Anxiety - the whys and the hows
Rage, anger, frustration. Hurt, rejection, shame. Sadness, grief, despair.
We may know the names of the emotions, but not how they play a role in our lives. Often, when our feelings become intolerable, frightening even, we may feel anxious or depressed, or perhaps even manic. These are all signs that something is not right in our life, but without the tools to manage our feelings, it can feel impossible to take charge of the situation.
When we feel extreme anxiety or depression, it can feel impossible to do anything. The body responds to these feelings as though it is in survival mode. We can’t remember basic details, we feel like we are on constant surveillance of our surroundings, and it can feel like everyone is out to get us. Even when we think things through and know in our rational minds that this isn’t the case, the survival brain doesn’t know this.
This is a normal and healthy response to the fear we feel in our bodies. I will explain why it's normal, and how we can work with anxiety to help you become a happier and more secure you.
If we were to be experiencing a real threat - a fire for example, or an attack - it wouldn’t be helpful to be thinking about small details of what our pin number is or what we had for breakfast. In order to survive, our instinct would communicate to our bodies - run, or fight. This is the flight or fight response. Our eyes would widen to allow us to survey the surroundings so we can determine the best route to escape. Our hearts would beat faster to pump blood to the legs to run, or the arms to fight, and our breathing would become rapid and shallow in order to support the survival mode.
When we experience anxiety however, and we are not experiencing a real threat, we are also experiencing the above physical response. The body feels the shallow breathing and the increased heart rate, and so believes it’s under threat. Or, we think we are under threat, and so the body wants to help us survive. It can be extremely stressful to the body to stay in a heightened state of fear. Anxiety takes its toll on us.
We essentially have three brains:
- The reptilian brain, including the amygdala.
- The old mammalian brain.
- The new mammalian brain.
The reptilian brain is where our oldest and quickest responses come from. This is responsible for our survival response. The amygdala will respond to a perceived threat in a split second. The old mammalian brain helps us to remember what it is we should be afraid of and how to respond. The new mammalian brain is what differentiates us from most of the animal kingdom, and allows us to communicate with each other, empathise with each other, and make sense of the world.
When we are feeling anxious, frightened and scared, the new mammalian brain goes ‘offline’. It stops working in the way we want it to, because the old mammalian and reptilian brains are running the show. They’re in full protection mode. So no matter how much ‘talking’ to ourselves, thinking through the situation rationally, trying to take other peoples advice on how to handle situations and perhaps reprimanding ourselves for not responding in the way we want to, we will not be able to change our way of reacting, because this part of our brain is ‘offline’.
This can sound scary in itself, and leave us feeling as if we have no hope in managing, but there are numerous ways we can work with these responses. We just have to do things differently to how we have done them before. The first step to working with anxiety is safety - we must feel safe in order to understand what is happening. The second we don’t feel safe, the survival mode will kick in, and we are no longer able to work with feelings.
Safety can include who we are working with, feeling safe enough that our basic physical needs are being met (such as a roof over our head and food on the table), and feeling safe in our relationships.
Once relative safety has been found, the next step to working with anxiety is understanding. We need to begin to understand what is happening to us, what in our lives is making us anxious, which may be in the present, or perhaps something in the future or our past is attempting to communicate something to us.
Once we have begun to understand the situation in our lives and what our anxiety is trying to communicate, we can attend to the anxiety, or the situations that make us anxious. By bringing awareness to the thoughts and feelings surrounding the anxiety, we can attend to them in a way that listens, honours and respects our needs and emotions. Going through these steps can sound and feel like an impossible task, but working with an experienced therapist can support us on this journey.
There are many tools and resources a therapist can offer to help with each stage of the journey. Helping to build safety both in our lives and building trust in the counselling space is the first step. A therapist can bring understanding in ways we could never bring for ourselves, thinking through on our own.
Finally, offering compassion, empathy and a heartfelt connection when attending to our deepest feelings and emotions is integral for the path of healing. Anxiety can feel like it rules our lives, and for many it does, every day. There is nothing to be ashamed of this with this fact.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. There are robust and successful ways of bringing about calm and inner security, and even happiness.
How you respond to your emotional wounds is not your fault. How you respond to your emotional wounds is your responsibility.
By reaching out, you will be taking the first and often hardest step to taking responsibility for your own happiness.
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