I don't want to feel anxious!
Are you anxious, nervous, worried or stressed? We all feel like this at times and we could do without it… or could we? Well actually, we do need this feeling as it helps to keep us safe, but sometimes gets out of hand and can cause great distress. On a minor level we feel uncomfortable, ‘butterflies’ in the tummy, heart beating stronger and faster are common. People experiencing severe anxiety find their minds are constantly busy with worrying thoughts, losing confidence in making decisions or in their ability to do tasks, avoiding social situations, experiencing sleep disturbances and constant tiredness to name but a few of the effects of anxiety.
So what’s happening to cause all of this? Well it’s the fight, flight, freeze response that’s to blame. Back in early history, our cavemen ancestors had to be wary of many dangers - basically they had to avoid being eaten by wild animals. So when threatened they were able to react quickly, as in fight, run away or keep still and hide. Come forward to present day and we still have this response and it can be useful. Maybe you’re crossing a road and don’t notice a car coming until it’s nearly upon you, thanks to caveman you have the ability to jump out of the way… don’t stand still! So the fight, flight, freeze response is the body’s way of keeping safe, so how come it’s also involved in us feeling anxious?
Let’s look at what’s going on then. It all starts with our thoughts. Thoughts that in some way we are being threatened, not going to cope, things are going to go wrong, we’ll say something stupid or that we are being judged - an infinite range of thoughts.
A useful definition of anxiety is “an overestimation of a threat and an underestimation of our ability to cope”. This can be anything, such as a job interview, visit to dentist, exam, party invitation, spiders, anything! As soon as we have these threatening thoughts the brain triggers off a release of adrenaline. Almost instantly the heart beats faster and stronger, breathing gets quicker and shallow - we can get hot, sweaty, shaky, pins and needles in fingers/toes and maybe ‘butterflies’ in the tummy due to the digestive system shutting down. Vision changes and we may start to feel dizzy, plus muscle tension and chest pains are common. Often people think they will faint, however this is very unlikely as blood pressure is raised. If however someone has a phobia of blood, needles, injury or vomit they may faint.
There is also the thought that someone is having a heart attack, but severe anxiety/panic attacks whilst being distressing, are not always dangerous (note: If you do experience ‘severe anxiety’ then best to get checked out by your GP in case of some underlying physical issue). When we get these physical changes this seems to make the threatening situation even worse, as if the physical sensations are in agreement with the thoughts, so there must be a big problem, right? Well no, the body doesn’t know what the situation is, all it’s doing is responding to the adrenaline and enabling the body to react as needed. In most cases the reaction is flight (or avoidance), avoidance of doing whatever the threat is, so not going to a social function, not opening a letter, putting off a decision etc. When we make that decision, there is usually some initial relief but then there may be regret, annoyance at the self and the anxiety is still there, as the situation is unlikely to have changed.
Most people say that they want the anxiety to stop as it feels so uncomfortable, but as mentioned we do need it to ultimately keep safe. What we want to do is to manage the anxiety better and doing this can be surprisingly straightforward. Not necessarily easy, but with practise the following ideas will help.
The one thing you do have control over regarding the physical sensations is your breathing. By slowing down your breathing you will feel calmer. Try breathing in for a count of four, hold for a couple of seconds, breathe out for a count of six, hold for a couple of seconds and repeat in a nice slow rhythm.
For any situation ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and “How likely will it happen?”. Often our thoughts exaggerate the threat and also us humans are really good at developing habits, such as making predictions, rather than being openminded to what’s happening.
Ok, so we can’t stop feeling anxious, but we can use the two methods previously mentioned to help keep the level of response in check. Rather than fighting the anxiety, try accepting it. It’s OK to feel anxious when doing something new or is out of our comfort zone - that’s normal. Focus on the event itself rather than trying to stop feeling anxious. When the event is over you’ll calm down. The adrenaline doesn’t last for too long, 20 to 60 minutes being common and when it runs out, the body calms down.
The methods mentioned here are a more of a quick fix, but may be all that’s needed. However, if the anxiety is causing problems that you’d like help with, then talking therapy is a really effective way to make the changes you want. This is where a counsellor or psychotherapist can help you.
Finally, the fight, flight, freeze response is also involved with us feeling angry and excited (though not at the same time!). If you’re experiencing problems with anger and would like to talk to somebody, contacting a professional can offer you the opportunity to talk without judgement or pressure.
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