches and other pains, and bring on flare-ups of conditions such as eczema and fibromyalgia. It can keep us awake at night, stop us from doing the simplest of daily tasks, and can reduce our ability to concentrate, therefore stopping us from getting on with the things we need and want to do.
Fight, flight or freeze
Often we hear of the 'fight or flight' reaction to a perceived threat, and yet before either of these happens, the most common response is to freeze. This is the proverbial 'rabbit in the headlights' response. This, again, makes sense in our development as a successful species. A noise in the dark will almost invariably lead us to freeze, hold our breath, and keep still. In this space, we are automatically assessing the nature of the noise. Is it a threat? If it is a threat can we defend ourselves against it or do we need to escape?
This same reaction makes us quiet, less detectable than we would be were we still breathing. Prey animals often 'play dead' to avoid a hunting predator. Human's also play dead, and not always intentionally, yet it is part of an automatic response built into our nervous system which is triggered under potential threat situations.
Victims of abuse often report freezing during the abuse or attack perpetrated against them. Often there may be a sense of guilt or complicity attached to this; 'If only I had fought them off', they may say, and yet it is a natural response to a threat to freeze as an automatic, unconscious action for keeping ourselves as safe as possible.
In a panic attack, such automatic responses are triggered without a direct threat. Imagine what might happen if we are in a freeze state when there is no current threat: how long will we stay frozen before we assess that we are safe? And what if we move into fight or flight - what may be the consequences of our panic?
Working with a therapist, we can strive to understand the sources of our anxiety, as well as examine what it is that triggers it. We can work towards finding ways to overcome our anxiety, or maybe strive to accept our anxiety and find a life in which we are no longer so limited by its effects.