Anxiety: what is it and how can I cope with it?
We have all experienced anxiety at some point in our lives. We may worry, feel stressed, tense and fearful of certain events or experiences, whether they have happened or not. For example, you may worry about an upcoming presentation you have to do at work, have an essay deadline or are worried about paying a bill on time. Although this may feel discomforting, this kind of worry or anxiety is, in fact, a natural human response; it can help us to be aware of what needs to be done in difficult situations. However, for some of us, anxiety can occur long after or even when there is no threat, risk or danger. It can feel severe, affect our daily routine and our mental wellbeing. This article aims to briefly explain how and why that might happen.
Anxiety is a physical and emotional reaction from our bodies that something is wrong and we are in danger or under threat. This is a very primal and natural human response. There are two regions in the brain that are responsible for dealing with this threat. These two regions are informally known as the old brain and the new brain. The old brain is wired up for survival and undertakes very basic, primal functions to keep us alive. Whereas the new brain is responsible for more complex and executive functioning, it is where we might rationalise the extent of any given threat.
In an anxiety-provoking situation, our new brain shuts down as the old brain kicks into combat the threat by what is commonly known as the fight, flight, freeze response. As a result, we might experience palpitations, shortness in breath, loss of appetite, have racing thoughts and lose concentration. Once the danger or threat is deemed to have passed we return to normal functioning and can relax again.
Although this survival technique is evolutionarily designed to keep us alert and safe from danger, it can have its glitches as our old brain and new brain may not always work in harmony. Our old brain is concerned with one thing, to keep us alive. It can find ways switching itself on even if there is no actual danger but it perceives it as such.
For example, if you find yourself in a constant state of worry even after that presentation or essay deadline has passed or you managed to pay your bills, it might be because your old brain is still in survival mode, it still thinks there is danger ahead. You may, therefore, find that you are unable to focus and concentrate on other things as your new brain isn’t fully engaged to reason with the perceived danger. This may be one of the reasons for the disruption in your daily functioning. Individuals who have experienced trauma or suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may experience something along these lines. Their mind and body may be vulnerable and frightened of danger even if there is no such threat in front of them.
How can counselling help with anxiety?
If you’re finding that your anxiety is distressing and is effecting your day-to-day, counselling can help you to identify your triggers. It is a safe, non-judgmental space to explore how anxiety affects you and why you might be experiencing it.
Counselling can help you to understand how your old brain might be working but most importantly for you to access your new brain, the rational part of yourself. This can help you to understand whether your anxiety is due to a response of actual threat or perceived threat. A counsellor or therapist can also work with you to find suitable coping strategies so that the anxiety does not take power over you but so that you can start to notice your triggers and prepare yourself to respond to them in a much safer way.
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